6 Impactful ways cities can cut down emergency response time

Local governments are turning to tactics like data, GIS mapping, internal operations efficiencies, and citizen engagement to improve emergency response programs, ultimately saving lives.

6 Impactful ways cities can cut down emergency response time media 1


  • Anchorage, AK helps first responders maintain communications when disaster strikes by using specialty cellular network

  • Sandoval County and the town of Bernalillo, NM have formed an emergency response partnership to work around traffic disruptions caused by long term construction

  • Many cities, including Mesa, AZ, and San Francisco, are using cell phone data to help 911 operators dispatch help based on callers’ known locations

  • Falkirk Council, GB, developed a GIS emergency response plan that was so successful it’s now being offered across Scotland

  • Jersey City, NJ has trained volunteer medics to respond immediately using an Uber-like app in the event of an emergency.


No matter how well a city or county is operating its emergency services, there’s always room for improvement. A few minutes shaved off response time can be the difference between sparing a piece of property. Stopping a major incident. Saving a life.

Many localities are focusing on measures that either directly or indirectly improve emergency response time through a range of innovative projects. As with any local government innovation, there’s no one-size-fits all approach. But there are a number of areas where agencies can focus their efforts in order to improve their emergency services.

Let’s take a look at how some communities are cutting down their emergency response times, and how other local governments can apply learnings from these projects to better serve their own citizens.

Enhancing internal operations

Sometimes the most effective change starts from within. By rethinking internal processes and resources, many local governments have been able to cut down on the amount of time it takes them to respond to emergencies.

Take Anchorage, AK, a city where earthquakes pose a major threat — not only to the local residents and property, but also to public safety officials’ ability to respond in a crisis. Disasters like earthquakes run the risk of knocking out lines of communication when first responders need them the most.

To address this and ensure more reliable coverage, the $ city upgraded the cellular network that’s used by the Anchorage Police Department$ , activating $ FirstNet$ , a dedicated emergency network that ensures communication coverage even when normal cellular networks are unavailable.

When an earthquake did strike, the system held up, says $ Police Chief Justin Doll$ :

“When the shaking stopped, one of the first things I started doing was using my FirstNet phone to call members of our APD team to begin our response to the disaster. While some residents experienced busy communication networks, I had immediate 100 percent connectivity with other FirstNet public safety users.”

Important to note: While Anchorage is setting an example by utilizing this network, they didn’t build it.

The $ First Responder Network Authority$  was developed by the United States Congress as a “nationwide, dedicated broadband network exclusively for first responders” as a response to 9/11. This means it’s available to other local governments, allowing cities and counties to not have to rely on commercial cellular networks in times of emergency.

Sometimes, it’s not natural disasters that threaten to disrupt first responders — it’s-day-to-day happenings, like road work.

In Sandoval County, NM, an extensive construction project caused two years of traffic disruption around the town of Bernalillo. Bottlenecks from this disruption were more than an annoyance; they made it difficult for first responders like ambulance crews and fire trucks to reach the town quickly.

To address this and ensure citizens were able to access help quickly, $ Sandoval County and the town of Bernalillo formed an emergency response partnership$ . Rather than following lines of government jurisdiction, response crews from either the county or the town are dispatched based on 911 callers’ locations. All response vehicles can cross local boundaries; a county truck can answer a fire call in Bernalillo rather than waiting for one from the town’s agency to arrive.

Sandoval Fire and Rescue Chief Eric Masterson says the partnership is essential because:

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, the person who's called 911 doesn't care what the side of the truck says. They just want someone to come help.”

Emergencies don’t follow city or county lines. So establishing partnerships that allow flexible and cooperative response to incidents can save property and lives.

Using technology and data

While response time can be reduced without the aid of technology, there are many tools out there that help local governments answer emergency calls faster and more efficiently. Data plays a big role in this — the more data first responders have on where a caller is, the faster they can get to that person.

A number of cities are using data beyond what their standard 911 systems can capture, in order to pinpoint callers’ locations and dispatch help directly. In Mesa, AZ, public safety departments use $ RapidSOS$ , a platform that gives emergency response teams access to a subject’s cell phone location data, based on apps and GPS data. City 911 operators were able to track down and help save the victim of a kidnapping based on this data.

