You’re toiling away in your office one morning when you hear a noise explode down the hallway.
Crack, crack, crack.
Sounds like gunshots. People sprint by your door, but they are gone by the time you get up, and you hear the noise again, deafeningly close. Crack. Crack.
You lock the door, kill the lights. You grab your phone to call 911, but stop short. Shouldn’t you stay quiet if you think a shooter is near? Isn’t that what you’ve been taught?
No worries. Thanks to technological advances over the last decade, you can text the emergency number and elicit the same police response you’d get from a phone call — all while remaining completely silent.
In an especially dire situation — such as gunmen in the halls — emergency dispatchers in Bergen and Passaic counties can text a link to the caller, who by tapping on it gives authorities permission to see a streaming video recorded by their cell camera.
“They can watch in real time what’s happening,” said Officer Jonathan Klos, commander of the Passaic County sheriff’s communications division. “And the officers can prepare themselves, which makes everyone a little bit safer — now they know what they’re walking into.”
Years ago, these capabilities would only have lived in the mind of a science-fiction writer. But telecommunications have taken leaps forward, turning novel ideas into concrete applications that New Jersey law enforcement use daily to equip officers with as much information as possible before they respond to an emergency.
About the technology
The cellphone video streaming technology, named 911eye, is the most striking. Originally developed in the United Kingdom by Capita, a digital services business that helps first responders, the program allows authorities to reconnoiter a given area through the caller’s phone camera.
“When the dispatcher can see live what’s going on, you’re going to get the right resources quicker,” said Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and the former chief of the Bergen County Police Department. “This compresses the timeline, and responding officers have a heads-up about what’s going on.”
Keith Essert, the supervising public safety telecommunicator at the Bergen County Public Safety Operations Center in Mahwah, recently demonstrated the software.
From his dispatcher’s seat, he sent his own phone a text message that, at first glance, looked very much like spam — just the words “click link” and a blue hyperlink.
Tapping the link sent him to a webpage that requested he give the center access to his camera. He accepted, started a video, and there it was: a livestream from his camera, visible on one of his many computer monitors.
“So now I’m seeing stuff and telling them, ‘OK, I need you to look over to the right a little bit and down,’ ” Essert said. “I’m giving them instructions while I’m looking at what’s going on.”
He can also share the view with police, supervisors or other emergency responders if he needs to.
The program, which Bergen began using about three years ago, was particularly handy during the COVID pandemic. Administrators said it let first responders avoid face-to-face contact with people unless it was truly necessary.
“We were a little skeptical at first on how it would work,” Frank DelVecchio, the center’s director, said of 911eye. “But then we tried it and it works really well … It’s a great tool and a great resource.”
Questions about privacy
The technology raises questions about civil liberties and privacy — but callers must accept the link before authorities can use the camera. And once the connection is ended, authorities can’t access the phone again without going through the approval process once more.
DelVecchio said the county saves the video on its servers for at least 30 days.
Klos, of Passaic County, said the versatile program can be used during a range of emergencies, including fires or shootings.
“Let’s say there’s a report of shots fired in Paterson, there’s a whole lot of commotion and the people aren’t giving us the information we want,” Klos said. “[The dispatcher] might say, ‘Hey, here’s a link, send us a video of what’s happening and tell me where you are.'”
Passaic County’s center answers 911 calls for county law enforcement, Ringwood, Totowa and Woodland Park, Klos said. It also backs up every other 911 desk in the county.
Bergen County’s operations center provides 911 or dispatch services for more than 200,000 residents in 25 towns. But even if the center isn’t contracted to cover a given area, any 911 text from within Bergen’s borders immediately bombards its lines.
The text-to-911 service, which Bergen has been using for about five years, is provided by the state, DelVecchio said. Its benefits are countless — it connects to an emergency operator anyone who must remain noiseless, including those hiding from an active shooter or suffering through domestic violence, for instance.
RapidSOS gives a caller’s exact location
Another program Bergen and Passaic have started to use is RapidSOS, a digital platform that has greatly improved authorities’ ability to tell the precise location of a 911 caller.
That’s especially important in an era when four out of five emergency calls are made from a cellphone, according to the state’s Office of Information Technology.
“We can actually target somebody in MetLife Stadium down to the seat they’re sitting in,” DelVecchio said. “And if they stay on the phone, we’re actually able to follow them and see where they’re going.”
RapidSOS’s software is already embedded in most new Apple and Android cellphones, he said. But the program lies dormant until someone calls 911.
Klos said he can even tell which floor the caller is on when they hit send.
“Traditional triangulation [off cell tower signals] might put it at 50 to 100 meters; then we have to do a little searching,” Klos said. “Now we can get within a few feet.”
State officials said the service is not embedded in New Jersey’s 911 infrastructure — it’s an added capability, according to a spokesperson from the information technology office. But the state is encouraging agencies to adopt RapidSOS, which is free to them and uses a safe, secure connection, the spokesperson said.
DelVecchio said he’s always on the lookout for new technology that the 11-year-old operations center can adopt.
In particular, he’s looking for translation software that can, for instance, turn a Spanish-speaking caller’s words into English in real time. This would cut out the middleman — a third-party interpreter the center must contact.
He hasn’t found it yet.
Still, the advances made in the last decade are stunning.
“When I first became a police officer, no, you couldn’t even imagine this is where we would be today,” DelVecchio said. “But I still say we’re only scratching the surface of what technology can do for us.”
Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.