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Pittsfield Police: New Technology Will Improve Emergency Response

A man stands in front of a podium.
Josh Landes
Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn displays Vitals App beacons/

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts police department is adopting new technology to assist vulnerable community members.

Chief Michael Wynn told reporters the Vitals app serves as a beacon from users to his department through Bluetooth. Giving a hypothetical example, Wynn said the app would send data submitted by caretakers about users in crisis to police officers.

“They put in critical information about Caleb’s diagnosis," explained the chief. "They put in any de-escalation techniques that may have been successful with Caleb in the past so we know that there’s things that we can avoid to not trigger him.”

The cost to the department was almost $27,000, which was paid for with State 911 Communications grant money.

Wynn explained that his department had come across the app as part of a statewide project to develop responses to Silver Alerts.

“That’s the way that we can get more information when we have elderly at-risk or elderly vulnerable residents who may be missing or may have absconded," said the chief. "And as part of our commitment as one of the Enhanced Silver Alert communities, we were tasked with trying to find a vulnerable persons identifier or a vulnerable persons registry.”

The chief said that concerns around data security proved a challenge to that search.

“Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend some training with the Police Executive Research Forum related to integrating communications and tactics, and in that class, one of my instructors was from a Vitals community, and he shared with me how successful their adaptation had been of Vitals,” said Wynn.

When beacons held by subscribers to the Vitals app come within 80 feet of first responders, their critical information is automatically sent out – including a video from a caretaker to the vulnerable person.

“That recording in and of itself is invaluable," said Wynn. "We can’t put an estimate on how impactful that’s potentially going to be if we encounter someone with a condition or a diagnosis that would not be visible or readily apparent.”

Vitals, which launched in 2017, is currently used in around 70 communities largely in the Midwest.

Wynn says that unlike those communities, the app will be used across multiple agencies for the first time in Pittsfield.

“We’re not a standalone entity," he explained. "We work hand in hand with our fire department, and our state police partners, and our sheriff’s department, and our ambulance providers, and anything that my people are going to carry I need to make sure that all of my community partners who may be in the city of Pittsfield also have access to.”

“Often times as first responders in public safety, we have officers who end up going into situations blind," said Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler. “This certainly is a tool that is going to enhance their capabilities of understanding people’s behavior. It’s certainly going to help them deal with situations much better.”

“We have a large amount of vehicles and crews  out in the community both in Pittsfield and throughout the county, so we can assist in helping locate a missing party who has some of these difficulties," said Brian Andrews from County Ambulance. He said he applauded the PPD for adopting the app.

“It’s also going to help with us if we encounter one of these individuals in the community in being able to differentiate hopefully whether they’re having a medical problem or whether this is their normal behavior, things that we may have to keep in mind in caring for the patient, strategies to avoid elevating the patient’s mood, et cetera,” Andrews told reporters.

The contract with Vitals calls for a three year project rollout.

The PPD will distribute an initial 60 free beacons to community members who apply. They are expected to be available early next week.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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