James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Pizza Night Interruptus: On Emergency Response Times

by James G. Beldock on September 3, 2011

Pizza Night

Friday nights are re­served for fam­i­ly piz­za night. Although no star­tup ex­ec is too sur­prised when busi­ness in­trudes on a fam­i­ly rit­u­al, none of us could have ex­pect­ed the mat­ter of emer­gen­cy ser­vices re­spon­se times would come crashing—quite literally—into our Friday night.


At 8:46pm last night1, we heard a hor­ri­ble-sound­ing car crash right out­side our house. At my day job (more about it in a min­ute), we work with po­lice and emer­gen­cy ser­vices every day, and so not one but two thoughts im­me­di­ate­ly flashed through my head: 1) thank God my fam­i­ly is safe; and 2) I know what to do now: call 9-1-1; they don’t know about this yet; give them as much in­for­ma­tion as pos­si­ble. (Fortunately, I had al­ready done the most im­por­tant thing: made sure my ad­dress was vis­i­ble from the street as soon as we moved in.) And so be­gan my per­son­al saga of try­ing to get use­ful in­for­ma­tion to some­one who could help—and learn­ing, at a per­son­al lev­el, why what we do every day at ShotSpotter mat­ters:

False Start: 20:46:10?-20:48:35 (seconds 0000-0125)

Within 60 sec­onds, I find our home phone and di­al 9-1-1. It’s a Vonage line, and I am un­pleas­ant­ly sur­prised to be con­nect­ed to San Francisco 9-1-1. We live in San Mateo County, and I quick­ly re­al­ize that I must have ne­glect­ed to up­date the 9-1-1 street ad­dress in­for­ma­tion for the ac­count. (Yes, Vonage doesn’t know where to send your 9-1-1 call un­less you tell them. Not their fault; this is why Next Generation 9-1-1 is so im­por­tant.) Now I have to spend 55 sec­onds con­vinc­ing the op­er­a­tor that there was an emer­gen­cy, but I am in an­oth­er coun­ty from her, that I had been mis­tak­en­ly con­nect­ed to her, and there­fore that she shouldn’t do what 9-1-1 pro­to­col calls for her to do if I just hang up: 1) call me back if I hang up and es­ca­late the call as non-re­spon­sive, or 2) worse yet, send help to our old ad­dress in San Francisco, where we don’t live any longer. Mission ac­com­plished, but 125 sec­onds wast­ed.

How May I Direct Your Call? 20:49:00-20:51:30 (seconds 0170-0320)

So now I’ve got to find an­oth­er way to call. Option #1: call lo­cal emer­gen­cy num­ber post­ed on re­frig­er­a­tor. (You do have your lo­cal po­lice switch­board on your re­frig­er­a­tor, right?) Too far. I’m up­stairs, time counts. Option #2: use my mo­bile phone. Fortunately, thanks to E9-1-1, calls from mo­bile phones usu­al­ly go to the cor­rect lo­cal PSAP (that’s Public Safety Answering Point), not to the California Highway Patrol, as they used to. I’m con­nect­ed and im­me­di­ate­ly con­front­ed with a ques­tion: “What is the na­ture of your emer­gen­cy? Police, Fire or Medical?” Hmmmm, car crash. I’m think­ing Medical. But most fire de­part­ments de­liv­er EMT ser­vices the­se days. So is it Fire? Eventually the Police will have to show up. I won­der if it’s Police? No, it’s Medical. “Medical,” I say. “OK, just a min­ute, sir.” I’m on hold for what feels like hours, but is re­al­ly about 45 sec­onds.

Critical Information: 20:51:30-20:54:12 (seconds 0170-0482)

“Please state the na­ture of your emer­gen­cy.” “There’s been a car crash,” I re­ply.” “OK, are you hurt?” “No, it hap­pened out­side my house. I’m try­ing to help.” “What is your ad­dress? [I an­swer.] OK, help is on the way, and I need to ask you some ad­di­tion­al ques­tions.” I check the time at this very mo­ment: 324 sec­onds havepassed—5 min­utes, 24 sec­onds. That’s how long it took me to get the word to peo­ple who could help that some­body need­ed help. And I was clear-think­ing and or­ga­nized, be­cause I wasn’t in­volved. Maybe I knew a bit more of what to say be­cause I work in the field. Maybe. If I had been a vic­tim, adren­a­l­in rac­ing through my sys­tem and cloud­ing my judg­ment, try­ing to fig­ure out where I was, what pre­cise ad­dress I had stopped at (or what road I was on, for that matter!)—who knows how much longer it would have been?

