When emergency medical technicians and firefighters are sent out on a 911 call, dispatchers provide as much information as the person calling can give them.
In some situations, the caller has more than enough information for first responders to prepare. In many cases, though, the caller may be unable to provide any additional details.
That is where Smart911 steps in. The alert system was recently installed in Beaufort County's dispatch centers and is a step up on the traditional 911 information system.
"We are constantly looking for ways to improve and enhance our service. 911 is great but there is so much more information out there that people are wanting to share with us so this was a great solution," said Cathy Jones-Gooding, communications manager for Hilton Head Island Fire and Rescue. "I'll take any extra help I can get that cuts down on our response time."
The system went into operation July 1 of this year and is available throughout the county. "Business" has been slow to date, said Jones-Gooding, but she expects that to change.
"We take on one call a week with somebody registered. We haven't had any huge breakthroughs yet but we're still getting the word out," she said.
In order to be registered in the Smart911 system, individuals create a free Safety Profile on the secure web site at Smart911.com. Give as much or as little information as you wish, but it is recommended that you enter all of the information you would like emergency personnel to know.
"Imagine being a parent and your child is missing," Jones-Gooding said. "Or you have an individual who wanders away. Include his or her photo in the profile with a physical description, cell phone number or any anything else you want responders to know."
Registering might take time but once you are finished, there is no need to do anything but maintain the registration every six months. If there are developments - such as a change of address, household members, medications or health conditions, then you are encouraged to edit your Safety Profile.
"It helps EMTs to know the medications, state of health, if there is a need for extra personnel or how to get in the home, if necessary," Jones-Gooding said.
As more people drop their landlines in favor of cell phones, it creates a different challenge for dispatchers.
"People don't realize the ramifications of giving up their landlines so this helps us when they are using the cell phone," Jones-Gooding said.
In a demonstration of the system, a call made from an out-of-area cell phone recently registered with Smart911 showed it belonged to a local resident. The home address and a photo of the individual popped up on the monitor in front of communications supervisor Tammye Brown.
"You can see that this person has included a lot of information," Brown said. In addition to emergency contacts, there were vehicles, specific physical details, information and photos.
"It's wonderful," said Brown. "It takes us a step further."
On a monitor displaying a local map, the phone was tagged within a few hundred yards of its actual location.
"With the GPS system, we can find the phone in the area of any 10 or so houses," said Jones-Gooding, "but if we know the owner lives at one of those 10 houses, we can start there.
Having those kinds of details in the Safety Profile relieves the caller from the added stress of relaying information beyond the immediate emergency.
"Time is of the essence so minutes, even seconds, count," said Cinda Seamon, Fire and Life Safety Educator for Hilton Head Fire and Rescue. "You may be too distressed or panicked to relay all the necessary information and sometimes it can take time for the dispatchers to ask all the appropriate questions."
Safety Profiles are visible only to emergency dispatchers at the time a 911 call is placed, said Jones-Gooding.
"If you have family or friends who are traveling and register, their information can also be accessed nationwide if they make a 911 call within a public safety district that is subscribed to the program," Jones-Gooding added.
To sign up or find out more about Smart911, visit www.smart911.com.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.