It’s strange to think smartphones, the location-aware devices so many people use to navigate both their digital and material worlds, can make it harder for 911 operators to learn where an emergency call has been placed. But that’s exactly the case — and since the Federal Communications Commission estimates 70 percent of 911 calls are made from wireless phones, it’s a problem that affects many people across the country.
BlueLight hopes to change that with a mobile application which tells people their current address when they want to call 911, automatically routs emergency calls to campus security in universities across the United States, and allows consumers to share their location with trusted contacts with a feature called “On My Way.” (And no, it has no relation to the MDMA discussion forum with the same name.)
The app works like this: whenever someone wants to get in touch with emergency responders, they launch BlueLight and tap a large button dedicated to dialing the proper phone number. If the person is calling 911 the app then sends a text message with their current address — which is useful if they’re traveling and don’t know their exact location — and if they’re calling campus officials it references local landmarks.
Many small decisions have informed BlueLight’s design and functions. People might accidentally make false calls if it’s too easy to use, so the app has a five-second timer which causes a smartphone to vibrate, making it almost impossible not to notice that a call is about to be made. The company has also rented servers across the country to ensure that an issue in Utah doesn’t prevent someone in Idaho from using the app.
Out of necessity, BlueLight has designed its application without allowing for the iterative process by which most mobile software is developed. Something as important as placing an emergency call needs to be reliable, BlueLight founder Preet Anand says, which means the company can’t fiddle too much with the design. “We have to be designing for the fact that you may literally never open BlueLight again,” he says.
On My Way, the feature that allows consumers to share their location with family members if they’re traveling or meeting someone they don’t know, is meant to mitigate that risk.
“The thing we do better than anything else, and will do better than anyone else, is emergency call routing and information,” Anand says. “But ideally you don’t just think of our brand when you’re having emergencies. You associate it with safety.”
The company is effectively painting itself into a corner with many of its decisions. It can’t change its app too much, because tinkering with the design might cost someone their life. It can’t suddenly pivot away from its goal of bringing emergency calls into the 21st century because it’s asking people to trust it with their safety. And it can’t ask for money from colleges, which will provide most of its revenue, without a good product.
Anand recognizes this, and he’s willing to offer BlueLight to consumers with the hope that it will eventually become self-sustaining by convincing universities their students are better served with its app than a patchwork of systems that can fail at critical times. From there BlueLight aims to offer similar features for emergency calls made off-campus as the company continues to polish its existing features.
It’s a risky business to enter. But the fact that BlueLight is willing to work on something as important as the emergency response system with no guarantee that it will become successful is admirable, and it’s better than yet another company working on a messaging startup or email application or “Uber for whatever.”