Many motorists never hear the sirens until the emergency vehicle is right next to them. And even if they do hear the siren, it’s no guarantee that they will know immediately and exactly what to do.
In 1998, Michelle Norton lost her two sons when a police car slammed into her Honda Civic. “There were headlights well in the distance but it was safe to turn,” Norton remembered. As her son began to turn, Norton glanced behind them. “It was only then that I saw flashing blue lights. I don’t remember the impact or the sound of screeching tires. I never heard a siren.”
Kevin Cook didn’t hear the sirens of a fire truck when he went through an intersection. Cook slammed on his breaks, narrowly missing the emergency vehicle. “I could reach out and touch the red paint,” Cook recalls. “I never heard a siren.”
Norton lost both of her sons. Cook was lucky and walked away with his life. But the experience shook him so much that he decided to make something that would decrease the amount of accidents between emergency personnel and the public.
Cook is the chief technology officer for Safety Cast. The company has created a device that allows officers to transmit emergency messages up to one-fifth of a mile away. The messages come through on AM and FM frequencies simultaneously and can signal to drivers many different situations, from an accident up ahead to a missing child.
For police cars, the system is called the Interceptor series and is the size of a VCR tape. The Interceptor is mounted in between the seats of a patrol car and is activated by pressing two buttons.
A message can be set up to play when sirens are engaged. The message would tell drivers that an emergency vehicle is approaching; please pull over safely. An officer can stop the message by depressing the two buttons. The messages average about six seconds long and start with a chime.
New messages can be recorded by the officer. There is one slot available for an impromptu message. The message can be recorded by plugging a microphone into the Interceptor box or from the radio command center of the police station. An officer at the command center can write and record a message and send it to specific boxes located in specific zones. This way, only the people who need to be alerted will get the message.
An officer can also select the direction for which the message will play; omni-directional, 360 degrees or directional, to the front or rear of the vehicle. For example, if an officer is pulled over to the side of the road he can broadcast a message to the rear of the car, at oncoming traffic. This message would warn drivers to be cautious as they are approaching an officer along the roadway.
Supervisors will be able to review messages recorded by officers to make sure protocol has been followed. Each of the messages is saved and is time and date stamped.
Lt. Jim Wells, with the Florida Highway Patrol, said that he feels an audible alert may be of great assistance. “Especially for a fatigued driver whose eyes may be partially or fully closed, an audible warning may wake them up or break through when they cannot see a signal,” Wells said. He hopes that a system of this nature would improve the safety of officers on the roadway.
“Sirens on police cars are no match for an automobile,” Chuck Lange, executive director for the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, said. “Especially the newer models— with the radio on, ar conditioning running, and windows rolled up. The ability to be able to communicate to drivers that a policeman needs them to yield will not only help save time, but will most definitely save lives.”
In 2002, 148 officers were killed while on duty. Of those, 64 were vehicle related accidents, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. But accidents don’t only kill officers; they also kill unsuspecting men, women and children.
The officer who hit Michelle Norton lived. “If only the officer involved in my crash had
such a device,” Norton said of the Safety Cast system. “My two sons might be alive today.”
There have been mixed reviews from radio stations and the general public about technology of this kind. Similar products have looked for approval from the Federal Communications Commission but have failed. The Society of Broadcast Engineers filed comments with the FCC in July 2003 stating it felt that the Safety Cast transmissions caused “intentional, harmful interference.” The SBE stated that it did not like products of this nature because it “obstructs or repeatedly interrupts” the radio service. Not all radio stations are against the technology.
The SBE also stated that they feel the system may be abused and left on for extended periods of time, startling people. They also feel that the action of engaging the Safety Cast system may further endanger the lives of officers. The SBE concluded that the Safety Cast system is “a lovely idea in a vacuum… a terrible idea in reality.”
Safety Cast is working with the Institute of Police Technology and Management to write a policies and procedure manual and to develop a training course to ensure the technology will be used for its intended purpose— as an all hazard alert.
“This tool has great potential for enhancing officer safety,” Ronald McBride, a retired police chief, said. “Safeguards will be required to minimize potential for abuse but the positives far outweigh the negatives.”
“Maybe people are afraid it will be abused,” Norton said. “I don’t see that happening.” Norton is more concerned that officers won’t use the system.
Another concern has been about the transmissions interfering with cell phones, aircraft radios, fax machines or medical equipment. Safety Cast says the transmissions are 10,000 times less powerful than a regular radio transmission. Therefore, interference with medical equipment, fax machines, aircraft radios or cell phones is impossible.
Since the system could penetrate home radios, there has been concern about those who live around hospitals or other locations where police activity is high being bombarded with the messages. According to Safety Cast, the transmitter includes a database which is programmed with specific locations. Citizens can opt-out from receiving the normal Safety Cast messages from any home or business location. While they can chose to opt-out of the Safety Cast messages, they will still receive all-hazard alert transmissions such as any man-made or natural disaster information.
Safety Cast approached the Jacksonville, FL, Sheriff’s Office and several other agencies to get their input about the system. The JSO mentioned the Amber Alert. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) says that in 75% of all child abduction homicides the child is dead within the first three hours.
A typical Amber Alert can take hours to be activated but if officers know that a kidnapper might be in a certain area, a transmission can be made to make the immediate area aware of the situation.
“We can’t wait until tomorrow,” Ernie Allen, president of the NCMEC, said. “We have to mobilize communities the instant a child is reported missing.”
Safety Net, a feature of Safety Cast, allows a message to be recorded from a central source— like the police headquarters— to be broadcast from all of the police cars or into certain neighborhoods.
Another possible use for the system is an extension of the Emergency Alert System. “EAS is rarely, if ever, used because its geographic coverage is too widespread,” Chip Patterson, disaster preparedness chief for the city of Jacksonville, FA, said. “It is like cracking a walnut with a sledge hammer.”
Safety Cast indicates that its system is designed to be an enhancement of existing EAS and Amber Alerts, not a replacement.
The current EAS system broadcasts to a large area, which may cause panic in neighborhoods not actually in harm’s way. The Safety Cast technology is designed to give local authorities the ability to transmit emergency messages to the public that is directly at risk.
The blackout in New York is an example of where the Safety Cast technology could have been utilized. During the blackout the people only had radios to alert them as to what was happening. An officer can record a message that alerts people where help can be found. For example, an emergency vehicle can broadcast a message indicating that on the south end of a parking lot there is an ambulance if anyone needs medical attention.
The SBE has also questioned the FCC about Safety Cast broadcasts and the Emergency Alert System broadcasts and who would get priority. According to Safety Cast, all EAS transmissions get priority. The Safety Cast box has a smart chip that will not allow the transmission to interfere with an EAS message. This will effectively block all Safety Cast transmissions from a 2,000-foot area of an EAS transmitter thereby never interfering with an EAS emergency warning alert.”
Currently Safety Cast is applying for licenses for its product and it has a patent pending status. As such, the Safety Cast transmitter is currently not available to be purchased. A prototype has been made, but street testing cannot be done without the approval of the FCC. Officers who are interested in this kind of technology can go to the Safety Cast Web
site and sign a petition of support, which may help push the FCC into approving the technology.
McBride, a gun shot survivor said, “I believe that Safety Cast is the most important technology to help keep police alive since the invention of the bulletproof vest.”
Christy Whitehead is a freelance writer / photographer based in Jacksonville, FL. She can be reached at WritingArticles@aol.com. Photos by Christy Whitehead.http://www.safetycast.com