Emergency! Dial 911!
Unless you’re in Oakland, that is. There, if you call from a cellphone (as nearly three-quarters of emergency callers do these days), use this number:
And then be prepared to provide your exact location, because if you can’t, police will have only a vague idea where you are — within about a three-block radius.
If you call 911 instead of (510) 777-3211 from a cell in Oakland, your call won’t go to the local police. It will be sent to the California Highway Patrol Dispatch in Vallejo, about 25 miles north. CHP will then have to transfer you to the police:
And neither agency will know where you are with any precision; the best they’ll be able to do is guess within about 1,000 feet (a 300-meter radius):
But within just a couple of weeks, an app called BlueLight, which started as a free service on college campuses, is launching in its first city, Oakland. Using your cell’s Global Positioning System (GPS), BlueLight can pinpoint your location within 60 feet.
And when you press its Request Help button, you’ll be routed directly to Oakland’s emergency dispatchers:
Such a solution to 911’s location-data problem is sorely needed nationwide — ironically, Silicon Valley is in especially dire need, where location data transmitted with as few emergency cell calls as 1 in 10.
The local East Bay Express says the app “appears to be widening the tech-fueled inequality gap.” It asks: “Will those able to afford smartphones and a BlueLight subscription receive superior emergency services over those who cannot?”
BlueLight, for its part, offered this explanation for why it chose Oakland, where it’s based, as its launch city:
“Because Oakland is everything we embrace: diverse, vibrant, neighborly and innovative. It’s a city of conversations, both spirited and tough: a city of tension, cooperation, reflection, and — most of all — constant striving for self-improvement.
"Oakland also epitomizes the problem that we’re dedicated to solving — as we discovered first from its citizens. We send every new customer a personal welcome and ask them to share how they came to find us. A few months back, we received a few dozen responses from Oaklanders who had shared BlueLight over their neighborhood social network, Nextdoor. Once we investigated the problem they described to us, we were determined to change the outcome.
"Since then, we’ve met and talked with city officials from a number of departments. Like Oaklanders themselves, these officials want Oakland to have top-notch emergency services, where and when they are needed.”
To learn more about the challenge that cellphones pose to a landline-based 911 system — and the tragic consequences of that challenge — see USA Today’s excellent story last year headlined “911’s deadly flaw: Lack of location data.”
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