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Strategies for Making Public Safety Data Actionable

Technology innovation and evolution are driving an exponential increase in data to support emergency response — but much work needs to be done to make it actionable.

by Mission Critical Partners / October 23, 2020
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A key theme that has emerged concerns the need for the public safety community to figure out ways to harness the tremendous amount of data that could be available to emergency responders.

As recently as a decade and a half ago, data largely was an afterthought in the public safety community. At the time, most public safety agencies still were using land mobile radio (LMR) data systems with transmission speeds of 9,600 baud or less, even though mobile data computers that leveraged commercial wireless air cards started to replace LMR-based narrowband data systems a few years prior. This meant that text messages were the alpha and omega of mobile data for most agencies.

Now consider where things stand today. A tremendous amount of data already exists that could: 

  • Enhance situational awareness dramatically
  • Introduce greater intelligence into emergency response decision-making
  • Keep emergency responders in the field safer

In the public safety sector, many devices and systems are available that enable the transmission of mission-critical data, via public safety grade broadband networks and systems, to and from personnel in the field. The following is a partial list: 

  • Body-worn cameras
  • Fixed and vehicle-mounted cameras
  • Thermal-imaging cameras
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones
  • Closed-circuit television
  • Smartphones
  • Holster sensors
  • Biometric sensors
  • Personnel tracking/accountability systems
  • Gunshot detection/location systems
  • Facial recognition systems
  • Automatic vehicle location (AVL) systems
  • Global Positioning System
  • Mobile data terminals (MDT)/rugged laptops/tablets

Collectively, all of this gadgetry exists to provide personnel in the field and their incident commanders with unprecedented situational awareness and to provide commanders with vital health and well-being information about their personnel.

Here’s a hypothetical example to illustrate the point. Let’s say that a firefighter is inside a burning warehouse conducting a search-and-rescue operation when a wall collapses, and he is buried under rubble, resulting in a mayday situation. In an environment where data is well-harnessed, the biometric sensor worn by the firefighter sends data to the command post indicating that his vital signs are stable. Moments later, a drone equipped with a thermal-imaging camera hovers over the rubble, sending heat-signature data that pinpoints the firefighter’s location and enables the incident commander to direct his rescue. In this circumstance, the firefighter undoubtedly would be found much quicker, significantly increasing his chances for survival.

The data described above will be supplemented in the coming years by a torrent of information generated by smartphones and a plethora of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, e.g., alarm system sensors and wearable medical devices. But all of this data needs to be harnessed in such a way to make it highly contextual and easily digestible — otherwise it will have no utility. Comparing raw data with actionable data is like comparing drinking from a fire hose with drinking from a water fountain.

Kevin Murray, founder and CEO of Mission Critical Partners, a mission-critical communications and information technology (IT) consulting firm headquartered in State College, Pennsylvania, summed up the current situation succinctly: “Data is the oil of the 21st century — it needs to be refined or it has no value,” he said.

The idea is to refine enormous amounts of information — using data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) — into smaller volumes of highly contextual, actionable data. Right now, the torrent of unfiltered data stemming from public safety broadband communications is too much to comprehend. This means that it can’t be used to make sound and rapid emergency response judgments, essentially rendering it useless. All of this rich data needs to be electronically and automatically harnessed — human intervention only slows things down and increases the possibility of error.

Data Influx in the ECC

Today, first responders arrive at an emergency scene with much more information and a better understanding of the situation than ever before. However, the influx of information from public and private sources — including alarm-generated data, images, videos, social media data, and text — can overwhelm telecommunicators working in emergency communications centers (ECCs) and further complicate an already difficult job.

Technology solutions — e.g., artificial intelligence and machine learning — should enable ECCs to automatically parse incoming data and ultimately help telecommunicators identify relevant and actionable information that should be shared with first responders during the dispatch process. However, when it comes to dispatching emergency response, the combination of overwhelming amounts of data and disparate communications systems generates four primary considerations that will impact an ECC’s call-handling and dispatch technology decisions: 

  • Outdated technology
  • Siloed systems
  • Network security
  • Cost

Outdated technology — When replacing aging or outdated technology, ECCs need to consider their needs today and for the future. Solutions need to be affordable, scalable and easily deployable, while limiting disruption to mission-critical operations, not only during the implementation and cutover process but also during the software-update process.

Siloed systems — Today’s ECCs are seeking solutions that analyze and present data in ways that make it more user friendly. Public safety agencies and emergency response agencies can support this by leveraging technologies that improve data workflows and implementing unique integrations that help break down barriers between systems, create a consistent user experience and deliver uniform information to the end user.

Network security — Network security is critical to maintaining operations and supporting emergency response. Agencies should invest in solutions that help reduce the risk of cyberattacks that could result in network outages and downtime by securing data, applications and systems. In addition, agencies can reduce the strain on limited IT resources by leveraging outside experts to support network management and cybersecurity efforts.

Costs — Limited funding means that agencies need to closely monitor and manage costs associated with any new technology. Managing vendor contracts through negotiation of service level agreements (SLAs) and proactive management of vendor relationships — whether done using in-house resources or by outsourcing — can help agencies save time and money, while maximizing the value of vendor agreements.

In summary, the ability of ECCs to provide first responders with actionable data influx requires public safety and emergency response agencies to procure and implement affordable, secure solutions to replace outdated technologies. Such solutions should be integrated and work together seamlessly to support effective and efficient emergency response. Ultimately agencies need to select solutions that will address their challenges today and scale to meet their future needs, while at the same time empowering telecommunicators to make better-informed decisions by providing enhanced data.

Glenn Bischoff is MCP’s content specialist. Prior to joining the firm six years ago, he was editor-in-chief of Urgent Communications.

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