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Oconee County Sheriff's Office rolls out livestreaming 9-1-1 program

The Oconee County Sheriff's Office now has the ability to see live video from callers' phones. Sheriff Mike Crenshaw says the Prepared Live program is already paying dividends on rescues and emergency calls.
Oconee County Sheriff's Office
The Oconee County Sheriff's Office now has the ability to see live video from callers' phones. Sheriff Mike Crenshaw says the Prepared Live program is already paying dividends on rescues and emergency calls.

You’re bobbing along jauntily through the woods – blue skies above; the sun on your arms; strength in your stride and hope in your squeaky-clean eyes. All around you, things a green and rocky and mountainous.

So … is that the trail leading back to the car? Or is it that one over there? Or that one next to it? Or …?

Wow, you have no idea where you are. Panic seeps in. You try to stop yourself from thinking that at least this is a really gorgeous place to die, and thank your maker there’s still cell reception strong enough to call 9-1-1 and ask them to come get you.

The dispatcher asks you what’s around you. All you can really say are words like “trees” and “trails.” Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to point out a really big rock or a fork or a landmark on a shoreline down below. But the guy on the other end of the line prepares you for a long night, because the police will probably take a while to find you.

Well, if you’re traipsing through the woods in Mountain Rest or Walhalla or Salem, or anywhere else in Oconee County, you now have the option to show the dispatcher what you’re looking at, instead of saying, “There’s a bunch of mountains in front of me.”

The Oconee County Sheriff’s Office is the Upstate’s first local law enforcement agency to implement a livestreaming software called Prepared Live, which allows a 9-1-1 dispatcher to send a caller a link via text. That link can open a web page that can then start sending live video to the call center.

The sheriff's office cannot track callers based on the video feed.

For the hopelessly lost amid the county’s abundant natural beauty, the godsend comes in the form of local knowledge.

“We have folks that go missing in the mountains or on the lakes,” says Sheriff Mike Crenshaw. “They can't tell us where they're at because … they don't know the landmarks. We do.”

In the two months since Prepared Live went, well, live in Oconee County, OCSO Captain Justin Ward says its use has quadrupled, to as many as 80 calls a week. So far, he and Sheriff Crenshaw say, Prepared Live has been used to find lost kayakers, respond to vehicle fires, and help get to a woman driving alone at night with someone following her along the unfamiliar backroads.

The watchword, of course, is safety – for police officers, for first responders, and for citizens. Seeing what they’re getting into before they arrive is key for officer safety, Sheriff Crenshaw says; being able to show 9-1-1 what’s happening as it’s happening is a boon to citizen safety, Capt. Ward says.

Callers can text (and the program has the ability to translate more than 140 languages) and black out their screens while recording so it appears as if they’re not on live with 9-1-1.

For the police, there is also Prepared Live’s ability to collect video or photographic evidence.

“You’ve got a live captured video of something that could be of evidentiary value that potentially may be gone when the officer gets on scene,” Sheriff Crenshaw says. “Could be a weather factor, could be someone leaves the scene.”

It could also be that someone who doesn’t want to get caught with something incriminating dumps it. With the video feed, and the ability to snap still photos from that feed, Sheriff Crenshaw says, there’s a better chance someone committing a crime could still be connected to a piece of evidence.

There is also the matter of mental health among dispatchers. Josh Keeler, who works in the marketing division at Prepared Live, says the company designed its programs with dispatcher feedback and telecommunicators in mind.

That’s why Prepared Live comes with a feature that allows the dispatcher to blur the image while still recording unaffected video.

“This is really important because we really want to be cognizant of telecommunicator mental health,” Keeler says. “Most of the time the telecommunicator is not necessarily trained for or expecting to see things that responders might see.”

Dispatchers also are frequently left to wonder what is happening or has happened on a call, Keeler says. They hear descriptions and, often, their imaginations take over, and not necessarily for the better. Being able to see what’s really happening, he says, can give dispatchers a sense of closure.

When it comes to potentially deadly interactions between police officers and the public, Capt. Ward says Prepared Live could be an important way for officers to gauge a situation early, but he doesn’t want anyone a dangerous situation to try to be a hero.

“We're not going to ask people to put themselves in harm's way or in danger just to obtain video for us,” he says. “But I definitely think [Prepared Live] has the ability to help mitigate some of that complication.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.