$ San Francisco is another RapidSOS user$ , and applies the program to Uber riders as well, using data from the app to track people who make in-app emergency calls.

Other technologies, like GIS mapping, can also help cut down on response times. In fact, one local Scotland council’s use of the tool was so successful that it prompted the launch of a nationwide resource to better prepare local councils for emergency response.

Like many local governments, Falkirk Council, GB, had to work with paper records and printed databases to identify at-risk residents who may need assistance in an emergency event. Using this format can prove disastrous when fast action is needed in the event of an evacuation or other emergency.

The data was there, it just needed to be available for faster analysis and action. So, $ Falkirk Council turned to GIS mapping$ , which took the local data, ran it through a matrix, and presented it in a digital map that public safety departments could access. $ Avais Ijaz, who developed the approach for Falkirk, says$ :

“Instead of having a database where you have to print off a list of people on it and where they live when there’s something like a gas leak or you have to evacuate a certain part of the council area, we now have a system that you can turn on and you instantly know who might be in a wheelchair in an area and which people have been classed as vulnerable.
It can locate people who might have mental health issues, or a physical or mental impairment. We can find out instantly, for example, where the nearest residential home is that might have 80 per cent of residents who need help to be evacuated.”

The Persons at Risk Database (PARD) approach proved so successful that it was rolled out across Scotland. It’s now available to all local councils at no cost.

Engaging with citizens

Emergency preparedness is not just the job of a local government. CItizens also bear personal responsibility for their safety before and during a crisis.

Because of this, some local authorities are bringing the public into their preparations, and leaning on residents to help make emergency responses faster.

In some cases the ask is simple: residents just need to answer a few questions. That’s how $ Rockingham, WA in Australia began building an emergency registry of local people, pets and property in the Karnup area$ . The city asked residents to note features like animals, any hazardous chemicals, outbuildings, and the likes, in order to plan for potential emergencies and activate first responders.

The survey also $ probed residents on whether they had their own emergency preparedness measures in place$  like an emergency plan to remove pets from the property if need be. Citizens were incentivized to participate by being entered into drawings for gift cards.

The survey itself wasn’t groundbreaking; it was 27 questions presented in a form. But by preemptively capturing vital information from residents, the city can be better prepared to respond quickly and effectively in the event of a crisis.

Other localities have gone even further in the deputization of citizens as emergency response participants. In J$ ersey City, NJ, an Uber-like app dispatches a nearby volunteer EMT any time a medical call comes through the city’s 911 system$ . An ambulance still gets sent as well, but often the volunteers get there first — by bike, car, or even running — which has cut the city’s emergency response time down to 2 and a half minutes.

The citizen volunteer medics undergo extensive training, which includes about 65 hours of emergency medicine classes, plus 25 hours of in-ambulance experience. Once trained, the volunteers keep the app on hand, and are ready to act. $ Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop explains$ :

“Our citizen first-responders may be eating lunch, working or sleeping, but they always keep the United Rescue app handy. When the call comes in, the volunteers accept it whenever they can, drop what they’re doing — employers have not objected — and rush to the victim’s side, carrying a small backpack with basic life-support equipment.”

Jersey City’s United Rescue app was actually inspired by a similar Israeli-founded program, United Hatzalah, which $ some communities in New York used on a smaller scale$ . By observing the rapid response provided by these Hatzalah volunteers, and then adapting it to meet its local needs, Jersey City shows that innovation can happen without reinventing the wheel.

The results, says Mayor Fulop, $ have been groundbreaking$ :

​​“This has been one of the largest success stories that we’ve had over the last couple of years.”

No local government’s emergency response system is perfect — as internal processes, technology, and residents’ needs evolve, so too must the way local governments respond in a crisis.

By following and taking a cue from what others are doing, cities and counties can vastly improve their emergency and public safety services. Citizens’ lives depend on it.

Additional Story Information



Anchorage, AK

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Sandoval County, NM

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Mesa, AZ

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San Francisco, CA

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Falkirk Council, GB

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Jersey City, NJ

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Rockingham, WA

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