The inside of a family domestic violence shelter. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On her way back to My Sister’s Place, D.C.’s oldest domestic violence shelter, Caroline (a pseudonym used for safety concerns) was followed by three men. She had just left a tenant interview for a prospective apartment when the men started to harass her and even tried to assault her.    

Caroline quickly spotted a nearby security guard whom she sought refuge with. That’s when she phoned Elizabeth Horrigan, the shelter program manager. Caroline didn’t want to get the police involved, so Horrigan ordered her an Uber to get her safely back to the shelter. 

One week after the incident, on Oct. 7th, Horrigan gave Caroline a Silent Beacon. It’s a panic button that allows users to instantly alert at least one emergency contact for help and send them their GPS location. Caroline gladly took it.   

“If she had that button, it would have been really helpful,” says Horrigan. Horrigan recalls how Caroline struggled to give an exact address when she was attacked given she how distressed she was. Passing along her location and alterting someone that she needed help would have been easier with the Silent Beacon.  

“Safety is an individual decision. How to safety plan is a survivor’s choice,” says Horrigan. “This is another tool.” 

The Silent Beacon works with a smart device app that can be downloaded for free. On the app, users can add up to seven emergency contacts, who can be anyone from 911 to a trusted friend. Users pair their smart devices with the actual panic button device, which costs $99, via Bluetooth. Once it’s set up, the device can be attached to anything, like to a keychain. Press the button and the immediate contact will get a call alerting them that you need help. Silent Beacon will also text and email all your contacts your GPS coordinates. Silent Beacon says it doesn’t store this geographical data. Users can also just use the application, without the panic button, by paying a monthly $1.99 fee.

Last month, Silent Beacon gave My Sister’s Place enough devices for all the survivors it supports, which amounts to roughly 80 people, or for 15 families who live in emergency shelter and 28 families who live in transitional housing—at no cost. This is Silent Beacon’s first partnership and the tech start-up plans to supply My Sister’s Place free panic buttons until 2020 as new survivors move in. 

“We reached out, described the product and what it could do, and they saw an immediate fit,” says Tyler Charuhas, Silent Beacon’s partnerships director. “We know of areas that we want to address and provide a beacon of hope … we knew we’d be stupid not to reach out [to My Sister’s Place].”

Silent Beacon was dreamed up after its founder and president, Kenny Kelley of Rockville, got into a motorcycle accident. He could barely remove his glolves, let alone reach for his phone to call for help. Roughly a year later, in 2015, he began to develop Silent Beacon. The product fully launched in early 2018. 

My Sister’s Place Executive Director Mercedes Lemp says the shelter has just started handing out panic buttons to survivors. So far, they’ve been thankful. She’s also told a domestic violence organization that runs an urgent shelter about Silent Beacon. She figured the more survivors who have access to the tool, the better.  

“It’s a device that brings a sense of safety to our clients,” says Lemp. “The number one thing on a survivor’s mind is safety—safety planning, what’s your plan. This is going to be a key component of this safety plan.”  

The button is also easy to use, which is critical for survivors with children. A lot of survivors have children with their abusers, says Horrigan, and they have to interact with their abusers when they hand their children off to comply with court orders. 

“The stories I’ve seen is that the children are in the room [during an attack] and usually they are told to call 911,” says Horrigan.

Now children will be taught to press a small and easily concealed button.