Kevin Kawamoto

Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Most people know that they should dial 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency, when help is needed right away. What we can’t know for sure, however, is what state of mind we will be in when we have to make that call. What if the call is for yourself because you feel really sick and suspect you may be having a stroke or a heart attack? Before you can speak into the phone, your thoughts begin to cloud and you are unable to say anything that makes sense. Or maybe the call is for a sick or injured loved one, but the caller is so panicked and overwhelmed by the circumstances that he or she finds it difficult to speak and provide the needed information.

With a 9-1-1 call from a traditional landline telephone, the 9-1-1 operator should be able to determine where you are calling from by using a computerized location-tracking system. But if you are calling from a cell phone, your specific location is much more difficult for the 9-1-1 operator to pinpoint. The operator may be able to determine your general location based on the cell tower used to transmit your cell phone call, but beyond that more time will be needed to find you. Precious minutes can be lost trying to locate someone calling from a cell phone, and in an emergency, every second counts.

Enter Smart911, a relatively new service being promoted and used by the Honolulu Police Department that can not only help 9-1-1 operators determine your location when you are calling from a cell phone, but also store detailed personal information about you and/or your family members that can provide first responders (e.g., police officers, firefighters and paramedics) with valuable information about medical conditions, emergency contacts, other people in your household and even pets — before those first responders even reach your door.

You can even upload photos — of people, pets and your home — into the secure Smart911 database. If emergency responders need a photo to assist in an emergency — for example, if an elder is missing and requires medication attention — the 9-1-1 operator can instantaneously send the photo of the missing elder and other relevant information out to officers in the field rather than spend time asking a family member to look for a photo and then making copies of that photo for distribution.

“Smart911 is great, especially for our kupuna, because it allows us to register and create a safety profile and put in valuable information for our senior citizens before an emergency happens,” said Capt. Allan Nagata of HPD’s Communications Division, which is the largest public safety answering point in Hawai‘i, receiving all 9-1-1 calls on O‘ahu.

“No one prepares to call 9-1-1. If you have that information — like a person’s heart condition, high blood pressure, stroke, allergies and so forth, beforehand, and you make that 9-1-1 call — it can save lives because it reduces response time,” said Nagata, who is spearheading the effort to convince O‘ahu residents to register for Smart911.

With the Smart911 technology, the caller’s information appears instantly on the 9-1-1 operator’s computer screen. Even if the caller is disabled right after dialing 9-1-1 due to the medical emergency he or she is experiencing, the operator has enough information on the screen to send help.

Also, consider this scenario: A resident is hiding in his or her house after hearing an intruder enter another part of the house. The resident dials 9-1-1 from a cell phone while hiding from the intruder, but is afraid to speak because his or her voice might alert the intruder to the resident’s whereabouts in the house. In this case, just dialing 9-1-1 may be enough to trigger a response since the location information is already available in the 9-1-1 operator’s computer.

How Does Smart911 Work?

An HPD 9-1-1 dispatcher at work.
An HPD 9-1-1 dispatcher at work.

The Honolulu Police Department launched Smart911 as a pilot program on the island of O‘ahu only last September. People who want to sign up for this service need to do so on the Internet by going to the Smart911 website at The person signing up for the service will need an e-mail address. Not all older adults have an e-mail address, so some organizations, such as senior centers, have allowed their clients to use an e-mail belonging to the organization. Others without an e-mail address may be able to ask a trusted family member or friend for assistance. HPD has visited senior centers to help register people for this service, and the Hawai‘i State Public Library System, which has computers for the public to use, should also be able to help as a partner in this effort.

Once a personal, private account is set up, the person who wants to use the Smart911 service needs to enter as much — or as little — information into that account as desired. The least amount of information needed is the caller’s name, street address and cell phone number.

