In a sea of whimsical smartphone games and fun photo-sharing apps, some technology entrepreneurs are still trying to tackle difficult problems that can help save lives.
RapidSOS, a startup founded by by MIT and Harvard alums, has raised $5 million in venture investment to perfect a digital 911 service that connects the growing pool of mobile-app users with old-school emergency dispatch centers first developed to handle landline calls.
Boston-based Highland Capital Partners led the investment round, which will help RapidSOS add to the roughly two dozen employees it has today. The startup is currently based at the Harvard iLab, but plans to move its headquarters to New York in the coming months to better serve customers in the finance and travel industries.
Michael Martin, RapidSOS’ co-founder and CEO, said investors were encouraged by the startup’s early success in entrepreneurship competitions, a crowdfunding campaign, and pilot tests with major corporations and emergency services in 23 states.
The company’s mission also helped, Martin said.
“Technology has transformed lives over the course of the past 50 years. But when we need technology the most, we’re relying on this antiquated infrastructure,” he said. “People really stepped up to say, `this is a problem we want to solve.’”
Changing the plumbing behind a sprawling, government-run emergency system won’t be the easiest task for the young company — despite the increasing prevalence of even simple cellphones with text-messaging capabilities, most people in the United States still can’t send a text message to their local 911 dispatcher.
RapidSOS also will have to get help from local officials around the country to help change the ingrained reflex to dial 911 in an emergency. “We’ve been taught since the age of 3 to dial 911, so that’s definitely a challenge,” Martin said. “But what you see is, in this particular generation, we don’t make phone calls anymore. We use apps. We text.”
Chris Carver of the National Emergency Number Association, an emergency-services trade group, said efforts are underway to address gaps in location and other data resulting from the consumer switch to cell phones.
“The public can rest assured that the vast majority of 911 calls in this country successfully reach a 911 center and are successfully processed by 911 dispatchers,” he said. “Is there room to improve? Yes, and literally billions of dollars are being invested to improve the nation’s 911 system.”
Private entrepreneurs are welcomed into the process of modernizing the system, he said, but officials want to also make sure the current system’s universal access isn’t compromised.
“There is certainly room at the table for a variety of entities, but we always want to make sure the focus is on the ability of any device to just dial 911 and be routed effectively to a 911 center,” Carver said.
Martin and co-founder Nick Horelik both have experience with the technology gaps in the current 911 system, which debuted in the 1960s.
Martin’s father, Charles, fell from a ladder in January while trying to clear snow from the roof of his rural Indiana home. With weak cellular reception in his area, Martin’s father lay in the driveway, suffering from a broken hip and wrist, for two hours until Martin’s mother came home and found him, finally summoning help on their landline.
Horelik’s experience came as an undergraduate at Tufts, where he worked answering the school’s suicide prevention hotline and had trouble figuring out the location of troubled or confused people who called in, despite the fact that their cellphones had the technical ability to pinpoint their location.
Today, of course, landlines are on their way out. In 2013 alone, the FCC reported, nearly three-quarters of all 911 calls were made from mobile devices. But despite that huge technological change, location data for emergency dispatchers can be far less precise than the location data available to a car-hailing app like Uber, Martin said.
“The fundamental challenge is getting data off the phone that is compatible with 911’s legacy systems. And that is a non-trivial undertaking,” Martin said. “The dispatchers just do heroic work, and with this antiquated infrastructure. It’s amazing, really.”
RapidSOS’ system is designed to be a digital communications middleman that can harvest key information from an app user’s smartphone and route it into a 911 dispatcher’s system. The company’s app gives people the ability to call police, fire departments, or an ambulance with one tap of the screen, and potentially share photos or video.
Location can be automatically determined, but users also can add details about their medical conditions, native language, and other important information.
RapidSOS says its app is designed to work even if cellular networks are weak or jammed with emergency calls, as happens in major disasters, by routing the information over text-messaging or wireless Internet networks.
“For 911, there’s no new training, equipment, or cost. It looks like a regular call to them, except there is all of this new data popping up,” Martin said.
In the future, RapidSOS hopes to analyze emergency data to help officials make predictions about emergency situations that may be developing in their area.
The startup plans to roll its service out to the broad commercial market later this year. It’s been in a test phase with selected users and emergency departments since October.
The company realizes it is working on “a product that can never fail,” Martin said. “If this was any other product, we’d already be in the marketplace.”
Updated 5:15 pm with comment from industry group.