Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Kidnappings prompt new Israeli smartphone SOS system
NowForce is opening up its emergency app to all Israelis, a move that could save lives, says a top police officer.
By David Shamah
Israel’s NowForce, which develops apps to help rescue personnel deal with emergencies, is setting up a national emergency alert system that will allow any Israeli to register and use its “SOS app” to call for help when they are in trouble.
The system is a response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers last week.
According to a top police official, the system could help save lives by making sure that police and rescue workers know that the emergency is a real one that they need to act on immediately.
“The app represents the kind of simple and cheap technology, available right now, that can be easily deployed to prevent situations like last week’s kidnappings,” according to Arik Yekuel, the former head of technology for the Israel Police.
The network will go live this week, enabling anyone who registers to immediately alert police, local security officials, family members and emergency response workers when they face an emergency on the road, such as a kidnapping attempt, said NowForce spokesperson Julie Zuckerman.
“This app has been available for our subscription clients for several years,” said Zuckerman. “In the wake of the grievous incident, in which three Israeli teens were kidnapped, we decided to release this to the general public for free as a way to boost the personal safety of Israelis all around the country.”
NowForce is well known in the emergency services community. The company’s apps are used by fire and rescue, EMS, campus security groups and law enforcement services around the world.
In the US, for example, the app is used by fire officials in Boone County, Missouri, to keep track of emergencies in the 500 square mile area they are responsible for. The 250 volunteer firefighters, the only ones available in the area, carry the NowForce app on their mobile phones. The app immediately alerts volunteers in the area when a 911 emergency call comes in reporting a fire. With the app, response times in the mostly rural area are in the two to four minute range, far better than they were before the district started using the app, say fire officials.
The emergency app NowForce is offering Israelis includes a big SOS button, which app users press to set the process in motion. Once the button is pressed, the NowForce reporting center will alert responders who are in the area of an emergency, including police, local security officials and United Hatzalah emergency rescue workers.
The app shows them a map of where the incident took place, and provides turn-by-turn instructions to get to the site. It also provides forms, updates and anything else connected to the specific incident, and lets responders take photos, videos and audio recordings of the incident.
The app will also simultaneously call the police and send the caller’s location to his/her emergency contacts and local emergency service providers such as United Hatzalah.
“We invite the police and other national and local emergency service providers to take part in this initiative to safeguard Israel’s citizens,” she said.
Zuckerman said that NowForce was including technology to detect and prevent fraud. According Yekuel, 80 percent of calls to police emergency lines are phony.
According to reports, one of the youths abducted in last Thursday’s kidnapping called police and screamed into the phone that he was being kidnapped, but it wasn’t until eight hours later that the IDF received the information.
“Obviously there will be some investigation of this when the incident is over, but, as someone who was intensely involved in the emergency phone system, I can guess that the officers in charge thought they were dealing with a crank call, because so many of these calls are, especially in the West Bank, where police get many threatening phone calls from Arabs.”
To prevent fraud, users of the app will have to register their phone numbers on the NowForce site and log in to a personal area with a password. There, they can list emergency contacts to be alerted along with rescue personnel when the SOS button is pressed.
NowForce plans to stress strongly that the button should be pressed only in the case of a true emergency. “Unfortunately, we cannot totally prevent fraud or stop people from using the app under the wrong circumstances,” said Zuckerman. “But we have been doing this for years and, after having worked with many different kinds of populations, we have developed numerous methods to discourage both kinds of behavior.”
Could an app like NowForce have prevented the three teens from being kidnapped?
It’s not clear under what circumstances they were taken, said Yekuel, so it’s impossible to know.
“But we have to realize that the devices all of us carry around are very powerful,” he said. “In Israel, and elsewhere, we use some of the most powerful features of these devices, like always-on GPS tracking, for things like mapping and commuting, and we use their connectivity capabilities for social networking. I have no problem with any of those uses, but we have overlooked one of the most obvious benefits of these technologies: the personal safety and security they can help provide. The NowForce effort is a great idea, and hopefully it will be able to prevent future security incidents.”