Starting Monday, New Castle County 911 operators will be able to ask callers if they would be willing to let 911 see what they’re witnessing through real-time video.
If so, 911 will text a link to the caller that allows that person to livestream video of a scene through a phone camera.
The choice to turn on the camera phone and provide video is the caller’s, county officials emphasized.
It will never be required, officials said Friday during a demonstration of the system.
Allowing 911 operators to see what’s going on could save lives, pinpoint the exact location of a caller in need, give emergency crews a better idea of what’s going on and save them time for response, and even help police officers tell the difference between victims and perpetrators before they reach a scene.
The video will be stored in the digital cloud and may be used in a prosecution, officials said.
“I think we all can imagine many, many different types of emergency incidents where video in addition to audio adds information that can and we are confident will save lives,” said County Executive Matt Meyer. “It’s crazy to me that I can call my sister and brother who don’t live in Delaware and have a video call set up instantly. But when it’s time to call 911 … residents haven’t been able to use that technology.”
“Most people know the emergency communications division depends on our callers for critical scene information,” said Acting Chief of Emergency Communications Donald Holden. “This new video feature will save lives. Without a doubt, this will save us this time.”
The demonstration showed a caller who said someone was breaking into cars in a parking lot. In reality, it was a county employee filming another employee in a county parking lot.
But, after the caller activated the link he was sent, a screen popped up and the 911 operator could see a figure of a man walking from car to car and trying to open doors.
In the demonstration, the caller seemed to be hiding behind a vehicle as his phone tracked the man walking from car to car.
911 operators will not put callers at risk or ask them to track someone, Holden said.
Not every caller will be asked to provide video.
Not all 911 calls
“We will look at the type of incident and if we think video will be valuable, we will discuss that we really would appreciate that,” Holden said.
He pointed to an alleged shooting at Christiana Mall.
It would have been valuable to have video from that scene, especially if they could have spotted the alleged shooter, he said.
Even so, 911 would not ask anyone to do anything that would put the caller at risk, he said.
When 911 first started taking calls by text, many people wanted to provide photos, Holden said, but emergency services didn’t want to go down that road because they couldn’t be sure what they would get or whether the photo would be helpful.
New Castle County handles half of the state’s emergency service calls, Holden said. It will be the only call center in the state and one of the few in the nation to have the video capibility.
Maj. Laura O’Sullivan of the New County Castle Police said the video program’s biggest assistance for her officers would be the chance of having a description of the suspects and victims in an emergency.
Knowing what they were wearing would be helpful for officers arriving on the scene if the suspects were trying to feel the area.
“You can interview 10 different witnesses that are at a scene and get 10 different statements of what they were wearing, what they look like,” she said. “Sometimes, video is a little bit more concrete detail, so I think in that way it will certainly assist us.”
The county officials also took the opportunity to ask residents to register the county’s Smart911 program.
That allows them to enter details of the home so emergency workers have a better idea of what they may have to deal with if called to a scene.
The system includes an app for smartphones.
“By providing more information in your Smart911 profile, you can help us help you faster,” Holden said. “This new video feature is just one more tool in our continuous effort to ensure the safety and well-being of all New Castle County residents.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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