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New service gives 911 callers in Boulder the option to livestream their phone camera to dispatchers

After dispatchers receive permission, a website would allow them to see the 911 caller's phone camera live during an emergency
Posted at 10:17 PM, Apr 06, 2023

BOULDER, Colo. - A new free service can now allow emergency dispatchers to see for themselves what's going on during any emergency.

Boulder Police have launched an option for 911 callers to share a livestream of their cell phone's camera with dispatchers. The program is called Prepared 911.

"A lot of times we're dependent on what people are trying to tell us and they're having a bad day or they're scared," explained Sara Humble, who has been a dispatcher for the last eight years and currently works as a Boulder 911 operator and police emergency dispatcher.

Important details can sometimes get lost in the communication between the 911 caller and the dispatcher.

"Somebody will be calling and say, 'I see smoke up in the hills.' Then the dispatcher has to work with him to find out: Where are they? Which direction are they looking? It takes a lot of time to figure this out," said Deputy Chief Jeff Long with Boulder Fire-Rescue.

When people are reporting a crime, it can also be challenging to find a perfect witness.

"When we get phone calls, we're relying upon their perceptions at that moment. They're trying to convey it and communicate it to us over the phone. They're in a stressful moment, which we know impacts their ability to communicate," said Commander Barry Hartcopp with the Boulder Police Department. "What we usually find is we don't get all the facts, all the details. There's misperceptions in terms of what clothing a suspect is wearing, what their height is, what their weight is, what they actually were doing."

By using Prepared 911, Boulder's dispatch team is hoping to change that.

When someone calls or texts 911, they will be given an option to livestream their phone's camera. If they agree, there is no app download needed. Instead, they will be texted a link. Once the link is opened, they will need to click a button to give permission again which will open the page where a dispatcher can access the caller's camera.

After that, the caller will be in control of starting the livestream. When the livestream starts, the dispatcher can toggled between the front-facing camera, the back-facing camera, and also turn the phone's screen black to disguise that the caller is recording if they are in a dangerous situation.

The livestream can be stopped by the caller at any time.

"The intention is just to keep people safe. Just to be able to get you the correct resources as quick as possible, and keep you as safe as possible," said Humble. "We're not going to see anything in your phone, and we're not going to have any control. You can start the call whenever you want. You can end the call."

First responders said additional information at the beginning of an emergency can be critical.

New service gives 911 callers in Boulder the option to livestream their phone camera to dispatchers

"A lot of times, we'll get a call and we don't know exactly what is going on. You're having to remain pretty nimble. But if you've got video evidence of what you're going to, you can get more prepared to deal exactly with that specific emergency," Long said.

Hartcopp explained how helpful video has been for the process of police investigations over the years, whether it's from a police body camera, witness cell phone video or a service like Prepared 911.

"For a long time in my career, we were completely dependent upon the description provided by an individual. That's based upon their perceptions, sometimes their biases, and so there were instances in which it wasn't completely accurate. This gives us a complete, accurate picture of what's taking place in real time," he said.

According to the Boulder Police Department, the videos are saved in Prepared 911's cloud and any screenshots taken by a dispatcher will be saved in the dispatch notes.

The police department had a reminder that anyone in a public space does not need to give consent to be recorded.

"Individuals, as long as they're in a place where they have a right to be, and they are recording and livestreaming it, I don't foresee any legal issues," said Hartcopp.

The official policies and procedures for the department's use of Prepared 911 are still in the works.

The service also allows dispatchers to send a location request to the caller's phone, and once approved, will send the person's exact location.

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