911 is stuck in the past — the future begins in Oakland

Jan 20, 2016 · 9 min read

In the movies, plenty can go wrong when you’re trying to reach 911: the phone could be far away, or you could be too shaky to dial the numbers right, or the antagonist could have cut the phone line. But once you connect the call, you can be sure that help is on the way.

In real life, however, connecting the call is only the first in a series of things that could go awry between you and getting the help you need. While 911 has been on the tip of our tongues from toddlerhood for the past 50 years, its aging technology is far outpaced by the evolving computer in your pocket. Over 70% of 911 calls come from mobile phones — and the 911 system is having trouble catching up.

The proof is in our own backyard. Just look at our hometown: Oakland, California. Instead of 911, the Oakland Police website instructs you to dial its own 10-digit emergency line if you’re calling from a mobile phone. City officials advise the same. Why? If you call 911 from city center, you’ll get routed to Vallejo Highway Patrol — 40 minutes away — and have to be transferred. By the time you get to someone in a position to help you, you’d better be ready to tell them exactly where you are.

Map showing how 911 routing works in Oakland

What’s going on?

In a landline world, 911’s current system makes perfect sense. Landlines stay in one place: you can register the number to the 911 database, and your dispatcher will know where you are. But despite years of struggle for slow improvement, there’s still no unified way to make sure 911 can find you when you’re calling from a cell phone. Even though individual phones are equipped with sophisticated sensors, from GPS to WiFi, Bluetooth to barometer, the capabilities of the hardware come second to 911’s ability to use them. The sad result: Uber can often send a car to you faster than 911 can send an ambulance.

911’s ability to figure out where you are is — quite literally — all over the map. Depending on where you are in the country, you could have as high as a 95% chance — or as low as a 10% chance — of your dispatcher being able to get a clear read on your location. That is, of course, if you’re connected to the right people in the first place: in some areas, your call may get shipped to the next county.

How did this happen?

History has a way of repeating itself, especially when it comes to making nationwide changes in the way we handle public safety.

In the 1960's — the same decade that saw the birth of 911 — the newly-invented three-point seat belt was beginning to gain traction in the United States. The technology flourished in Europe and proved out its potential to save thousands of lives. But thanks to the fierce opposition of car manufacturers, a decades-long struggle over seat belts and their successor, airbags, passed before a patchwork of legislation forced the change — and that in large part thanks to the lobbying efforts of another interested group: insurance companies who wanted to avoid big payouts.

Today, the complicated, frustrating tussle between those who want to save money and those who want to save people has taken a new form: the fate of mobile 911. Whenever the FCC and other regulatory agencies try to force the hands of carriers to invest in leveraging smartphones’ technology, the carriers drag their feet — to deadly results. While some areas are making major improvements, others lag far behind. Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 lives per year are lost to the gap.

Ironically enough, Silicon Valley — cradle of new technology — is among the worst performers. According to data published in 2013, only 10–37% of mobile 911 calls placed in Silicon Valley carry precise location information.

We need to do better.

Enter Patronus (Formerly BlueLight)

If the speed of tech innovation is the problem, it must also be the solution. Where government gets dragged down by red tape, tech companies can move quickly to make new things possible. The nationwide standards have been lagging behind schedule for years — and with lives in the balance, we can’t keep waiting.

That’s why we at Patronus are working on the solution — right now. Since we believe that change starts at home, we’ve chosen our hometown, Oakland, to be the first connected Patronus city.

We’ve already got a good head start. In addition to routing general 911 calls, Patronus already routes advanced calls to our network of over 300 college and corporate campuses, ski resorts, and other public and private responders nationwide. An in-network dispatcher who answers a Patronus call can access the caller’s location by address or landmark, GPS coordinates, and contact information, even if the caller can’t speak or has to hang up. We successfully route calls every day, from our network of campuses to cities and highways across America.

Map showing the Patronus network of campuses

Since 911 was built for a landline world, we also meet dispatchers where they are. With Patronus Places, we can turn your smartphone into a virtual landline. In up to 20 saved places, like your home or work address — even a temporary place, like a hotel room — we can automatically deliver your address to the right 911 dispatcher, the way a registered landline would.

Our Oakland launch brings our neighbors the same level of service — with an unprecedented leap. Instead of dialing a separate number or getting routed to Highway Patrol, you can tap the Request Help button on the Patronus app and we’ll send it to the right place. We’ll also tell the dispatcher where to find you, and display that address over your screen so you have the information at hand.

