Interactive biometrics herald new era for emergency response technology

WASHINGTON | June 12, 2013

The National Science Foundation on Tuesday showcased a potentially game-changing smartphone app that allows 911 operators critical insights into what’s going on at the scene of an emergency call.

The app relays crucial biometric data to dispatchers, enabling them to gather vital signs and other information that helps them assist victims and empower first responders.

The software, which was developed by researchers at the University of North Texas, led by Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Ram Dantu, offers users a slate of features that could be life-saving in an emergency.

These include text-to-speech technology for clear communication; remote control of smartphone cameras to help 911 operators view emergency scenes; and monitors that relay breathing, blood-pressure and other vital signs to emergency responders.

The app even includes a sensor that helps guide someone responding to an emergency through the proper steps to perform CPR.

Developed with support from the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, the software is still in its pilot phase, but Dantu will be demonstrating it next week at the 2013 National Emergency Number Association conference in Charlotte, N.C.

Emergency 911 calls have undergone a couple major shifts in the past few decades, said Henning Schulzrinne, chief technology officer for the Federal Communications Commission, speaking during the NSF webcast Tuesday.

First, there was the shift from analog to digital calls. Then there was the huge proliferation of mobile phones, beginning in the 1990s.

“We’re in the middle of a grand transition that probably hasn’t happened since the 1970s,” said Schulzrinne.

Nowadays, more than two-thirds of all emergency 911 calls are made from cell phones, he said. That can pose challenges, especially for first responders, looking for a person in distress who isn’t easily locatable by a tethered land line.

But it also presents huge opportunities, especially with smartphones so prevalent, and getting more advanced with every passing month.

“With the current technology available, we thought we could do a lot better than just an audio call,” said Dantu.

The new app offers some surprising advantages over traditional 911 calls.

Its text-based communication capabilities, for instance, are well-suited for deaf or hearing impaired users. Or they could be crucial in contacting officials during a scenario – a hostage or domestic abuse situation – where speaking aloud could be dangerous.

They might also be critical in a mass-casualty emergency like the Boston Marathon bombing, where the voice network is overloaded, said Schulzrinne.

The app’s biometric tools make full use of the capabilities of smartphones. A first-responder can place the phone on chest of victim, relaying the number of breaths per minute to the operator. It also enables monitoring of blood pressure and heart rate.

“If someone has irregular heartbeats, the operator can clearly see them on his end,” said Dantu.

On the webcast, one of Dantu’s researchers demonstrated how the app is calibrated to assist with CPR. The responder straps the phone to the top of his or her hand – using a plastic bag or a necktie or whatever might be available – and then proceeds to start compressions on the victim’s chest.

The phone is able to gauge these motions as a voice offers guidance and corrections: “press deeper … compress faster … continue,” etc.

So far, the app has been demoed with 40 to 50 individuals, said Dantu, and it’s slated to undergo further clinical testing. (People interested in taking part in the pilot program are encourage to contact NSF at

While it was devised on the Android platform, the next phase will be to develop it for the iPhone platform too, he said. In the coming months, “We’re hoping we’ll be able to put it in the app store.”

In the meantime, researchers are talking to various vendors of emergency dispatch technologies about integrating the app’s biometric capacities into existing protocols, said Schulzrinne.

That could take a while, he added. These are completely new capabilities, and properly rolling them out nationwide is a tall order

“Upgrading all of those PSAPs (public-safety answering points) and enabling them to be next-generation capable is a long, ongoing process,” said Schulzrinne. “It’s a large and complicated system.”

Still, it’s hoped that this new app represents the start of a paradigm shift, said Dantu – a crucial first step toward revamping “existing emergency dispatch protocols for the next-generation of 911.”

[See also: Mobile apps changing healthcare ]


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