Many of us think that if you call an emergency number such as 911, 999 or 112, someone will answer quickly and help will soon arrive, wherever we are in the world.
But in the whole of Africa, this is not always the case.
In Kenya’s capital Nairobi, for example, there are more than 50 different numbers for emergency services. Ringing around trying to find one of the crew can be a long and potentially life-compromising the process.
You can wait two or three hours for an ambulance to arrive.
“Just take it for granted that the 911 [the US emergency services number] exists, and we did,” said Caitlin Dolkart.
She and her business partner Maria Rabinovich had been working in the health sector in Nairobi for years before starting their company Flare.
“We thought – what to do in case of an emergency? So we started asking people to place ambulances and realized, there were so many around and no one has any idea where they are,” says Ms Dolkart.
The pair has created an Uber-style online platform that aims to connect people to the closest emergency.
Private ambulance crews access to the system, at the beginning of a turn. Their positions can then be tracked and monitored from any hospital registered with the Flare.
“Within the system there are several ambulance companies, according to the resources we work together,” says Patrick Kinyenje, who works as the emergency coordinator or dispatcher Care Hospital in Nairobi.
Flare aggregates of all ambulances on a map, so dispatchers, as Patrick can choose the most appropriate vehicle depending on where it is, the experience of the crew, and the equipment on board.
It also incorporates Google maps traffic data to help emergency workers to navigate the city’s notorious traffic.
“The response time that we have seen has gone down from 162 minutes, that is the average, for about 15 to 20 minutes,” says Ms Dolkart.
Hospitals pay a subscription fee for access to the service, while individuals can sign up for membership, with coverage levels starting at about $15.
The site promises access to a 24/7 emergency hotline professionals.
“The membership of the product is how your emergency and health care concierge,” says Ms Rabinovich.
The service is similar to those run by the Red Cross of Kenya, Amber Health in India and Murgency in Dubai.
But this business model really work in a country where $15 is three months of salary for a lot of people?
Dr Stellah Bosire-Otieno of the Kenya Medical Association, has his doubts.
“From the beginning, it is a good idea. But the target of the population that can afford it are the middle income earners, who are likely to have health insurance.
“Those in the socio-economic conditions of the regions would not be able to afford this,” he says.
In 2013, the government re-introduced a 999 emergency phone number for the capital, but has been flooded with prank calls and now rarely answered.
During the recent election violence, the BBC rang the number a couple of times, but didn’t get through. On one occasion, someone did pick up the phone, even if hung up immediately.
“To be honest it rarely works,” says Bethuel Aliwa, who manages the ICT Fire and Rescue, a training school and the Fire department.
“In addition, the technology of the 999 is not changed, people have moved to the phone, but I think that the 999 is still in analog, so it is quite a problem,” says Mr. Aliwa.
A 999 call goes directly to the police who then start to look for the ambulance or the fire engine. But there are dozens of numbers for the various emergency services, and often the telephone numbers belong to individuals, rather than agencies.
“The time of a fire service arrives, it is often too late,” says Mr. Aliwa.
Flare is now at work for the aggregation of private fire agencies on the system.
Due to the nature of Nairobi roads and the constant traffic, the people of ICT have found that the sending of small fire trucks, it works better. The downside is that it can carry less water.
Also, being a private agency, the places they can get water are limited.More Technology of Business
How your electric car could be ‘virtual power station’
Because the supermarket chiller aisles may soon not be so cold
How missing weather data is a “life and death” issue
‘I am sitting in a dressing room, in my underwear for ages’
“Within five minutes the water is done, we need to run to the nearest fire hydrant. You are gambling, you know, today, you can get water or not,” says Mr. Aliwa.
To resolve this problem, the Flare is the mapping of all available water resources fire hydrants in the city, and the registration on the platform. Therefore, in addition to available fire trucks, dispatchers can also identify the closest points of water.
“When we started to do research on the fire to Nairobi, we discovered that there are up to 4,000 fire hydrants that are potentially of work,” explains Ms Rabinovich.
“But many of them are not in service. There are about eight that the fire service currently in use and that I know of, so there is a huge potential to improve fire response.”
Flare is currently working with the private sector, with the intention to add more “concierge-style” for the members, such as real-time updates and information processing.
The start-up is also collecting some interesting data.
“We have learned that there is a lack of ambulances between 7 and 9 in the morning due to shift handover,” explains Ms Dolkart.
“We are trying to encourage operators to stagger shift changes and make sure there is always an ambulance available,” he says.
Flare is hoped that the information they are collecting both the fire department and ambulance service will prove to be useful in the coordination of improved services across the city.Follow the Technology and Business editor, Matthew Wall, on Twitter and Facebook
Click here for more Technology of Business