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DFR and the 911 gap

What you may be overlooking when considering a Drone as First Responder program

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Photo/Fritz Reber

By Fritz Reber

If you are considering implementing a Drone as First Responder (DFR) program and are only thinking about the drone, it’s very possible you are overlooking one of the most important aspects of this transformational program.

First, for DFR, a drone at the scene isn’t the fundamental goal. The drone is a means to an end.

Second, DFR alone can only save so much time. To really improve response times, you must consider additional solutions that bridge the 911 gap and address the entire emergency response workflow.

Drone vs. first responder

There is one key concept that must be understood before developing a successful DFR program: DFR should be thought of as a way for drones to get first responders on scene quickly, not the other way around.

Understanding that sentence is fundamental to understanding DFR.

A simplistic definition of DFR is a system of pre-positioned drones that respond immediately to emergencies. DFR’s primary goals are to arrive before ground units and to provide first responders with a birds-eye view of an incident. In this respect, the drone is an extension or avatar for an experienced incident manager/commander (IC), and fundamentally an experienced IC is what agencies actually want on scene quickly, not the drone.

So, when developing DFR solutions, consider what features and capabilities are necessary to enable the DFR pilot to arrive quickly and observe and communicate effectively. And when searching for the right person to be the DFR pilot, ask a field supervisor you trust: “If there was a major critical incident right now, who would you want first on scene?” Whomever that is, they are likely your best choice for a DFR pilot, even if they’ve never flown a drone before.

Interested to see how departments are using drones? Watch the video below.

DFR is only part of the solution to faster response

There is another important point to understand about DFR; the immediate drone deployment is only part of the solution for quicker emergency response. That’s because the use of a drone can only reduce the response time after an agency is notified of an emergency. The entire emergency response process includes the time it takes to learn the nature and location of an incident. For DFR, the sooner you know where to fly, the faster you get there.

When attempting to reduce total emergency response times, stakeholders must understand and seek solutions to the “911 gap.”

What is the 911 gap?

First defined and discussed in this 2016 article in Police Chief Magazine, the 911 gap refers to the time between the earliest moment an emergency incident occurs until the moment first responders learn of both the nature and location of that emergency. For the majority of incidents, the 911 gap occurs in the time it takes to receive, process and dispatch a 911 call. Understanding where time is lost in the current 911 call-taker/dispatcher process can reveal more time-saving opportunities than can be made up with the fastest possible drone response.

The 911 system has been around for over 50 years and the profession that grew from its creation has become a fundamental part of the emergency response system. The 911 Center, also referred to as Dispatch, Comm Center, or the official term − Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) − is where public safety agencies first learn about the majority of the critical incidents to which they respond.

Across the country, 911 calls go through a fairly standardized call-taker/dispatcher information relay process where a call-taker answers a 911 call while typing the details of the incident into a computer (CAD). The call-taker then sends this information (CAD entry) to a radio dispatcher. The radio dispatcher must first read and then relay over the radio the type-written CAD entry to first responders in the field. As effective as it is, by its very nature and design there is unavoidable and sometimes unacceptable time delay and data decay.

Over these past 50 years, 911 dispatching has become an increasingly complex and difficult profession, and those in the industry do some of the most heroic and important work in public safety. It is becoming clearer that in many cases, they are the agency’s true first responders.

Unfortunately, in addition to the inherent time loss in the relay process, the added duties and priorities can impact speed. PSAPs are expensive and difficult to staff and for this and other reasons, they can become fundamentally siloed or separated from other components of emergency response. In fact, to reduce costs and address a wide set of priorities, many areas have moved toward the regionalization of the PSAP, completely removing it from the direct chain of command of the police chief, fire chief, or sheriff. Therefore, public safety agencies, particularly those served by regional PSAPs, often don’t have influence on the 911 center’s day-to-day operations, so the priority of speed can compete with other priorities such as reducing mistakes, limiting liability and addressing difficult work conditions.

This bifurcation of disciplines, regionalized or not, means that public safety command staff tend to look toward increasingly creative post-notification solutions to improve emergency response times; solutions within their direct control such as strategic staffing, incident re-prioritization, reduced services, traffic light management and of course DFR.

Public safety command staff may not consider the 911 system as their responsibility or expertise, and thus may not appreciate the fact that the time within the call-taker/dispatcher process is a large portion of their total emergency response time for which they are ultimately accountable.

Solutions like DFR alone only address the time period after notification (referring to the moment first responders are notified and aware of the incident, not the just original call-taker). The timeline after notification is referred to as field response time (see Figure1).


Figure 1

However, the field response time is only a portion of the total emergency response time. The first portion of the timeline between incident and notification is where the 911 call-taker/dispatcher process occurs. It is in this area in Figure 1 that often more time can be saved in reducing the total emergency response time than even the most effective improvements to the field response time (post-notification). In fact, with some technologies, agencies can eliminate the field response time altogether, arriving before they would have been notified relying solely on the traditional 911 system. This means that in many cases the field response time can be less than 0. This is referred to as “arriving within the 911 gap.”

What does it mean to “arrive within the 911 gap?”

Arriving within the 911 gap means getting first responders on scene, or “eyes-on” before the agency would have traditionally known about the incident. In other words, arriving before the call for service is entered into CAD or broadcast over the radio. This is now possible to do on a routine basis by embracing new technologies that are specifically designed to bridge the 911 gap.

Side note 1: When considering technology to dramatically reduce response times, determine if they are reliant on post-CAD entry data. If so, they are still limited by a single call-taker’s ability to gather and disseminate information quickly. Solutions that aren’t reliant on this potential chokepoint are those that actually allow first responders to arrive within the 911 gap since by definition the CAD entry is the point of notification.

