BEACON: SMS-based emergency medical dispatching

(Re-posted from – Sept. 13, 2013)

Since the conquests of Napoleon, or perhaps even earlier, coordinated triage and rapid evacuation of the critically sick and injured have been recognized as effective ways to reduce premature death and mitigate long-term complications. It took until the mid-20th century for affluent countries to begin implementing emergency medical services (EMS) systems as a national priority. Today, even the most rudimentary response systems remain absent across most of the developing world. This absence of emergency services is largely due to cost: the key components and infrastructure necessary to implement conventional EMS systems similar to those utilized in affluent nations will likely never be affordable or appropriate across much of the developing world.

Despite the challenges, cost-effective solutions do exist to significantly improve access to emergency medical care and transport in these same communities. The communications component of emergency medical services is a focus of my organization, Trek Medics International. For nearly three years, I’ve been working with a volunteer team of emergency responders, physicians and software developers to design a viable, cost-effective dispatching solution for resource-limited communities. The objective of the software is to improve access to basic emergency care for entire communities. In order to achieve this, we focus on utilizing the resources that already exist: human resources, transportation, and mobile phones. The result of our work is BEACON, an SMS-based emergency dispatching software designed specifically for communities that cannot afford conventional dispatching technologies. BEACON allows communities with limited resources to establish coordinated emergency medical response systems using little more than basic first aid training, the vehicles already on the road, and the mobile phones in their pockets.

Three basic insights led to the design and development of BEACON:

1. Less is more
2. American systems are for America
3. Strengthen what exists by leveraging available resources –Informal and grassroots emergency response systems may exist, comprised of able-bodied, young and capable community members, and are often alerted through ad hoc phone trees and other patchwork communications.

These three insights essentially laid the conceptual framework for how appropriate dispatching software might be developed. It became evident that we needed to adjust our thinking about what dispatching entailed, based on the local context. For example, even if a major metropolitan city had all the ambulances they needed, congestion was often impenetrable. Or, in the case of Port-au-Prince or Rio de Janeiro, massive swaths of residents were inaccessible by road. The software that was needed would essentially crowd-source and coordinate “Good Samaritans” to provide emergency response.

Table-top exercises for Beacon user training

With some great insights and advice from Josh Nesbit at Medic Mobile, and the extraordinarily generous support of Vision Point Systems in helping us write the source code, our all-volunteer development team was able to complete a functional prototype for BEACON in March of 2013. Extensive testing and software improvement was undertaken in New York City from March – June 2013. In June, we were able to conduct initial field-testing for the first time outside the U.S. in the village of Aquin, along the southern coast of Haiti, with a group of grassroots emergency responders. This testing included table-top exercises, pictured here.

Moving forward, we will be doing more extensive testing under a wide range of conditions, recognizing that it’s simply not an option to discover critical glitches in the software once it has gone live. We’ve launched an IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign in hopes of raising $75,000 to expand testing to three countries and improve the software’s performance, while also allowing us to cover the costs of our software development team in the field.

We’re excited to finally be at a point where we can share what we’ve been working on with a larger audience. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have been able to bring BEACON this far strictly through volunteer hours and out-of-pocket funds. However, in order to complete beta testing, we know we are completely dependent on the generosity of others, and we hope that our story and our work will inspire your support. Thank you for the opportunity to share, and I hope you will take the time to visit our IndieGoGo campaign page and offer your support – anything helps and everything’s appreciated.

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