Sensors, Drones and Artificial Intelligence at the Forefront at IWCE

Keynote speaker addresses the ‘fire hose’ of information that flows to dispatch during an incident and how curative technology will synthesize the information, calling out what’s relevant and timely.

by Jim McKay / March 8, 2019

With all the new technology at our disposal, it seems counterintuitive that 911 dispatch times have increased by as much as 10 percent in some areas, but it’s true.

Dispatching was traditionally a reactive task, but modern technology and all its sources of information has complicated that task, foisting on 911 call-takers streams of information, some of it accurate, some of it inaccurate and second- and third-hand and forcing call-takers to decide on its value.

With all this information cluttering up the system, what’s needed is a process of curation to synthesize that information. That’s the key to Next Gen 911, said Lawrence Hicks, vice president of engineering for InterTalk Critical Information Systems, in a keynote address at the International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) in Las Vegas Thursday.

“’911’ is a motto for ‘seconds count,’” Hicks said, but 911 dispatchers are suffering from information overload from a “fire hose” of information from different sources. The industry must provide tools for dispatchers to allow information to be curated into what’s reliable, timely and accurate, he said.

Dispatchers have a “window to the world,” with all the information available today, and being able to concentrate on what’s relevant is the primary focus. That can be enhanced with tech solutions like artificial intelligence (AI) that can “coach” the information, providing insight such as how much stress the caller is under, or sensors that display on a GIS map and reveal how many firehoses are in a building.

Machine learning is another promising technology that records 911 events, analyzes the recordings, examines the outcomes and offers lessons learned in the future.

Hicks said the function of the human dispatcher is not going away, even with AI, but new technology will recreate the job into “dispatch as a service,” a cloud solution. It all will amount to providing the right information at the right time in the right format.

System never blinked
In one of several short courses, RACOM President and CEO Mike Miller was able to provide first-hand lessons learned from a disaster — one that could have threatened the viability of RACOM. He recalled July 19 of last year when an EF3 tornado, packing 144 mph winds, targeted Marshalltown, Iowa, and  RACOM headquarters, a 25-year old building housing the public safety communications providers network and equipment.

Though the building sustained $7 million worth of damage, the network never went down and kept the town’s 911 dispatching operational, as well as its EOC. In fact, 911 moved its dispatching operation into the RACOM building for more than three hours that afternoon, setting up card tables and a whiteboard for six dispatchers, until the dispatchers could return to their home base.

With the RACOM system still up and running after the tornado passed, Miller, acknowledging that he deals in reliability, reached out to his larger customers to assure them that the system was well.
Having a backup generator and testing it weekly paid off for Miller. But it wasn’t enough to have just one spare generator, and he ended up with three to assure things kept running until commercial power returned five days later.

There were other key calls made initially after the tornado, including calls for someone to come and quickly patch up the building before the rains came. “Rain and electronics don’t mix,” Miller said.

Another was to local hotels to book rooms for employees and another was to deal with the debris around the building. Miller also worked with local law enforcement, which provided escorts for key personnel coming and going.

Another course discussion involved drones and sensors, part of which involved outfitting drones with sensors to glean information about wildfires and floods. A drone, equipped with a sensor, can be sent out to determine where the hottest part of the fire is, instead of sending someone up the mountain. The difference is that the drone can assess the situation in a few minutes, much more quickly than it would take a human to hike the mountain or send an aircraft.

Drones can also be used for fatal vehicle accidents. In this case, law enforcement sometimes takes hours to collect all the information necessary to do the proper investigation, causing traffic jams for several hours. It would take a drone minutes to collect the same information.

Sensors, though expensive, can also save lives during floods. The most common cause of death during flooding is from people trying to drive vehicles through a flooded area. It takes just four inches of water to float a car, and there is no way of telling what’s under the water — without a sensor. Modeling has been used to this point but can’t be as accurate as a direct sensor.

And in another course, Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate personnel showcased an Information Sharing Assessment Tool that agencies can use free to assess and develop operability within an organization and interoperability with outside entities.