Database Allows Residents to Share Extra Information During 911 Calls


Nancy O'Brien can still remember the panic that took over her family when her 7-year-old autistic son wandered away.

"It was extremely traumatic for us," she said. "Since that time, we have taken every precaution possible to make sure it doesn't happen again."

For families like the O'Briens, that has become easier with the help of a national database called Smart911, which is being used by DuPage County's dispatch center.

Since 2011, when the county became the first in the state to use the service, residents have been able to sign up and create free profiles that automatically send their personal information to dispatchers when they dial 911.

The extent of information they can share ranges from medical information and emergency contacts to family photos and the color of their house.

The O'Brien family, of Elmhurst, has created a profile for James, now 14. If a family member or baby sitter calls 911, a dispatcher will see what James and his family look like and immediately learn that the teen is nonverbal and has strong allergies to peanuts and penicillin.

Since the program began, there have been 23,600 profiles created, said Linda Zerwin, executive director of the county's Emergency Telephone System Board.

Since December 2012, the call center has seen profiles pop up on more than 1,780 calls, averaging about 250 a month.

That's a good number, Zerwin said, but there could be so many more, considering the county gets about a million 911 calls a year.

Of those, she said, about 700,000 are from wireless phones, which don't provide as much information as landlines and rely on cell towers.

The county's dispatch center is the main receiving point for all wireless callers, even those who dial from areas that have their own dispatch centers, such as Naperville or Aurora.

"If you've lost your child and you're upset, and here we are asking you to fish around for a picture, anything we can do to speed up that process is really helpful," Zerwin said.

The service was launched by Rave Mobile Safety 21/2 years ago. Since then, about 350 911 centers in 32 states have started using the database.

In Illinois, DuPage County is the only county dispatch center to use it, said Todd Piett, chief product officer at Rave.

Naperville has shown interest in adopting Smart911, and the issue is on the agenda for discussion later this month, said Naperville police Chief Bob Marshall.

Those who sign up do not have to live in DuPage County. It is a recommended service for anyone who works in the area or drives through, Zerwin said.

Their profiles will also pop up if they call 911 in another part of the country that uses the database.

DuPage County's emergency telephone system board pays about $140,000 a year for the service, money that comes from a 911 surcharge on telephone bills.

For those worried about privacy, Zerwin noted that their information will be available to dispatchers only if they call 911.

"It's really wonderful and I don't think people are very aware of it," O'Brien said.

O'Brien, a former board member of advocacy group Autism Speaks, said it is an important service for all residents but especially crucial for parents of children with special needs.

"My heart stops every time I hear about kids who wander from home," she said. "I've been there and we were lucky that James is safe now, but this is really common with autistic kids. This is a good measure to add a little more security."

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