Digital 'panic button' aims to make people safer
No one can plan for every emergency, but the creation of a Darien man and his company could certainly take away some of the worry.
Jim Ackerly, CEO of DefenCall Inc., based in New Canaan at 25 South Ave., is proudly putting a new smartphone app into play. The StaySafe personal emergency response feature -- a digital "panic button" -- aims to make life a little safer for educators and students.
"It's mostly to notify other humans that this particular human who owns the phone is in need of help of some sort," said Ackerly, who has just begun marketing the product.
The idea is to use technology to make a virtual 911 call more personalized and more useful.
Calls made with the app will automatically pinpoint the location for all responders, and schools and universities that subscribe to the service can connect their personnel -- security officers, administrators, etc. -- to the device for specialized emergencies.
"No one has found an effective way to use a smartphone to increase the safety of students and staff at schools until DefenCall," said Michael Forbes, chief marketing officer. "We're not so much an app company as a company that uses smartphone technology to enable better emergency communications," he said.
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Ackerly's company began as a radiation sensor management business.
"We come at it not from the smartphone app side, but from the security communication side," he said.
Ironically, it was while doing demonstrations for that device during trade shows that Ackerly stumbled upon the idea of a personalized panic button.
"As an offshoot of that, we developed this smartphone app," he said.
"Newtown was definitely the inspiration," Ackerly said. "On Dec. 14, I was inspired to spend a couple of days taking the application we already had and making it an app available for anybody ... particularly for anybody in Connecticut."
Forbes said the idea is timely.
"Just about every school system in America now is looking to install some kind of panic button solution for teachers," he said.
On Dec. 14, 20 children and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a 20-year-old gunman.
There are actually two versions of the app -- one for use by faculty in K-12 schools and one aimed at colleges, which serves both staff and students.
"The primary difference between the two is that, at colleges and universities, we think the students need the app as much as the faculty," Ackerly said.
The use of the app has been specialized for different college campuses.
For instance, the University of California at Berkeley, one of DefenCall's clients, has programmed a menu of emergency selections, including robbery, assault, alcohol poisoning and earthquake. Depending on the type of emergency, different departments and first responders may be notified.
The DefenCall can also be programmed with individual clients to provide detailed information and narrative, such as guidance for specific medical emergencies and details on what an individual can do.
"If it's on everyone's smartphone, they don't really have to remember so much," Ackerly said.
"The Defentech group started life as a communications company, exploiting the opportunities of the Internet," said Ackerly, a trained physicist, about his parent company.
"I formed it at the turn of the millennium, and I've been the CEO of it ever since."
Forbes said the company is doing direct sales outreach to universities and some K-12 school districts.
"We're beginning to do online advertising, but we're also starting more of a grass-roots campaign," he said.
Ackerly is pleased with the app.
"For the school market, here's a solution that can increase safety immediately," he said.
Jarret Liotta is a freelance writer.