“You don’t need to put in any financial information or your Social Security number,” Capt. Nagata said. In fact, if people are asked for this kind of information, including bank account numbers, it is not Smart911 that they are accessing. Smart911 will not contact people by phone once they have signed up for the service, he added.

Nagata noted that Smart911 service is particularly important in this day and age as more and more people discontinue landline telephone service, choosing to use their cell phone as their only telephone. In 2015, HPD’s Communication Division fielded more than 1 million 9-1-1 calls. Of that number, more than 880,000 calls were for police assistance. The vast majority of these emergency calls were made from cell phones. However, the traditional 9-1-1 system was created before cell phones, the Internet and text messaging were in use. That system is evolving to accommodate different modes of communication.

An Example of Smart911’s Use

If the Smart911 pilot program is successful, it could eventually be made available statewide. It has already been widely deployed in some Mainland states. The TV news program, “Good Morning America,” featured Smart911 in one of its programs. A reporter shared a story of Smart911 in use. It involved a man trapped in a house fire who was so overcome by smoke after dialing 9-1-1 on his cell phone that he wasn’t able to speak. The 9-1-1 operator, however, heard him coughing.

“I can hear you coughing,” the operator said. “Is this Dan?” She knew his name and had his contact information because he had earlier provided that information through Smart911. “Dan,” she continued, “your Smart911 that you signed up for has your address, and we have help coming for you.” Imagine the caller’s relief after hearing those words.

The story had a happy ending. According to the reporter, Smart911 shaved 11 minutes off the response time. “It saved my life,” the 9-1-1 caller said later, looking well and grateful while hugging his child.

Privacy Concerns

The technology for Smart911 was developed by a Mainland company called Rave Mobile Safety. Its mission (as stated on its website) is to “create innovative data and communication software that public safety agencies trust to help them save lives.”

Nagata knows that there are those in the community who are concerned, understandably, about protecting their private, personal information. However, he reminds people that they are not giving financial information to Smart911 and can choose how much information they want to enter into the database. On its website, Rave Mobile Safety says that its products offer “the highest security standards.” Capt. Nagata concedes that nothing online is ever 100 percent secure these days. Despite that reality, people still order consumer goods and services online and pay for them with their credit cards, he noted.

Because users of Smart911 have individual accounts online, they can change the information that appears in their safety profile by logging into their account. In fact, since people’s circumstances change (e.g., they move or their health status improves or deteriorates), users are asked to update their information every six months.

To further alleviate concerns about privacy, Nagata said that the personal information that pops up when a Smart911 user calls 9-1-1 may not be used in cases in which the caller wishes to remain anonymous, for example when making a complaint about a car parked in the neighborhood.

“You will remain anonymous,” he said. “Voice data (instructions you give by talking to the 9-1-1 operator) will always override what’s in the profile.”

The Future

As of this writing, more than 2,000 Smart911 accounts have been set up on O‘ahu. Capt. Nagata and his team have been reaching out, getting out the word about Smart911 to community groups so that many more people will consider signing up for this enhanced 9-1-1 service. The more information provided in the database, the more helpful this service can be to callers, especially if someone is calling from a cell phone, away from home. The 9-1-1 operator will be able to see the coordinates of the general vicinity of the cell phone when that away-from-home call is made, along with other information provided in the safety profile, such as work address and phone number, and can further assist in locating the caller.

One important feature of Smart911 is the emergency contact information. If something should happen to the caller that requires family members or significant others to be notified, first responders do not have to go searching through an individual’s drawers and cabinets to find those emergency contact numbers. It will be right there in the online safety profile. Capt. Nagata noted that if first responders do not have emergency contact information, a sick or injured loved one may have to wait in the hospital for longer than necessary while officers attempt to find an emergency contact. With Smart911, “The officer can call the emergency contact right from the house,” he said.

“We think it’s a great service. Our ultimate goal is to get everybody to sign up. If we can get everybody to sign up,” he said, “it would make the City and County of Honolulu a safer place to live, work and play.”

Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


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