Why start with Oakland?

Because Oakland is everything we embrace: diverse, vibrant, neighborly and innovative. It’s a city of conversations, both spirited and tough: a city of tension, cooperation, reflection, and — most of all — constant striving for self-improvement.

Oakland also epitomizes the problem that we’re dedicated to solving — as we discovered first from its citizens. We send every new customer a personal welcome and ask them to share how they came to find us. A few months back, we received a few dozen responses from Oaklanders who had shared Patronus over their neighborhood social network, Nextdoor. Once we investigated the problem they described to us, we were determined to change the outcome.

Since then, we’ve met and talked with city officials from a number of departments. Like Oaklanders themselves, these officials want Oakland to have top notch emergency services, where and when they are needed.

The Age of the Smart City

While a huge step in emergency response, Oakland is just the beginning of a larger movement. The White House recently announced a Smart Cities Initiative, where Patronus, then called BlueLight, was featured among the solutions in the works. This is the beginning of a renaissance in the relationship between government and tech: when we combine the speed of tech innovation with the reach and impact of public infrastructure, we can improve quality of life for communities nationwide — starting with our own.

As a winner in the 2015 Multi-City Innovation Campaign, a competition in which cities across the nation select the most promising technology to improve the lives of their citizens, we have a strong and hopeful understanding of what happens next. By powering on our home city in the network, we’re stepping over the threshold of unprecedented partnership in emergency response. And you — we—as citizens will benefit.

If 911 is a public utility, why does BlueLight charge?

Editor’s note: Patronus no longer charges a subscription fee for the general public: it’s freely available. This section remains as-is as a testament to and proud ownership of our history.

There’s a difference between “public” and “free” — and 911 has never been free.

911 charges can add up to $4 per month to your cell phone bill

Take a look at your next cell phone bill and you’ll see that you do pay for 911 service — you personally — every month. On average, cell phone users pay between $0.50 and $4.00 per month for access to 911, up to $50/year. When you think through it, it’s no surprise: between overhead costs, personnel and infrastructure, 911 call centers need the people who count on their service to help pick up the tab.

BlueLight charges for much the same reason. While we’d love to provide our service for free, we need to keep the lights on. To make sure your call never fails, we maintain enormous server space in multiple locations across the country, overlapping to ensure our service is robust and failsafe. We also pay up to $10/call for E911 calls from BlueLight Places. It’s the right thing to do — but not free.

There’s also the cost of employing and growing the team, who not only keeps BlueLight running smoothly, but also pushes it constantly to the cutting edge — all while keeping the design and interface so simple and consistent that someone who only opens the app once, in an emergency, can call for help instantly and intuitively. We invest in every detail from education to full accessibility for blind and low vision customers. And of course, we test everything — thoroughly and exhaustively.

Many of the companies whose products we use every day, like Google and Facebook, don’t charge their users. But the user is not the customer: the customer is the company that pays to advertise based on consumers’ very personal data. If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. It’s a legitimate approach for some companies. But not for us.

Our customers are the people who rely on BlueLight to keep them safe. Rather than leveraging your personal data, our priority is to protect privacy, keep our app free of ads that might compromise function, and focus on your experience and needs. Charging directly is a clear, deliberate reflection of our values as a company.

When are you coming to Oakland?

Editor’s Note: Patronus smart routing is now live in Oakland! Like BlueLight, we direct your call to OPD and provide your exact location.

Very, very soon. By early February 2016, when you open up the BlueLight app anywhere in the city of Oakland, you will see that we route calls directly to Oakland PD — and if you ever need to call for help, we will give them your exact location.

We live in an incredible age of communication and possibility. Today, we carry more computing power in our pockets than brought the first astronauts to the moon in 1969. It’s time we applied that power to saving lives.

Join us, won’t you?

Since making this announcement, we’ve been taking part in a lively discussion about pricing and the role of private companies when it comes to public resources. We have more thoughts on those subjects and more in our follow up post.

Learn more about the Patronus app and our mission on our website.

Questions? Thoughts? We want to hear from you. Drop us a line at support@patronusapp.com, and let’s start a conversation.

Thanks to Preet Anand


Written by


The safety toolkit for the digital age. Formerly BlueLight.

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