A company called BlueLight plans to roll out a smartphone app that works as a subscription-based 911 service in Oakland next month. The service cost $20 a year and promises users that when they dial 911 from anywhere in Oakland, the Oakland Police Department will have access to their exact geographic location, making for a faster response. But the app appears to be widening the tech-fueled inequality gap. Will those able to afford smartphones and a BlueLight subscription receive superior emergency services over those who cannot?
The problem BlueLight wants to solve is very real. Currently, when cellphone users dial 911 in Oakland, their calls are routed to the California Highway Patrol in Vallejo
, and then to the Oakland police and fire dispatch centers. Geographic information isn't included, so cellular callers have to tell the dispatcher where they are.
"A lot of us are walking around with a smartphone, but when it comes to personal safety and emergency services, it’s still not optimized for that," said Preet Anand, the CEO and founder of BlueLight.
"In Oakland, dialing 911 doesn’t take you to OPD," Anand added. "That’s why the police department tells you to pre-program in a 10 digit number
if you want to call them from a cell phone. But if you dial that, [the Oakland police] get no other info about you and where you are, and where you are is the most important piece of info."
According to a blogpost
published two days ago, BlueLight's service will begin covering Oakland in February. According to the post, BlueLight employees have met with Oakland city officials to prepare for the new service.
Oakland police spokesperson Marco Marquez confirmed that OPD has been contacted by BlueLight, but said that OPD isn't involved in the company's product. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf's office did not return a phone call seeking information about whether the city is working in some way with BlueLight.
But Anand said in an interview with the Express
that his company has reached out OPD and Schaaf's office to inform them that his company's service will soon be available to city residents. Anand clarified that BlueLight's service doesn't require any technical integration into Oakland's existing 911 system.
"It comes in as regular phone call on their side, but it just has much more information," said Anand. "The city doesn’t need to install anything."
On Twitter yesterday BlueLight responded to criticisms that it's subscription-based 911 service would create an unequal 911 system.
Anand said he hopes that Oakland eventually hires his company to provide the BlueLight service for anyone who calls 911 in the city of Oakland, at a cheaper cost to residents than the current $20 subscription rate.
"That is where we’d love to get to," said Anand. "But the real question is, if we can start making a diff now and help people now, should we wait?"
OPD's current efforts to upgrade the 911 system to accommodate cellphones isn't scheduled to come on line until 2019, according to the department's recently released Strategic Report