OnStar Works to Deliver Data to Responders

LAS VEGAS -- There's a lot of information that can be gleaned from OnStar reports that can help first responders decide what kinds of resources might be needed at crash sites.

For instance, vehicles equipped with OnStar, an in-vehicle security, communications and diagnostics system, can alert responders to whether an airbag has deployed, if the vehicle has rolled over or if there were multiple points of impact.

It can also give some information about how fast the car was traveling, whether the occupants were belted and how much force the vehicle sustained in the crash. It can even predict the severity of the injuries that responders might find upon arrival, given the metrics of the crash.

In a presentation at EMS World Expo in Las Vegas, Ann Maher, the senior business leader for OnStar's emergency services division, told an audience about the kinds of reporting OnStar offers and how responders might use the information. Maher is a paramedic and a member of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians.

At the moment, OnStar is available as an embedded system on General Motors vehicles, but within the last two months, GM has offered a stand-alone device that can be retrofitted to virtually any other vehicle, but with fewer features.

Despite what many people think, OnStar is not a global satellite positioning (GPS) based device, rather it relies on cell phone coverage and uses GPS to determine the vehicle location, Maher said. It is also a subscription-based system with more than 6 million users currently, she added.

By the numbers, OnStar has 2,500 trained personnel answering calls ranging from everything to help finding a particular location to serious wrecks and medical emergencies, Maher said.

The system receives on average about 136,000 calls daily, but of course not all are emergencies. On average, the company receives about 2,600 automated crash calls monthly and an additional 10,000 calls where people push the red emergency button for crashes and events that were not big enough to trigger an automated response, Maher said.

"Those kinds of calls come from everything from good Samaritans reporting crashes they've seen to people who say; 'I want to kill myself,'" Maher said. "We get just about anything you can imagine a 911 center would get."

OnStar has even helped first responders determine longitude and latitude locations to help responders guide medical helicopters to secure landing zones, Maher said.

Maher also said the signal strength of the OnStar system is better than a handheld cell phone, largely because of the vehicle-mounted antenna.

When Hurricane Katrina came ashore in 2005, power and cell phones were virtually wiped out, but people thinking outside the box used their OnStar systems to get the help they needed. She said one hospital used an OnStar system to connect with authorities to get the evacuation process going.

"Our advisors are instructed to do whatever they can to help in an emergency situation, whether you're a subscriber or not," she said.

There are three call centers in North America and all advisors receive special training. Those who are assigned to the emergency division not only complete six weeks of training, they must have at least six months of experience on the non-emergency side before they are considered for handling emergencies, she said, noting that they get additional training after that.

Medical advisors are on board as well and when an EMS call is received, advisors hand the call off to those with medical training while the original advisor contacts the appropriate 911 agency to get help started, Maher said.

As many as 30 to 40 percent of emergency activations are accidental, Maher said, noting that people blame their pets, their kids and their spouses for activations, and sometimes they just simply hit it while adjusting their review mirrors, which is where the OnStar control head lives.

That's one of the reasons that OnStar takes the initial calls - so it can screen them, she said.

"Having that many calls coming in daily would overwhelm dispatch centers and it would be an incredible waste of taxpayers' funds.”

OnStar can provide information about crashes that predict injuries and help decide the type of response required.

The company is working with other auto manufacturers to make sure there's common information to provide to responders so that different makes of cars don't provide different information, she said.

"We believe there needs to be standard reporting for it to be worthwhile information," she said.

Maher said OnStar is also working with NAEMT and other organizations to make sure the information the system has available is delivered in a meaningful way for EMS providers.

"This is not an exact science, but we believe it can provide data in real time that can help improve public safety," Maher said.