A New Way to Help Vulnerable Populations


A new pilot project for MedicAlert subscribers in Ottawa will get crucial health information to first responders faster, so they can better help those in need.

On an early morning in November 2022, residents in a quiet Brampton neighbourhood spotted a young man walking through the streets, dressed only in his boxer shorts. When he tried to enter a neighbour’s car, they called the police, who arrived on the scene and did what they were trained to do: attempt to hold and secure. Police found him uncooperative, and tasered the man to bring him under control; however, he was later found to be autistic and non-verbal. The Brampton youth suffered cuts, bruises and psychological trauma.

A shift away from institutionalized care in Canada means more people live in the community with mental illness or cognitive conditions – and police are often the first to respond when those people are in crisis. This shows no signs of abating. Back in 2014, the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security heard from police chiefs across the country and found that 70 to 80 percent of the calls police received were not related to crime. It concluded that “law enforcement agencies have become the social and mental health services of first resort.”

Calls related to people living with dementia are also on the rise in Canada. Nearly 40 percent of calls to MedicAlert’s hotline are for people who lose their way and go missing or need de-escalation support. The number of people living with dementia in Canada is set to nearly double in the next 10 years, to 955,900 from 597,000, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

Sharing crucial information

MedicAlert plans to help these growing segments of the population with a new program for subscribers called Help-911. “The goal is to provide police and first responders with crucial information such as previous history of losing one’s way, mental health conditions, triggers and de-escalation techniques unique to them,” says Leslie McGill, President and CEO of MedicAlert. The program will begin as a pilot in Ottawa – where MedicAlert is also working to expand its subscriber base to include more vulnerable people.

Help-911 will also change how first responders are notified of a MedicAlert subscription: up front, at the dispatch level, rather than on the MedicAlert jewelry once they arrive at the scene. MedicAlert and the Ottawa Police Service’s Communications Centre have partnered with RapidSOS, a health software and public safety company based in New York, to make the current MedicAlert database more easily accessible to first responders.

This is the first foray into Canada for RapidSOS, but the company has been around since 2012 and has raised US$250 million in venture capital. The U.S. and Canada have been modernizing 911 services through an initiative called Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), a digital, internet protocol-based system that will replace the analog 911 infrastructure that’s been in place for decades and allow more data –photos, videos and texts – to be transmitted to 911 dispatch centres.

Next-generation dispatch

RapidSOS has been working with agencies in the United States to provide a platform directly linked with 911 call-taking, dispatch and mapping systems. In the U.S., it sources emergency data directly from Uber, MedicAlert Foundation, the American Heart Association and others, in addition to Google and Apple, aggregates and encrypts the data, and presents it in an easy-to-use format.

Currently, when a call comes into the Ottawa Police Service’s Communications Centre, dispatchers can see the name and location of the caller. They can also query the MedicAlert database if the caller can provide a MedicAlert ID – and if it’s a call for fire or police. If the call is for ambulance, the 911 dispatcher must forward the call to the ambulance dispatch, and the person who answers will query the database, which wastes precious time.

RapidSOS will help streamline this process. It aims to expedite 911 call centre workflow – and call outcomes. “Our software provides automation that shares critical information about a 911 caller during the call without the dispatcher having to search a database, or make a separate phone call that could then lengthen the time of call-taking,” says Karin Marquez, Chief Public Safety Brand Officer for RapidSOS.

The Ottawa Police Service has been a big supporter of MedicAlert’s subscriptions, especially for vulnerable people. “If you have someone with a mental health condition who is a customer, say they’re autistic, and they have triggers, MedicAlert will capture that trigger,” explains Eric Janus, Operations Manager for the Ottawa Police Service’s Communications Centre. “In addition, it will capture any de-escalation options that are known to work for this person. It’s one-stop shopping when it comes to the vulnerable.”

If the Help-911 pilot program works well, it could help prevent incidents like the one in Brampton and provide an example for 911 call centres across the country.