Let’s Embrace Life-Saving Personal Safety Technology the Way We Embrace Photo-Sharing Apps | Commentary

Posted March 25, 2015 at 1:19pm

No commuter should die on a smoke-filled train because of inadequate communication between victims and first responders.

No office worker should be gunned down by an armed intruder because he or she didn’t know how to reach safety in a commercial building.

No college student should feel threatened because he or she didn’t have access to basic information needed to remain safe or reach a safe location.

As I scan the news today, I constantly see tragedy, hate and terrorism. What strikes me is that Congress isn’t actively working to harness day-to-day technology to help protect Americans from what is becoming an unfortunate reality of daily life.

According to a January 2014 Pew Research Center study, 58 percent of Americans own a smartphone. Smartphone ownership is even higher among young adults: 83 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 own a smartphone. As mobile technology becomes cheaper and more widespread, these numbers will only continue to increase.

Every day, people with smartphones use texting apps, dating apps, diet apps, photo-sharing apps and more. How is it possible these types of apps are so ubiquitous, yet there are no apps that allow users to send and receive life-saving information in an emergency?

As an Army veteran, former SWAT officer and security expert for the past 12 years, I have managed crisis situations in both the United States and abroad. My experiences have shown me that by embracing the power of technology, we can help ensure citizens receive critical information immediately — the kind needed to stay out of danger — while also providing first responders with real-time access to information that can be used to respond to those in need.

Modern technology can provide unparalleled information superiority — with the ability to both receive and send information during a crisis — so those in a crisis situation know their proximity to danger, can let first responders and loved ones know whether they are safe, and in turn be guided to safety.

In an era of evolving threats, something this accessible and easy to use should be a must-have, not a nice-to-have. Thankfully, Congress has the opportunity to usher in a promising — and long overdue — age of cutting-edge emergency responsiveness and preparedness.

First, policymakers should explore opportunities to incorporate the latest technologies — geo-fencing, Bluetooth and advanced analytics — into federal and state emergency response systems. These systems should have the ability send and receive alerts, notifications and safe zone information through smartphones, building upon existing technological infrastructure and models such as the Amber Alerts and severe weather notifications.

Additionally, Congress should encourage new public-private incubators, promoting innovation and collaboration between private-sector innovators and federal experts to develop the best, most effective emergency response infrastructure for citizens.

These steps will require breaking down the barriers to commercialization, which are responsible for the current, antiquated state of our emergency systems. These barriers too often leave life-saving solutions stranded in labs, universities and entrepreneurial minds. To make Americans safer and more secure, especially the millions of young Americans who own or will eventually own a smartphone, Congress must look past the obsolete divisions between government and the private sector.

I will never forget the devastation I felt as I watched the Boston Marathon bombing unfold on TV. I watched as a fundamental communications failure caused innocent people to literally run into harm’s way. Nor will I forget how disheartening it was to hear that a communication breakdown during the recent smoke incident in the Washington, D.C., Metro tunnel was responsible for a passenger fatality and the hospitalization of dozens more.

In these and other crises, real-time, reliable information flows could have calmed fears and hopefully saved lives. It is not too late to begin incorporating cutting-edge mobile technology into federal and state emergency response systems. Congress must embrace modern technologies to help keep Americans safe in this ever changing and challenging security environment.

John South is the chairman and CEO of Patrocinium Systems, developer of the ArcAngel app. He served in the U.S. Army as an advanced combat medic and on the Monterey County Sheriff’s SWAT team and has worked as a national security professional.