Arkansas officials told StateScoop the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred public interest in emergency operations, especially a newer service that arms first responders with additional information about callers before they arrive to the scene. Officials said the service, called Smart911, offers an additional degree of safety when responding to house calls involves potential exposure to a deadly virus.
In the 40 states and more than 1,500 localities where Smart911 is available, residents can create free profiles to ensure dispatchers know about their disabilities, allergies, medications, house pets or other critical information they might not think to share while making a 911 call. Melody Daniel, the public information officer for the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management, said the service has become more widely used since the onset of the pandemic, with the addition of about 3,000 new Smart911 profiles in recent months.
“During the pandemic, knowing whether a 911 caller is in self-quarantine, or if they were ordered into isolation by a doctor, those are things that are really important to a 911 dispatcher,” Daniel said. “Not so that they can announce to the world that someone at an address has been diagnosed with COVID-19, but more so that they can let those first responders know that they need to take a little bit of extra precaution.”
Daniel declined to share how many residents have subscribed to Smart911 in Arkansas overall, but several public safety experts told StateScoop the subscription rate for Smart911 and similar services tends to be low, primarily attracting elderly people and those with disabilities or medical conditions that might require special attention during an emergency.
“You just really do not ever know how important the smallest piece of information is going to be,” Daniel said. “It might be routine information to you because you take that medication every day, but it could be critical to the person that’s going to treat you.”
But after being deployed statewide in 2013 with the goal of preventing harmful accidents — such as accidentally exposing a child with a deadly latex allergy to latex gloves — Smart911, and other emergency services, could get a boost from the public’s current focus on health and safety. In addition to the boost in user profiles, Daniel said more than 5,300 Arkansans have signed up for emergency COVID-19 text alerts.
In Arkansas, which has recorded 24,500 COVID-19 cases and 300 deaths, but has experienced an accelerated outbreak in recent weeks, emergency text alerts are used only for the most critical information, Daniel said, noting that overloading residents could cheapen the connotations of 911.
“A pop-up testing clinic that we didn’t have time to appropriately publicize ahead of time, that would be something we would be able to focus in on to people who opted in to messaging, and even target to them regionally,” Daniel said.
Emergency services could soon gain even more attention in the state, where researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences last week published research predicting that the recent relaxation of social distancing measures will cause the number of cases to rise more rapidly in the coming weeks. If nothing changes, the researchers conclude, Arkansas could see 150,000 active COVID-19 cases by the end of October.