United Hatzalah, an Israeli volunteer rescue service, has developed an emergency app for the general public in the wake of last month’s kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. The app, called SOS, utilizes the organization’s unique GPS system to track users upon activation and dispatch appropriate emergency services.
Last month, three boys were kidnapped on their way home from school. After 18 frantic days of searching, their bodies were found in a shallow grave near Hebron. One of the boys, Gilad Shaar, placed a call to police to notify them of the kidnapping, but police were not able to determine if the call was genuine, and the military was not notified until many hours later.
“Our main mission at United Hatzalah is to get to medical emergencies within two minutes all over the country,” says United Hatzalah’s president and founder Eli Beer. “With the recent kidnappings, we feel obliged to share our knowledge and technology to provide that extra layer of protection for the people of Israel.”
The LifeCompass technology used by United Hatzalah uses GPS to determine which of its 2,300 volunteers and 300 “ambucycles” (emergency-stocked motorcycles) are closest to the emergency, allowing rescuers to arrive within two to three minutes of the initial call. It seemed natural to offer that technology to the people of Israel as a way of extending United Hatzalah’s services.
The organization commissioned NowForce, the Israeli software company who created the LifeForce system for them, to develop the app. Because it requires pre-registration, the app offers several advantages.
The app allows United Hatzalah’s 24-hour emergency switchboard team to use a phone’s built-in GPS to locate the user. Pre-registration means users sign a privacy waiver in advance. Otherwise, emergency services, such as police, would need court permission to track a caller’s location via GPS. That sort of bureaucratic red tape delays rescue efforts and loses precious time.
“Police need to go to judge to ask the phone company the location of [the] phone,” United Hatzalah founder and president Eli Beer told Time magazine. “We solved that problem for the police.”
Pre-registration also reduces the risk of prank calls, which account for 42% of the calls received by Israeli emergency services, since you must register with your real name and contact information. Rescuers were not dispatched in search of the three teens following the initial call because it was deemed a prank by the call center. The officers who made that determination have since been dismissed.
“We don’t take any call non-seriously,” says Beer. “Even if it sounds crank, we make 100 percent sure.”
The app itself is free, available on for all major smartphone operating systems, and simple to use. It requires only the swipe of a finger: “You open the app and swipe it,” Beer explains, “and three seconds later, it sends a signal.” The reason for the delay is to prevent accidental activation. Shutting the app requires a password, though, to prevent a would-be attacker from deactivating it.
Available in Hebrew and English to Israeli citizens and visitors alike, following the alleged kidnapping and murder of a Palestinian youth the day of the Israeli teens’ joint funeral, United Hatzalah is working to release an Arabic version of the app as soon as possible.
“The app is currently being developed in Arabic,” explained a spokesperson for the nonprofit rescue service. “United Hatzalah’s main aim is to save lives—they don’t discriminate on whose lives these are.” The organization has a base in Arab East Jerusalem, as well as some 300 Arab Israeli volunteers nationwide.
To date, the app has been downloaded by over 60,000 users. The organization cautions, however, that it does not replace a phone call. It “is designed to function as an emergency safety and security alert system and is not meant to replace direct verbal communication with police, fire or medical emergency dispatchers.”
Android, iOS and Blackberry versions are available now at sos.nowforce.com.