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.
- 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 [↩]