Gauteng’s crime-fighting panic button plan could really work

Instead of providing Gauteng residents with a panic button to quickly connect them with emergency responders, the province should look towards a smartphone safety app that performs the same functions.

That is according to the Automobile Association of South Africa (AA) chief executive officer Willem Groenewald.

The province’s plan to procure 500,000 panic buttons was first announced during its medium-term budget policy statement in November 2022.

Gauteng finance MEC Jacob Mamabolo said R173 million had been earmarked for this purpose, alongside procuring drones and vehicles, and recruiting peace wardens.

The plan was punted again by Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi during his State of the Province in early February 2023.

“We will arm residents with e-panic buttons linked to law enforcement agencies, CCTVs and new state-of-the-art Integrated Command Centre,” Lesufi said.

Lesufi announced that the budget for community safety would be increased from less than R1 billion to “multi-billions” of rand.

While many people assumed that Lesufi meant to give all 16 million of Gauteng’s residents a panic button, that was never stated.

Panyaza Lesufi, Premier of Gauteng

The province put out a tender for panic button service providers to bring their propositions to the table in March 2023. The AA is among the companies submitting a tender to provide this service.

While the company is associated with its insurance and roadside assistance services, the AA was also the first to provide mobile panic solutions in South Africa.

Groenewald said the AA supports Gauteng’s initiative to tackle crime using the latest technology, emphasising that the issue of the personal security of South Africans was a serious one.

“Safety and security is not a nice-to-have. It’s a basic human right,” said Groenewald.

He stressed, however, that it was important the chosen solution was competent, as the ramifications of it not doing so could be disastrous.

Groenewald strongly advised against using foreign-based hardware and software from overseas.

“It’s not something to be played with; it’s not something that you can hive off to some developer sitting in a foreign country, hoping that you can understand the language and get him to do the redevelopment as you go along.”

“You have to be very certain that the tech platform actually functions.”

For that reason, Groenewald said a technology-based development of this type should be developed locally, with 24-hour access to a service platform and the ability to speak directly to individual developers.

Willem Groenewald, chief executive officer of the Automobile Association of South Africa

The AA offers its own panic button — the Rem-i — which costs R1,999, with a monthly service fee of R49.

It boasts elaborate features like real-time GPS tracking, fall detection, emergency contact storage, geofencing, water resistance, and rechargeability.

The button is integrated with over 200 qualified and experienced armed response partners to provide as wide a coverage footprint as possible.

However, Groenewald said that such a solution would not be affordable for most South Africans and presented other logistical problems.

Firstly, the base cost of a device with the bare minimum capabilities of being rechargeable and GSM-connected will be over R600, even before the firmware is installed.

If Gauteng were to carry the cost of the devices for all the 500,000 intended citizens, it would cough up R300 million, almost double its entire budget for technological systems to tackle crime.

That number excludes the subscription costs required to connect to the service.

Groenewald said the other major challenge was that the device would require its own low-frequency, low-use SIM.

Although the mobile data it would consume every month would only be worth around R15 to R20, data is still an expensive commodity for many less-affluent residents living in some of the province’s most crime-ridden areas.

In addition, it could be a challenge getting users to subscribe to an additional SIM on top of having their own numbers.

Many of the most vulnerable users would not have the financial means to take up a cellular contract to pay the device off over time, either.

Aside from the cost implications, carrying, protecting, and managing an additional device to have available at any moment during an emergency will not be convenient.

Remi-i Amica panic button available from the AA.

For the reasons above, Groenewald argued that using a mobile app with many of the same features as an e-panic button should be the preferred option.

“You can have that panic device on your phone,” Groenewald said.

He explained that smartphones were already well distributed across Gauteng, ensuring easy access to personal safety mobile apps for an existing user base.

One app that could be used is Casi — Calling All Stations Immediately — in which the AA acquired a 30% stake.

For R35 per month, users can get the Casi mobile app on an Android, Huawei, or Apple smartphone and enjoy many of the same features as a portable panic button.

It can also be accessed through the AA mobile app, AA Armed Response app, or as an integrated part of the Remi-i service.

Similar to the latter, it can connect users to over 200 armed security service providers nationwide.

Casi promises an average response time of three to five minutes for armed emergency responders and 30 minutes for other services.

Groenewald mentioned one recent noteworthy success of the AA’s mobile safety platform was saving the life of a Chinese diplomat who had been assaulted in Thembisa in 2022.

Groenewald also said the AA’s platforms had a more holistic approach than a straightforward panic button service.

In addition to armed security response, the apps can connect users to a range of critical services, such as medical treatment and trauma counselling for the aftermath of the incident.

Adding emergency contacts also allows users to send instant SMSes to their most trusted contacts, who can also track their location.

Groenewald wanted to make it clear that apps like Casi did not aim to replace the role played by the South African Police Services (Saps), but wanted to assist in relieving the enormous burden on its resources due to the high crime rate.

“We are not competing with anybody, we are trying to provide additional ancillary services to assist government and to assist relief services to provide certain security.”

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Gauteng’s crime-fighting panic button plan could really work