While sitting in the grocery store checkout line yesterday, I overheard a conversation between the two women standing in front of me. They were arguing about whether they should sign up for the new enhanced 911 emergency notification system, called Smart 911, that has just become available in our county. One of them thought it was a great idea, and would serve to better protect her family. Amazingly, the other woman said she was not going to do it because there was too much risk to her privacy if a public agency database had personal information that might be used to steal her identity.
In my work as an advocate for emergency preparedness, especially for people with all types of disabilities, I have been an outspoken supporter of the advances in technology that allow first responders to have as much information about us as possible when they respond to whatever emergencies we might be facing. The new technology being used for these improvements in 911 systems has been designed for just that purpose, and a major component is security of the information in the database.
That type of personalized knowledge can mean the difference between life or death when split seconds count. All of us are aging, and the effects of our disabilities might mean that a first responder facing us for the first time could be confused by the characteristics of a chronic condition like quadriplegia as compared to the symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. I want them to recognize the exact cause of my emergency call, rather than having to guess.
Are you trying to minimize the amount of access that others have to your personal information? It's a little late for that. Every time you click on an Internet ad, post a family photo or current vacation pic on Facebook, shop online or fill out a form to enter a contest, the treasure trove of information about you is being added to and shared with other entities as well.
Detailed data about your finances and past history is available to anyone who runs a credit check on you. Credit card companies, banks, credit unions, employers and merchants add to that pool of information on a regular basis. Zillow.com lets everyone know about your house, including what you paid for it and what it's worth today. For those who might be worried about the sanctity or safety of their medical histories, know that any doctor, dentist, hospital or insurance company can add to or access that detailed history at any time--without asking your permission in many cases.
So you trust all of those private entities, but not the government, when it comes to protecting the data they store?
The argument that government-maintained databases are somehow more vulnerable to "hackers" than the hundreds of other locations where our personal data is being accumulated, filtered and stored is absurd. Most of the releases or thefts of personal identifying information from an online database have occurred because a private entity or one of their employees made a mistake. With government resources, their security standards are stringent and protective "firewalls" are maintained. It's far easier for identity thieves to dig through Google search results and Social Networking Sites like Facebook to accumulate data about you, with photos.
Think about what's stored on the extensive hard drives of the various federal, state and local agencies we all rely on: Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, state vehicle and driver licensing agencies, county auditors, school districts and many more. How often have you heard about any loss of data being stored by such agencies? The 12 million people who have identity theft impact their lives each year are far more likely to have made the mistake of putting too much personal information on their Facebook or other social networking pages, or of purchasing something online from an unfamiliar web merchant.
When it comes to emergency response to residential fires or other major emergencies, seconds can count. Providing first responders with as much information as possible about what they will be facing when they arrive at your home can make the difference between living and dying for you and those you love. That is not overstating the situation, which can be confirmed by checking with your local fire department.
As I have moved across the country I've waited a long time for the new enhanced 911 system to become available where I live, even though they have been operating successfully in other communities for several years. Providing my information took less than 30 minutes, and I will rest easier knowing that I have increased protection when disaster strikes.
Clicking on this link
will provide you with a preview of the type of data being collected for Smart 911 or whatever the system is called when it becomes available in your community. Do your family and first responders a favor: sign up today!
About the Author: Michael Collins is the former Executive Director of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, and was also Chair of the Fire Safety for People with Disabilities Task Force of the National Fire Protection Association for the past 10 years.
© 2012 Michael Collins