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MIT and Harvard students band together to improve 911 emergency system

First responders are a push button away with the RapidSOS app

July 22, 2015

mit and Harvard students band together to improve 911 emergency system

Members of the RapidSOS team

The students thought it would be easy: update and transform the current 911 emergency call system so all cell phones could reach emergency help with one push of a button.

But Michael Martin, Harvard Business School MBA ’15, and Nick Horelik, MIT SM ’12, PhD ’15, nuclear engineering, were surprised when they realized what they were up against—antiquated landline phone technology that’s often frustrating and inadequate for 911 dispatchers. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 70 percent of 911 calls are made from mobile phones and many of these calls have no location data, resulting in deadly situations if first responders can’t find the emergency.

In response, Martin and Horelik founded RapidSOS, a company designed to get emergency calls answered faster and more reliably from mobile phones.

The two-year-old startup offers a few different options. For individuals, the RapidSOS One-Touch-911 app calls in the person’s name, location, phone number, and type of emergency to the closest dispatch center. It can also convey demographic and medical information and emergency contacts if the user has stored that data in the app. Users can text to the 911 system, which Martin says can only be done in 10 percent of the country right now without the app. The app still functions when the user has a dying battery or spotty cell phone service.

The company also offers a service called GeoAlert for universities and business that can notify people of a local crisis, as well as AutoAlert, which sends emergency information to a 911 dispatcher automatically when a car has been involved in a crash.

RapidSOS introduced its pilot program in Texas and other locations this summer and plans for a full product launch this fall.

Martin and Horelik, who met while volunteering for the MIT Clean Energy Prize, brought personal experience to RapidSOS’s development. Martin was inspired by his father who endured a painful home accident and couldn’t get through to 911 on his cell phone, and Horelik once volunteered for a suicide hotline where desperate calls sometimes came in without location data. The pair spent hundreds of hours with emergency dispatchers in more than 100 centers nationwide trying to understand their challenges.

“We thought this was as easy as shooting the data from a device to a web application,” Martin said. “Nick built that [application] in a couple of months … but we started spending more and more time at 911 dispatch centers asking how it works and that’s when it started to hit us that it was really complicated.”

The team spent 18 months working with the centers to build a system compatible with the existing infrastructure, much of which dates to the 1960s.

In January, Horelik and Martin met Kellen Brink, MIT Sloan MBA ’16, who brought her marketing background to the nascent company. She initiated a KickStarter campaign which raised $60,000. Martin said the company, which now consists of 10 Harvard and MIT alumni and students, has won about $500,000 from major startup competitions nationwide.