AccesSOS aims to make 911 calls accessible to all
Two major incidents motivated the push for Gabriella Wong to launch AccesSOS. Home alone when his gallbladder ruptured in 2005, Wong’s deaf father texted her to contact 911 on his behalf. However, Wong wasn’t near her phone at the time.
Fortunately, Wong’s father received the care he needed just in the nick of time. But then, in 2018, he found himself in a similar debacle in the aftermath of a car accident. Unable to communicate via phone call, he once again texted Wong to handle the 911 call for him. She was available this time, but there was an added layer of complication in that Wong’s father wasn’t sure of his exact location for emergency services to reach him.
“You don’t realize until you or someone you love is in an emergency situation how inaccessible it is…why couldn’t my dad text 911 directly? I couldn’t believe I was the middle point between 911 and my dad getting help and realized…this can’t happen again…this was a problem and I felt like I was the person to solve it because of my background,” says Wong.
Heed the call, be the change
With both her background in public health and knowledge of coding, Wong decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2019, she founded AccesSOS, a nonprofit company behind the app of the same name which allows users to quickly provide important identifying information about their emergency situation, which is then converted into a phone call to 911.
Initially averse to the risks of starting her own business, Wong pursued the advocacy path at first but quickly realized that, even if she was able to get legislation passed to mandate text-to-911 calls in all call centers (or PSAPs – Public Safety Answering Points, as they’re known in the industry), funding and infrastructure were immediate obstacles to creating actual change.
Built in the 60s and 70s, PSAPs were elaborate systems for the time. Landline phones–which are attached to a civic address and, thus, pinpoint location easily–are now a dying technology due to the near-exclusivity of mobile phones. But PSAPs are having a hard time playing catch up to the new technology. Currently, text-to-911 is only available in about 30% of call centers in the US.
“I realized we could build a layer that bridges that gap in access, until text-to-911 becomes available nationwide. Legacy systems (PSAPs) will accept a voice call no matter what, [so at] AccesSOS we translate text into a phone call,” says Wong.
Features of the app: more than text-to-voice
In addition to the text-to-voice layer AccesSOS provides, the app also captures location via GPS data through the phone and has the user verify. Contrary to popular belief thanks to shows like CSI, Wong explains it’s not always so easy to locate someone on a mobile device, especially if they’re in a rural or remote area. Users are a bit more discoverable when they stay on the line during a phone call, as the device is constantly pinging cell phone towers nearby for a signal. But, again, for users where a text message is a better communication option, that only involves one ping, making location determination that much more difficult.
Finally, the app allows users to access a quick, preset menu of options such as determining if the emergency requires the police, ambulance, or fire department. From that point, users can tap more detailed descriptions like “accident,” “assault,” “social services,” “breathing issue” to describe their emergency situation more accurately.
Simple, user-friendly, and featuring functionality to translate into Arabic, Chinese Simplified, Vietnamese and Spanish, AccesSOS officially launched on March 16, 2022 and is currently available to around 89,000 people in the Santa Fe area. Now that the development piece is completed and the product is out in the world, Wong intends to focus on marketing efforts to increase awareness and accessibility. Because emergency help should be accessible to everyone.