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Instant Help to Patrol Car Crashes

Written by James Careless

It was supposed to be a test, but this test helped save an officer’s life and convinced the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network in Houston, TX that Automatic Crash Notification technology (ACN) was an extremely good idea.

When a Pasadena, TX Police Department officer rolled his Crown Victoria patrol car and lost consciousness in December 2002, the vehicle’s experimental ACN transmitter automatically called for help. By delivering specific crash data including the exact location (latitude and longitude) of the car by radio, the ACN ensured that help could be dispatched quickly and sent to the right place.

This incident was certainly the most dramatic testament to the value of radio-transmitted crash detection. However, ACN has also successfully reported 24 other crashes of police vehicles during this first Officer-Application project in the greater Houston area. All of them happened over the two years in which greater Harris County 911 and 23 local police/fire departments had installed ACN devices in 500 public safety vehicles.

ACN in Action

On December 12, 2002, an officer driving an ACN-equipped vehicle was driving back to his reporting substation at the end of shift. The time was 10:25 pm, and the northbound lane of Red Bluff Road in Pasadena was wet and slippery. As a result, the officer lost control of his car and slid into the road’s west center median. He managed to steer back into the northbound lane, but the combination of speed and slippery conditions caused his car to catapult across the road, then to nose-dive into a drainage ditch on the shoulder.

Upon impact with the ditch, the patrol car rotated on its nose such that its rear flew upwards. As the car rolled, its roof smashed into a utility pole by the side of the ditch. This impact threw the car back onto Red Bluff Road, with the vehicle ending up on its rooftop. Caught inside was the now unconscious officer.

When the patrol car hit the ditch, its ACN Telematics Crash Detection Module (CDM) sensed the impact, and recorded the car’s “vital signs” a couple seconds before and a few seconds after the recognition of the impact using its sensors. It also noted the vehicle’s identity and GPS-determined location.

This data was sent by cellular phone as a compressed data pulse to Ford Safety’s telematics provider, Cross Country Automotive Services (CCAS). At the same time, CCAS automatically opened a voice channel between one of its operators and the patrol car. However, since the officer was unconscious, this channel was of little help.

It was then that CCAS sent the Crown Victoria’s latitude and longitude data to the 911 call center nearest to the incident, which was the Pasadena Police Department. The call was forwarded via leading-edge technology developed by Intrado that allows a TSP to contact the 911 call center closest to a vehicle accident over the 911 Native Network Infrastructure, which handles 911 landline and cellular calls.

The GHC project was the first to automatically transmit data about the driver’s accident directly to the 911 call taker’s computer screen. In contrast, TSPs currently can only transfer data to 911 centers verbally, by actually telling the call-taker what happened.

Using Intrado’s technology, CCAS was able to brief the 911 call-taker on the situation and even verbally validate the data delivered to the call-taker’s computer screen. Best yet, the time between the crash being detected and the 911 call center being alerted was a mere 35 seconds. “Thanks to this new safety system, the appropriate 911 center was notified and informed of the location of the vehicle, and medical help was dispatched within minutes,” said John Melcher, executive director of GHC 911.

ACN’s Features

ACN is similar to GM’s OnStar system. However, it has been enhanced to provide more information than consumer telematics devices do. For instance, the ACN’s data transmissions include the vehicle’s GPS location, number of occupants, and seat belt use, plus vehicle velocity and delta velocity, crash direction, heading, rollover, and final resting position information. This last set of data can help dispatchers to determine the severity of the crash and predict possible injuries that the driver and passengers may have encountered.

The ACN database can also be enhanced to include each officer’s personal medical history. This makes it much easier not just to send an ambulance to the right location, but also to provide any specialized medical care that the specific officer may require.

Another difference between consumer telematics providers and ACN is that CCAS can transfer the incoming call immediately to the 911 call center, using new voice and data network elements developed for GHC 911 by Intrado. The local 911 center in turn passes the information to dispatch either verbally, or via Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems now in place.

“It is so important for 911 call-takers to have as much information as they can about an emergency,” Melcher said. “The ACN technology provides call-takers with information about an emergency that helps them determine what type of response to send. This is especially valuable if the driver is unconscious or there are not any witnesses.”

Saving Lives


For their efforts on this two year trial, GHS, CCAS, Intrado, and Roadside Telematics won the 2004 Telematics in Action: Best Use of Telematics For Safety Award from Telematics Update magazine.

But is such a system, helpful as it is, worth spending departmental money on when budgets are tight? To help answer this question, it might be worth considering some numbers. Based on U.S. Department of Transportation figures, there are 27 million motor vehicle crashes each year, causing 5.2 million injuries, 250,000 of which are life-threatening.

Some of this quarter-million are first responders, police and fire officers who need and deserve the extra margin of assistance that Automatic Crash Detection technology provides. So is ACN worth the cost? The answer can’t be anything but “yes.”

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He may be reached at info@tjtdesign.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, May/Jun 2006

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