LONG BEACH — Pacific County 911 wants you to put an app on your smartphone, preferably sooner rather than too late.
The emergency service is the first on the West Coast to roll out the technology that will help first responders find callers who can’t quickly give an address, county 911 coordinator Tim Martindale Jr. said.
“The ultimate piece of information we need is where are you at?” he said.
So the app for that is SOS Beacon. It automatically sends precise location information to county dispatchers when the caller dials 911 from their phone. It also works in other areas that use the same system, Martindale said.
He and 911 staff want everyone with a smartphone to download and install the free app. It’s available now.
Setup includes confirming the phone number and typing in a four-digit verification code. The entire process can take less than a minute. The county’s system is expected to go live with the app by the end of August.
(“App” is short for application, customized bits of computer code that perform specialized functions.)
County 911 services are part of the Sheriff’s Office but, Martindale said, the app only sends the caller’s address to dispatch if they call 911 for help. He said even if his boss, Sheriff Scott Johnson asked him to find a person by tracking their phone, he wouldn’t be able to do it.
The app will soon be embedded in smartphone updates and put on new phones, he said.
Martindale said 911 can’t pinpoint people from cell-phone data like people see on TV and in movies.
“Location accuracy has been rough to say the least,” he said. “Sometimes we get to a location and it’s just the cell tower.”
And callers in the county almost every day find themselves not being able to provide dispatch with the address of the emergency, Martindale said.
Often they are out of town, on a beach, at a friend’s place, on the water or at an event. Sometimes, he said, they are able to find a piece of mail, look at the house number and street signs or find another way to get the address or help dispatchers locate them quickly. However, that’s not always the case.
Several years ago, Martindale said, emergency responders had trouble finding a woman who was in the woods near Grayland. The data they got from her cell phone had them looking in Nemah so it took hours to get help to her, he said.
The technology improvement for 911 is part of a $125,915 upgrade the county started in October. The current 911 phone system was built for landlines so finding cellular callers who don’t have an address to give dispatchers has long been a challenge.
Dispatchers get different information from different carriers. The accuracy of the location provided also varies from within about 5 meters to about 3 miles, Martindale said.
The beacon app will provide 911 dispatch almost the exact longitude and latitude of the caller’s location. Martindale said county is now working on ways to process the information into address or driving directions for emergency response crews.
County 911 staff will be out helping people download the app on their smartphones during the next few weeks. They’ll have a booth at the Pacific County Fair in Menlo from Aug. 23 to 26 and at Rod Run in Ocean Park from Sept. 9 and 10. People can also call for help at 360-642-9340.