According to the FCC, 70 percent of 911 calls are now placed from wireless phones. Understandably, that percentage is only growing. But whereas landlines can provide emergency services dispatchers with quick location details, wireless calls can not. That's the problem Oakland-based Blue Light wants to address, with its app sending 911 dispatchers your location from the comfort of your cell phone (even more precisely than would a landline).
Blue Light is employed by 300 college and corporate campuses in the US and has been recognized by the White House's Smart Cities Initiative. Now, it's expanding to its own backyard where emergency services have come under some scrutiny in recent years. (Currently the Oakland Police Department's own website directs callers to dial them directly in an emergency (510-777-3211), rather than calling 911 from a cell phone, because that will result in your call getting routed to Vallejo and having to be transferred back.)
"We believe that change starts at home," the company wrote in a post to Medium. "[We’ve] chosen our hometown, Oakland, to be the first connected BlueLight city."
Why Oakland, other than the fact the company is based there? Allow Blue Light to tell you. "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, as Blue Light hints with the word "tension," is also a city increasingly divided. With regard to the company's services, that's cause for some concern. That's because the company charges users $19.99 per year or $9.99 for students — a decision it justifies in several ways. First, Blue Light notes, 911 actually costs everyone money. "There’s a difference between “public” and “free” — and 911 has never been free," they write. "Take a look at your next cell phone bill and you’ll see that you do pay for 911 service — you personally — every month. On average, cell phone users pay between $0.50 and $4.00 per month for access to 911, up to $50/year."
Free or not, 911 is nonetheless public, while Blue Light is not. If the service works as promised, imagine this. Of two people involved in the same emergency, one using Blue Light and the other simply calling 911 from a cell phone, the one paying for a private service would receive treatment first.
"If the speed of tech innovation is the problem," Blue Light's Medium post explains (with regard to the advent of cell phones, disrupting the landline location system), "it must also be the solution. Where government gets dragged down by red tape, tech companies can move quickly to make new things possible."
According to an article in Wired last year, Blue Light's founder Preet Anand, 27, is a strong believer in an on-demand world. "I think that all of us who grew up in tech underestimate how big a deal it is," said the former lead product manager of Zynga. "Now on-demand services affect how you eat, how you navigate the world, how you conduct your work, how you get help in an emergency." But who is the "you?" of whom Anand speaks?