India: Calling For Help

Being able to dial a toll-free number in an emergency is something most of the world takes for granted. The United States has had 911 since 1968 and Britain has had 999 since 1937. India, however, has had one number to dial for police, another for fire and a different number for each hospital. Change, however, is starting to come—from the private sector rather than the government. Since August 2005, a nonprofit private company has begun rolling out an emergency phone system in Andhra Pradesh. So far 25 million are covered. The firm, Emergency Management Research Institute (EMRI), in Hyderabad, plans to cover the entire state's population of 76 million by May 2007. "We want to roll out EMRI to the rest of India," says Venkat Changavalli, EMRI's CEO.

The task of creating an emergency-management service that is toll-free and can be dialed from a fixed line or cell phone fell to Changavalli a few years ago through an act of charity. Ramalinga Raju, founder and chairman of the Hyderabad-based IT firm Satyam Computer Services, donated a $25 million property and $12 million in cash to create a public-private partnership with local government to start an emergency service. The easy part was choosing a number—108. "Krishna danced with 108 ladies," he says. "Hindu gods have 108 names. In Chinese astrology there are 108 sacred stars. It's a very auspicious number."

Changavalli then went about finding out how other countries approached emergency management. Most work like United States, in which emergency-response systems are delegated to more than 6,000 contact centers. Emergency calls are usually handled by local telecom companies, which forward calls to the relevant emergency services. Calls to EMRI, by contrast, go to just one center, where ambulance, fire and police sit under one roof. That helps increase coordination and cut response times. EMRI is also the only emergency-management service in the world that collects and mines the data that come from the calls it handles.

Since its launch in August 2005, EMRI has answered 95 percent of its calls in two rings, and has taken 14 minutes on average to reach each patient—a good performance given the current state of near-permanent gridlock in many of India's towns and cities. EMRI says it could bring the system to the entire country by 2010, if the central government decided to support it.