Geofences Aren’t Just for Marketers
They can save lives
- By Todd Pazicni
- June 01, 2019
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
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
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.
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
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
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 & Life Safety.