New personal safety app automatically calls 911 through ‘safeword;’ officials raise questions

Updated: Dec. 18, 2019 at 11:18 AM EST
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - A new app is making it easier to call for help in the event of an emergency.

The “UrSafe” app launched on Apple and Android devices last week and it’s the first hands-free, voice-activated personal safety app. The creators said the app’s advanced features can help protect users and accelerate response times in a variety of potentially dangerous situations, from using online dating apps and rideshare services, to emergencies like extreme weather and home invasions.

Here’s how it works; the app will automatically call 911 and record emergencies with just the sound of a person’s safe word. Users can call out their safe word even if their phone is across the room. When activated, the device will instantly record the incident, share the person’s name and GPS location with emergency dispatch and store a streamed video on a designated person’s smartphone. It also claims to be programmed to the owner’s voice, so no one else can trigger it.

The developers are hoping 911 centers will purchase the app so calls will be sent to the nearest emergency dispatch center. WMBF News checked in with Horry County’s 911 center to see what officials had to say. As it turns out, there are some concerns surrounding this new technology.

Renee Hardwick, director of Horry County 911 and Radio Communications, is questioning the efficacy of the app, saying there could still be room for error.

“I’m thinking from a management point of view how it would impact our operations. So, if your code word was red and somebody around you says red, what if it picks that up and it opens up your phone? Now you’ve called 911. We’re a very busy 911 center and we don’t need misdials. We already get those misdials - phone in the pocket or hitting it or whatever - and we don’t need that because we’re going to have to try to find you find out if everything’s okay,” said Hardwick.

Hardwick said the Horry County 911 center is always open to talk to app developers and vendors, noting conversations are key when it comes to creating successful partnerships and outcomes.

In October, Horry County launched its “Text-to-911” service, allowing dispatchers to process a text just like a phone call in emergencies. In the two months the service has been up and running to the public, Hardwick said the response has been great. So far, she said they’ve received about four emergency texts and 11 tests from the public trying out the service.

Right now, there’s a slight delay in the transmission of the texts to 911 that lasts seconds. Hardwick, however, said when it comes to someone’s life, seconds matter. So, Horry County 911 is working on real-time texting.

According to Hardwick, Horry County recently signed an agreement with three other counties - Charleston, Beaufort and Berkley - to enter into a coastal ESInet project, which is an Emergency Services Internet Protocol Network.

In the event Horry County’s connections were to go down, the four counties would be able to work together in responding to dispatch calls. Hardwick said this is a crucial service to have in the event of a hurricane and with the significant growth in Horry County.

“In 2019, there is no quiet time. There are seven radios being ran, there’s calls taking positions and there’s supervisors out there. There’s a call a minute coming into that room. My understanding is about 1,200 people moving into this county every month, there’s 300-plus building permits being issued a month. That doesn’t mean 300 houses a month are being built, but pretty close. It’s a growing county. You see businesses popping up and so that growth alone is causing us to be busy just every day,” said Hardwick.

Hardwick said staff at the Horry County 911 center has nearly doubled since it first opened about 20 years ago, and with the expected growth in the county to come, additional staff will also be needed to keep up with the area’s growth.

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