Keep Gathering Information: 20:54:13-20:59:17 (seconds 0483-0787)

Can you see any­body?” “Not yet, I’ve got to get a flash­light.” And so en­sued an­oth­er 6 min­utes of the 9-1-1 op­er­a­tor talk­ing to me, in­struct­ing the vic­tims through me, and get­ting in­for­ma­tion he need­ed. Was any­one trapped in the car? (No.) Was any­one eject­ed from the ve­hi­cle? (No.) Was any­one bleed­ing? (Yes.) Were the vic­tims young? (Yes, un­der 18 and try­ing to get me not to call the po­lice) Was there ob­vi­ous al­co­hol? (No.)

21:00 Help Arrives (seconds 0788+)

The cav­al­ry ar­rives. Two fire trucks and the Central County Fire chief, po­lice, am­bu­lance. The neigh­bors dis­perse back to their homes to bring their fam­i­lies up to speed on what hap­pened. The pro­fes­sion­als take over. The kids are tak­en to lo­cal hos­pi­tals. The car is re­moved. Someone sweeps up the de­bris. Nighttime qui­et re­turns.

11 Minutes Matter

Which brings me to re­spon­se times. The Burlingame and San Mateo County emer­gen­cy re­spon­ders did their jobs per­fect­ly: they ar­rived quick­ly (rough­ly 6 min­utes from my giv­ing the ad­dress; may­be 8 min­utes if one of my neigh­bors had al­so called and not had my Vonage-re­lat­ed false start), to the cor­rect lo­ca­tion, and ren­dered aid. But through no fault of their own, first re­spon­ders were com­plete­ly de­pen­dent on me and my neigh­bors to get them to the right place. We live in a qui­et neigh­bor­hood where such in­ci­dents are un­com­mon. When they do hap­pen, we all call.

My Day Job

Whereas ac­ci­dents can (and do) hap­pen any­where, oth­ers live in neigh­bor­hoods where, sad­ly, vi­o­lent crimes al­so put lives at risk—and do so every day. At ShotSpotter, we deal with one par­tic­u­lar kind of vi­o­lent crime: gun vi­o­lence. Literally every evening, our sys­tems de­tect be­tween a hun­dred or more shoot­ings na­tion­wide. And there­fore a hun­dred or more times a night, ShotSpotter de­liv­ers in­for­ma­tion sim­i­lar to what it took me 5 min­utes and 24 sec­onds to de­liv­er over the phone au­to­mat­i­cal­ly to po­lice—about 150 times faster than I was able to. Unfortunately, if you live in a neigh­bor­hood where you hear gun­shots every night, you’re al­so not as like­ly to call the po­lice every time as if you hear it on­ce a year. “It hap­pens every night; the po­lice al­ready know!” That’s why stud­ies show 9-1-1 re­ceives a call less than 25% of the time a gun is fired. And as you can see from my ex­pe­ri­ence last night why, even when they do re­ceive a call, 9-1-1 finds out any­where from 3 to 8 min­utes af­ter the event. (And bear in mind that in the 25% of cas­es in which peo­ple do call 9-1-1 about gun­fire, they don’t know where the gun­fire took place; they know where they live! So that adds time to the re­spon­se too, as po­lice don’t know pre­cise­ly where to go.)

When lives are at stake, sec­onds mat­ter.  (See USA Today’s “The price of just a few sec­onds lost: People die”, for ex­am­ple)

So I’ll go to work on Tuesday know­ing that our pro­duct helps make com­mu­ni­ties safer, if not from an un­for­tu­nate car crash which thank­ful­ly caused no se­ri­ous in­juries, then from the hun­dreds of gun­fire in­ci­dents we help pin­point for po­lice so they can ar­rive to ex­act­ly the right place, min­utes ear­lier than they oth­er­wise could, hope­ful­ly in time to save a life, per­haps take a gun off the street, and in time to send a mes­sage to the com­mu­ni­ty that while car ac­ci­dents may hap­pen, gun vi­o­lence doesn’t have to.

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  1. I have ac­cu­rate elapsed times in this post for every­thing thanks to the phone logs on my mo­bile and Vonage phones, ex­cept for the first 30-45 sec­onds which it took me to go from our fam­i­ly room to pick up the phone []
Gregory September 6, 2011 at 10:43 am

This story points out one of the problems with the whole system in that you can’t verify your address information and the proper routing is actually working and valid until a real emergency; and then it may be too late.
So what is the moral of this story? Use your mobile to call 911? Call the local sheriff instead?

James G. Beldock September 6, 2011 at 11:06 am

Gregory, that’s *EXACTLY* the right point. I’m going to post something about that. There is literally no way to double-check your 9-1-1 process without an emergency–or creating a false alarm.

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