Side note 2: It’s rare that a public safety agency can precisely determine the value of any new tech solution. Often it’s taken on faith as it is difficult to measure what would have occurred otherwise (prove a negative). However, when an agency employs a tech solution that addresses the 911 gap, it becomes possible to identify and quantify success. Simply by subtracting the time of actual notification (when first responders became aware) from the time of traditional notification (CAD entry and dissemination), an agency can know the exact time difference; the time saved with the new tech solution. The ultimate measure of success is results; and there are many cases where an agency can clearly identify specific individuals in their community who would not have survived (or suspects who would not have been arrested) had they not employed the 911 gap solution.

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As DFR becomes more popular, there is an ever-growing understanding of the potential benefit of directly integrating these 911 gap solutions with DFR remote operations software.

Photo/Fritz Reber

Technology that bridges the 911 gap

Flock Safety, SoundThinking(Shotspotter) and ZeroEyes are three technologies that send notifications to public safety agencies completely outside the 911 system. Therefore, these solutions don’t just bridge the 911 gap, they bypass it altogether.

These technologies target crime types where they can automate the collection of data, sounds and images that trigger an alert sent to first responders without having to wait for a concerned citizen or victim to pick up the phone and call 911. Other examples can include airbag deployments, smartwatch notifications and TASER activations. These types of emergencies, due to their nature, allow for the automation of the emergency notification process. These technologies can be very effective at reducing response times dramatically. One limitation of these types of systems is they are only applicable to a relatively few incident types. The data set is limited in complexity and detail, generally providing only an automated alert and an incident location. Therefore, they aren’t a solution to address the majority of emergencies a community faces. For this reason, the 911 system is universal and remains the primary source of emergency notifications for virtually every public safety agency in the country. Due to the infinite range of emergencies in a community, calling 911 and talking to another human is often the most effective and by far the most common way of asking for help.

For comparison, Chicago PD receives about 50,000 gunshot detection alerts each year. This is a huge number and not representative of other cities. (In fact, relatively few cities are equipped with gunshot detection). Even for Chicago, this represents less than 7% of all their priority calls for service. The majority of the remaining 93%+ come in via 911.

Early notification for 911 calls

Currently, there is no way to get automated early warning notifications on a domestic violence incident, or a drug overdose, or a suspicious person, or a missing child. These, and the infinite variety of other emergencies that happen every day are reported by someone calling 911 and speaking to a call-taker. That doesn’t look to change anytime soon.

There is one technology designed to address the delays within the 911 system itself – Live911. Developed, patented and sold by HigherGround, Live911 streams the real-time 911 phone call audio and 911 caller location data directly to first responders in the field. Rather than wait for the information to move from 911 caller through call-taker to radio dispatcher, this web-based technology essentially puts the 911 call on speakerphone, allowing the 911 call-taker and first responders to hear the phone call simultaneously. This means first responders are learning about the nature and location of an incident at the earliest possible moment, which sometimes can be minutes earlier than before, and getting more detailed information than is possible otherwise.

Live911 is integrated with RapidSOS, so the call audio is accompanied by precise pin-drop caller location including movement, providing a map-view of exactly where the 911 caller is at all times. No longer do they only get an address, but a precise location on the map, accurate to within a few feet (e.g. not only can a user see that the caller is in the Costco parking lot, but they can see precisely which parking stall they are in). Live911 is especially critical to DFR programs whose primary objective is to respond quickly to an incident at the earliest possible moment. In some of the most advanced DFR operations in the country, like Chula Vista, Brookhaven and Santa Monica, about 3 out of every 4 drone launches are initiated due to the information from Live911. The drone is often well on its way or even on scene before the call-for-service can be viewed in CAD or heard over the radio.

Integration and other use cases

As DFR becomes more popular, there is an ever-growing understanding of the potential benefit of directly integrating these 911 gap solutions with DFR remote operations software. Direct integration can utilize a GPS data point as a flight destination or better yet, place an augmented reality (AR) overlay highlighting the 911 caller, gunshot, or ALPR hit location directly on the drone pilot’s screen. This would address one of the biggest challenges facing DFR pilots; knowing exactly where to fly.

Side note: Integrations that enable fully autonomous solutions should also be sure to include autonomy features that assist on the most common type of emergency response/DFR missions. Using an autonomous car as analogy; sometimes the goal is just to go from point A to point B. However, more often than not, emergency missions are more akin to driving around looking for a lost dog, a parking space, or a place to eat. The final destination at the outset is unknown and therefore full driving autonomy is less important than autonomy features that aid a driver /pilot who is actively navigating/flying.

Beyond DFR, other operations such as JOCs, RTICs, Command Centers, EOCs, Dispatch Supervisors and Specialized Response Units all benefit from solutions that bridge the 911 gap and provide the earliest possible notification, a common operating picture and increased situational awareness.


Agencies seeking DFR should remember that the “payload” of the drone is the first responder. They are the reason for the mission and choosing the right DFR pilot means choosing who you want to be first on scene to manage the incident.

Secondly, agencies seeking DFR without considering solutions that bridge the 911 gap are thinking about solving only part of the problem. Users of tech solutions like those named above are proving that they can save much more time and get more wins on more incidents than with DFR alone.

About the author

Fritz Reber is a retired Chula Vista (California) Police Captain. He was the visionary behind Drone as First Responder (DFR) and Live911. He is the Head of Public Safety Integration for Skydio, a leading U.S. drone manufacturer and a leader in autonomous flight.