New safety app promises help with touch of a button, so we put it to the test

PITTSBURGH — Safety is a big concern for millions of Americans right now. And that’s led to a big rise in mobile safety apps. App stores are filled with them. So, Channel 11 Morning News Anchor Katherine Amenta asked local first responders how they feel about the growing trend and put one to the test.

“Your safe bet is 911. Absolutely! Every time! The question is, what if you can’t dial 911?” said Penn Township Police Chief John Otto.

Otto knows personal safety apps are becoming more and more popular. They all promise to be with you every step of the way in an emergency, like the Noonlight app, which bills itself as “America’s Number One Safety App.”

The Noonlight dispatcher communicates with 911 for you. In fact, police in Georgia say it recently saved a woman who was kidnapped. She was unable to speak on the phone but managed to text the word “rape” to Noonlight.

Otto says there are advantages under certain conditions, but he has concerns about the time it takes for help to arrive, compared to calling 911 directly. So, with the police and 911′s knowledge, he set up a test run:

It starts with a “Hold Until Safe” button.

Once I let go and I don’t type in the safety pin -- the clock starts.

“Help is on the way. We’re texting you now. Please respond if you can,” read the app.

I don’t respond -- so they text me.

“Hi Katherine, this is Karen from Noonlight,” read the Noonlight text.

Then, they try phone calls.

A minute and 12 seconds in, we get a second phone call.

We noted that this was all time we could have been speaking with 911 if we called directly.

Two-and-a-half minutes in, Noonlight called twice, we didn’t answer.

So, the Noonlight text reads, “Stay calm; we are notifying police.” But, they’re technically not. They’re notifying 911, who will then notify police.

Finally, we hear the 911 dispatcher over the radio, with what sounds like some confusion.

The total time: Six minutes and 35 seconds.

Otto was not satisfied.

“If I were to pick up the phone and call 911, I would have a dispatcher in less than five seconds,” said Otto.

As for that hesitation in the dispatcher’s voice, Otto says confusion creates delay.

“I think the problem is these companies are assuming, to be quite honest with you, that they don’t need to do any legwork to tie it to the 911 center,” said Otto.

But we spoke with Morgan Cermak, who tested Noonlight for us for a week. She’s 25 years old and does a lot of traveling. She told us she felt safer having the app.

“It’s a lot easier to have that button than to get on your phone and call 911. Whether it’s parking lots, hotels,” said Cermak.

“I think if folks want to explore these apps, explore them, but understand what they do and understand what they don’t do,” said Chief Otto.

11 News reached out to four local 911 centers. They all turned down our request for an interview but were adamant that 911 should always be your first option if you’re able to call.

Noonlight told us they offer “First Responder Kits”, to help public safety agencies learn about the app. We also asked how long it generally takes for help to arrive. They said it depends on several factors, including how many calls they’re handling at one time.

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