Shalom Life | August 28, 2014

NowForce, Israel's New Smartphone SOS System

Recent kidnappings leads company to open its emergency app to all Israelis

By: J.S. Côté

Published: June 17th, 2014 in Business » Israel

NowForce, Israel's New Smartphone SOS System

In response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers last week, Israel's NowForce, which develops applications to help rescue personnel with emergencies, is getting ready to set up a national emergency alert system that will allow any citizen use its “SOS app” to call for help when in trouble.

“The app represents the kind of simple and cheap technology available right now the can be easily deployed to prevent situations like last week's kidnappings,” said Arik Yekuel, former head of technology for the Israel Police.

According to a top police official, the system could aid in saving lives by confirming to police and rescue workers that the emergency is real and needs to be acted upon immediately.

With the network set to go live this week, anyone who registers will be able to alert police, local security officials, family members and emergency response services when in any kind of peril or emergency situation, such as a kidnapping attempt.

NowForce is well recognized in the emergency services community as the company's apps are used by EMS, fire and rescue, campus security groups, and law enforcement services around the world. For example, fire officials in Boone County, Missouri, U.S. use the app 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 the area, all carry the NowForce app on their mobile phones and are immediately alerted when a 911 call comes in reporting a fire. Fire officials say the app has resulted in a response time in the 2 to 4 minute range, far better than they were before the district adopted the application.

“This app has been available for our subscription clients for several years,” said NowForce spokesperson Julie Zuckerman. “In the wake of the grievous incident, in which thee 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's emergency app offered to Israelis includes a large SOS button that, once pressed, sets the whole process in motion. With a push of that button, the NowForce reporting centre will alert responders in the area of the emergency—from police, to local security officials, to United Hatzalah emergency rescue workers. The app would then show them a map of the location of the incident and provide accurate directions to get to the site. It also provides updates, forms, and anything else connected to each specific incident, as well as allowing first responders to take photos, videos, and audio recordings.

The app would also simultaneously call the police and send the caller's location to their emergency contacts and local emergency service providers. “We invite the police and other national and local emergency service providers to take part in this initiative to safeguard Israel's citizens,” said Zuckerman.

Zuckerman also said that NowForce will include technology to detect and prevent fraud as, according to Yekuel, 80 percent of calls made to police emergency lines are false. According to reports, one of the youths abducted in Thursday's kidnapping called the police and screamed into the phone that he was being kidnapped, yet it took as much as eight hours for the IDF to receive the information.

“Obviously there will be some investigation of this when the incident is over,” Yekuel said, “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 West Bank, where police get many threatening phone calls from Arabs.”

In order to prevent such fraudulence, users of the app will need to register their phone numbers on the NowForce website and log in to a personal area with a password. It is there they will be able to list emergency contacts that will be alerted alongside rescue personnel when the SOS button is pressed, something NowForce plans to strongly stress should only be done in an actual emergency.

“Unfortunately, we cannot totally prevent fraud or stop people from using the app under the wrong circumstances,” Zuckerman said. “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 behaviour.”

Considering the circumstances in which the three Israeli teens were taken are unknown, Yekuel said it's impossible to know whether the app could have helped prevent the abduction.

“We have to realize that the devices all of us carry around are very powerful,” Yekuel continued. “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 Now Force effort is a great idea, and hopefully it will be able to prevent future security incidents.”

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