The company that launched a system to allow first responders to identify people with autism, dementia and other conditions has expanded it to let police and fire personnel know if a person is at a higher risk for novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Vitals, a Minneapolis-based startup that launched in 2017, has contracts with more than 70 public safety agencies and school districts in five states. It announced its first California customer in February when the Folsom Police Department signed on, receiving 50 free beacons to distribute to city residents.

Vitals spokesperson Stan Alleyne said the company has added the capability to allow family members and caretakers to include information about whether a person using the system has an underlying medical condition that would make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

The system consists of a small beacon that an at-risk individual wears on their person, which sends Bluetooth signals that are picked up by smartphones equipped with the app if the first responder is within 80 feet of the individual. The signal triggers an app on a responder’s smartphone, which then downloads the individual's information from Vitals’ secure AWS cloud servers. The first responder immediately knows who the individual is, reaction tendencies, medication information and how to reach family members or caregivers, who can even provide a video message to reassure the individual that the first responders are there to help.

“The idea is to allow people to add to users’ profiles to give access to critical information,” Alleyne said. “We had also heard reports that first responders were concerned about approaching individuals, and our CEO thought this would be an important feature.”

Alleyne said the company is offering the service at no charge to first responders, health-care providers and families and individuals for the next six months. In addition, the company is waiving the normal $20 charge to families to purchase the standard beacons during that time.

Elva Valasek, a senior dispatcher with the Folsom Police Department and a volunteer leader with an area nonprofit that helps families track loved ones with autism and other disabilities, said the department has issued 21 beacons to families to date. She added that Vitals has extended the free service to those families as well and that signups have been on hold for the past couple of months because of the coronavirus crisis. To date, she added, no first responder in the city has needed to use the system.

Folsom City Manager Elaine Andersen wrote recently about the benefits of the program, calling it “an additional tool for Folsom’s public safety personnel to assist at-risk residents back to safety or to their caregiver.”

One other Northern California jurisdiction has joined the program this year. The Yolo County District Attorney’s Office purchased 100 beacons for any city in the county that wants to participate. Wendy Wilcox, a spokesperson for the D.A.’s office, said District Attorney Jeff W. Reisig asked the Board of Supervisors for authority to join the program because of state legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last August that updated state standards about when police force can be used and how it is subsequently evaluated.

“He had hoped to find something to help provide public safety to vulnerable people, especially those struggling with mental health issues,” Wilcox said. “The program is a bridge between the perceived gap between law enforcement and the communities.”

The office was working with the Davis Police Department to pilot the project when the response to COVID-19 put everything on hold.

Wilcox said Yolo County agreed to pay nearly $20,000 for the beacons and one year of service, and Vitals has agreed to provide an additional six months of free service. The beacons cost between $20 and $40 each and the company normally charges $4.99 a month for its app, with the first month free.

Alleyne said Vitals was talking with a dozen departments in the region before the virus put everything on hold.

In a statement, Vitals CEO Janée Harteau — a former Minneapolis police chief — said the company’s technology benefits both first responders and at-risk individuals.

“The Vitals App is a living, breathing medical alert bracelet,” Harteau said. “This is exactly the type of technology needed right now. With Vitals, first responders and others caring for the sick will have immediate access to updated, critical information while allowing them to maintain a tactical and adequate distance for their own safety.”