Safetrek's Philly usage map

Philly has the seventh-most users in the country of an app called SafeTrek, designed to keep people safe by monitoring their location and reporting to 911 dispatchers and police precincts.

But the Philadelphia Police Department has never heard of it. Multiple people from PPD — as well as both Temple and Drexel’s public safety departments — said they are unfamiliar with the app, which was created for college students and has since expanded to the general population, and seemed skeptical of its value.

“I’ve never heard of SafeTrek itself,” said Colin Quinn, the dispatch supervisor at Drexel’s public safety department. “Public safety applications for smartphones, there’s a whole bunch of them out there. There’s no real shortage of public safety apps.”

Credit: SafeTrek screenshot

Safe Trek works like this: when users feel unsafe, they can hold down a button on the app’s home page. As long as they’re holding the button, SafeTrek monitors their location. When they release the button, they have to enter their four-digit pin number within 10 seconds, or SafeTrek will send their location to the nearest 911 public-safety access point.

Think of it like a 911 middleman. It’s useful in emergencies when you don’t want to or can’t speak on the phone to a 911 dispatcher. If you feel uncomfortable in the back of an Uber or you’re in a domestic abuse situation, the SafeTrek team thinks the app might work better than a traditional 911 call.

The app costs $2.99 per month after a free 30-day trial.

“Our cofounders, they knew its value,” said Alexandra Spiegel, SafeTrek’s community engagement lead. The app was created by a group of University of Missouri students in 2013. “They were living that life every day, how nerve-wracking it can be when you’re walking back from the library late at night or you’re walking back from the dining hall and no one is around.”

In Philly, usage is clustered in Center City and around Drexel, Penn and Temple.

‘It’s kind of like whisper down the lane’

Spiegel said members of the SafeTrek team have spoken to police departments and 911 dispatchers across the country to “make sure they’re aware of it before they have an emergency in their area” — but they’ve never communicated with police in Philly.

“We have college students from nearly every college in the country using the app,” Spiegel said. “Oftentimes if we can see they’re on a college campus, we’re able to contact university police as well as local police.”

Charlie Leone, the executive director of Temple’s campus safety services, said SafeTrek has never contacted his department.

Leone said he has some concerns about safety apps that are not monitored by police, including the potential for false alarms and a bandwidth shortage for the thousands of potential student users.

Plus, Quinn said third-party call centers like the one operated by SafeTrek can lengthen police response times.

“It’s kind of like a whisper down the lane,” Quinn said. “Two things happen: information can get lost, and you are delaying police response because one person has to communicate with another person to elicit that response. The more people you involve, the more time it will take to elicit a police response.”

Campus police are taking matters into their own hands

Drexel already has its own safety app. Drexel Guardian is monitored by the campus police department and has three key features: a virtual escort program, one-touch dialing for various police departments and an anonymous tip line.

Quinn said the addition of a police-monitored safety app was huge for his department.

“This generation doesn’t like to talk on the phone, so much so that you can order a pizza on Dominos’ Twitter account by sending a pizza emoji,” Quinn said. “Being able to get into their pockets is very helpful for us.”

Quinn recommends Drexel students use a police-monitored safety app before an independent one like SafeTrek.

“We monitor the application ourselves, and we get all the information directly,” Quinn said. “There’s no delay in us receiving information.”

Leone said Temple Police are also working to develop a public safety app in the coming school year, which he hopes will make it easier for students to contact his department.

“There are apps out there that would have a benefit,” Leone said. “There are a lot of solutions out there. We just have to do our due diligence in ensuring that what we select is going to be beneficial and ensure the safety of our folks here.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...