Geofences Aren’t Just for Marketers

They can save lives

You may have heard the term ‘geofence’ thrown around in the controversial discussion about mcommerce (mobile commerce) or you may even know of the benefits of geofencing capabilities within the realm of emergency communication technology, but how vital is geofencing as a non-marketing tool? Are all geofences created equal? And what makes a geofence agile?

Popular Gefence Usage

First, let’s dive into what a geofence is.

A geofence is a virtual boundary created through software using GPS, RFID, WiFi or cellular data. Simply put, it’s a non-physical ‘fence’ placed around a physical location. When a device enters the designated area, something can happen (triggered by software on the device). Geofences are generally more accurate in dense, urban areas because there are more cell towers and routers available for transmitting location data.

An example of a consumer benefitting from geofences would be if they are interested in a particular event or company and wish to receive location-relevant information (updates, coupons, deals) from them when they are near. Brick and mortar businesses have been utilizing geofencing in this way to combat their decline and it can work. But it has also been abused.

As a rule of thumb, app users should enable GPS or location services and also turn on WiFi on their mobile device to increase the accuracy of geofenced locations. But there are so many apps that ask us for permission to these functions, it’s easy to get consumer fatigue and just turn it all off. This is problematic because geofencing, despite being widely used and abused to try and get us to spend money on products, is also an essential part of many emergency communication services which help to protect us and keep people safe.

Geofences in Emergency Communication

The application of geofencing in emergency communication technology is crucial and often overshadowed by its more popular use. Perhaps this is simply because topics like emergency communication technology, public safety and emergency management are unfortunately not openly discussed (until something bad happens) or at the forefront of our collective culture’s mind.

To discuss the vital benefits of geofencing in this way, we must first have a basic understanding of how 911 works when receiving calls from a cell phone.

911 was implemented over 50 years ago and (obviously) built with no idea that cell phones would exist. So, calling 911 from your cell phone can cause all sorts of issues for PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points) to be able to get you the emergency services you may need. There are location accuracy issues, but perhaps even worse, is that your call to 911 may get you in touch with a dispatcher who is nowhere near your location and has little knowledge of your whereabouts at that time. But how can this be?

It has to do with your cell service provider and your location at that time in relation to cell towers in the surrounding area. Depending on where you are within your county when you call 911, you may be connected to a neighboring county’s PSAP (just because the closest cell tower happens to be in that county) and they’ll transfer you to (what they assume to be) the proper PSAP only after they have determined your actual location from speaking with you. Oh, and did we mention this was an emergency?

Unfortunately, retrieving all of this information from you may not even be possible for the dispatcher if you’re panicking. Not to mention the precious seconds (or minutes) that are lost as you clarify your location and during transferred calls.

This is a part of the challenge for PSAPs across the country, and also contributes to the estimated 10,000 deaths that occur each year due to a lack of quick and accurate location data received by these dispatchers.

So, how do geofences fit into all of this?

Well, there are companies that create technology to help bridge this communication gap existing between first responders and people in need, and many of these technologies include geofencing capabilities.

For instance, a dispatcher or administrator at a PSAP that utilizes this technology could create a geofence by essentially drawing the geofence perimeter using the system’s user interface. In most cases, the user created geofence will determine the area of the PSAP’s territory (all areas that a PSAP can dispatch emergency services to).

Paired with a mobile app, this technology can then determine if a caller needing emergency assistance is within the geofence, and ensure that their call (and potentially other important information, like a more accurate location) goes to the correct PSAP, reducing response times by allowing dispatchers to more quickly deploy responders to the scene.

Location accuracy is also a big piece of this puzzle. The data received by dispatchers from a geofenced emergency call can also include improved location accuracy, using GPS and WiFi, sent directly to the dispatcher’s screen. This improved location (along with additional, optional user entered info such as the full name of the app user, emergency contacts and a profile picture) can appear at the same time as a phone call from the person needing help, giving the dispatcher many more data points to help assist the caller.

Getting the correct data to the correct dispatcher in an emergency situation seems so very obviously helpful, but what about sending data out to the geofenced location?

This type of mass communication can be possible as well, usually reaching app users via push notification if they are within the geofenced area and a mass alert is sent out targeting that specific geofence.

The specific functionality of such a feature will vary depending on the technology provider.

Institution Benefits

Though geofences can be extremely effective for PSAPs in cities and counties, institutional settings (such as college campuses, healthcare facilities, businesses, K-12 schools, airports, etc.) often include a more engaged and connected community. These inclusive environments help to protect themselves by being a hotbed for "word of mouth" communication. Also, students tend to listen closely to their teachers and employees listen to their employers (willingly or not). In doing so, teachers, employers, law enforcement/security officers and other leaders within these communities can more easily promote download and usage of software provided by these emergency communication companies, unlocking the potent power of geofence technology to protect them.

Within institutions, geofence creation and management is vital because of the variety of resources and unique setups of the safety and security forces for each institution. Large colleges may have a similar setup as a city, with a well-staffed police force dedicated solely to responding to that specific community’s need, but many businesses, small colleges, and hospitals will have smaller teams tasked with protection duties.

Which is why it’s crucial for geofence technology targeting these institutions to be easy to deploy and quick to manage.

Allowing system users to create multiple geofences to account for multiple campuses or off-site locations is key. Each geofence could then be assigned to a specific phone number and system user(s), ensuring that any emergency call goes directly to the person or team assigned to respond to that area. The process could get quite granular for institutions with many departments, buildings, and safety forces responsible for dispatching based on specific parameters.

Without a dedicated dispatch center, these institutions could still benefit from geofences depending on the technology’s capabilities. For instance, administrators may be able to assign groups that can receive valuable information (including an accurate location) via text when someone signals for emergency assistance within the geofence. Meanwhile, the call itself can still go through to 911 as it normally would.

This feature could allow those receiving the text to respond quicker to the scene than 911’s dispatched responders, which is great for safety forces and responders who may already be close to the scene but aren’t in constant contact with a dispatch center.

The Importance of Agile Geofences

A geofence’s agility is largely dependent on how the geofence is created, manipulated, hidden and maintained. Also, how does the geofence react to other geofences when the two overlap? Creating, manipulating and maintaining geofences should be easy and obvious for each system user with permission to do so (a good user interface will work wonders to help this cause). An interesting component of agile geofencing though is the ability to "toggle" the geofence on or off after creation. This flexibility is vital for many institutions, as there are certainly use cases for needing to temporarily activate or deactivate a geofence without deleting and recreating it each time.

Oklahoma State University (OSU) Police Chief Michael Robinson has often spoken about the significance of geofence agility during game days on campus.

"We can put a smaller geofence around the stadium and we operate a command post at the stadium that will allow us to direct calls within that area directly to the command post in the stadium,” Robinson said.

In Chief Robinson’s case, activating the stadium’s geofence on game days has major implications.

“We probably have as many or more people here just for that event as we do at any point in the fall semester,” Robinson said.

And when game day ends, the stadium geofence can be deactivated again.

Since OSU’s campus is protected by the same safety app year round (Orange Shield, provided by 911Cellular), a geofence surrounding the entire campus is always active and it sends the app’s emergency activations within it to campus police. When a smaller geofence is created within the larger campus geofence (like the stadium on game days), it will redirect emergency activations within the newly created geofence to a different dispatch center (the stadium command post).

The granularity can continue indefinitely. The important takeaway is that each institution should have phenomenal flexibility to create, manipulate, hide and maintain its geofences. Even if they are overlapping or placed within one another.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Campus Security Today.