GTR roundtable: Emergency services experts weigh in [4/4]

By GovTechReview Staff
Tuesday, 03 June, 2014

This is the final part of the GTR roundtable on emergency services that ran in the March/April 2014 issue of the magazine. Click through for part 1, part 2 and part 3.

GTR: Has the explosion in cloud technologies helped ESOs deal with peaky traffic during emergencies?

Boddam-Whetham: We hear a lot of people talking about cloud as though it's this new thing, but it's been around for a long time and we've been part of it for a long time. We had clients in the Brisbane floods using our system where the main headquarters and data centres were flooded, then they had to get out and access their systems via phones and PDAs. That's the accessibility benefit that you get out of the cloud.

There's also the issue of security in the cloud, which is why we took our products through ASD certification under the EAL2+ standard. Particularly when the type of information that you're dealing with in a public safety context is often quite sensitive, or could be pulled up in a Royal Commission post the event and be really scrutinised – then you want to make sure there's a lot of integrity in your cloud service.

Keys: Web utilisation has gone through the roof and is being driven by use of social-media during major events. ESOs aren't well prepared for the peak loads they could encounter and risk catastrophic failure at the worst possible moment, when there systems are needed most. I've seen ESOs we work with, put their public facing information systems into commercial hosting facilities with companies like Hostworks that specialise in peak load management. Government agencies typically don’t commission the huge internet capability needed to manage that workload. Putting it in the cloud solves that problem. Companies like Hostworks are well placed in the internet topology in Australia and one of the few companies that can deliver a sudden and massive ramp up in internet demand.


Stefan: Most emergency services organisations are connected into state ICT policies, and most organisations are looking towards the opportunities associated with utilising cloud technologies. In areas like office administration, email and other admin services, there is an exploration across governments; the state and police emergency services are part of that journey.

Telstra's [cloud-hosted mobile] emergency alert system is an example of a whole cloud- based application that allows all the emergency services, irrespective of their jurisdiction, to be able to utilise this service– and it continues to work effectively. The expansion into machine- to-machine (M2M) communications is also becoming quite an interesting growth area: citizens and devices are becoming connected and interconnected; this really does provide opportunities for ESOs in years to come as this connected world begins to provide all this new information.

GTR: The past year has seen the emergence of practical wearable technologies like smart watches and connected glasses. What role will these technologies play in the emergency-services arena?

Crutchfield: If you look at some of the technology being trialled today – biometric sensors, heart rate monitors, blood pressure and breathing monitors – those kinds of task specific technologies are very useful to monitor the health of a responder in the middle of a high-stress situation.

Things like Google Glass are being explored in terms of what they could do for first responder situations or better managing an incident or event. Wearable video technology would help them be less reliant on voice descriptions coming from first responders.The ability to share live video streaming of the event as it plays out would help other responders whether on foot or in the air.

In a distributed C&C sense, the centralised C&C could be monitoring a lot of data points that they're aggregating to get intelligence on a particular situation. These could be coming from social media, CCTV camera feeds, aerial drones, and other data they could aggregate and turn into better intelligence in the field. There's a lot of data available now about events.

Hockings: It has to fit within the operational environment, and the physical environment. So if you think about it, a wearable watch on a firefighter's sleeve is just not going to work because the physical environment is not going to let that happen. But in a different context, it might fit another agency.

At the end of the day, the ESOs will pick what fits, where it fits, and how they're going to utilise it. They'll go off and test these things in their real environments, and form an opinion based on their businesses, and vendors will need to respond to that. The technology is fundamentally not allowed to distract the end user from the task at hand. It has got to be a contributor and not a detractor.

Keys: The industry has provided some good trials of personal telemetry – for example, health vitals and location of a fireman in a burning building, sent without the user having to send a message. However, most current devices available are based on a consumer use case, which is very different to emergency-services use cases. For example, most emergency workers can't stop, look down and use their hands to operate a radio or data device during an incident.

The good news is that the consumer wireless revolution has driven an extraordinarily low cost and powerful mobile computing platform into the hands of users. This industry has a lot of experience in hardening consumer technology for emergency-services users. I'm very optimistic that in coming years, we'll take that computing platform and mould it into the special and unique needs of ESOs. We did that with ESO grade mobile voice and data, and the industry has started optimisation of mobile broadband technologies for the ESO market.

GTR: How much of this change is related to applications, and how much still depends on the communications infrastructure?

Hockings: That's going to be one of the most exciting discussions that will happen from here on. There's going to be the expectation of connectivity, a focus on the back-end systems, and the user's end connecting seamlessly. It is going to be less about the communications medium, and is going to be very much about the application, how it presents to the users, how it goes into the back-end systems, and where this information gets delivered.

Crutchfield: Everybody is being asked to do more with less, and that's largely what has driven the change in the consumption model. Some jurisdictions tell us they don't necessarily need more people on the street; they just need to facilitate what they currently have on the street, and to be more productive and efficient. Technology is a key enabler of that.

Keys: The one thing that hasn't happened yet a resolution to the human-computer interface for ESO users. The current smartphone is only useful for what I would call business efficiency projects, such as inputting data into a central computer from a tablet. That's fine, but when you talk emergency response part of the job, those devices don't do a good job. And that's the challenge from our industry, to take the efficiency gains we've gotten from consumer mobility (e.g speaking commands to your smart phone) and moulding the technology to support the rigours of emergency incident response.

Getting the end user technology right is also the argument for starting small on the network side. We need to start building broadband for ESO users, in metro areas while the end user devices are being developed. In five years' time you've got an end-to-end ecosystem with a really strong case for the benefit it provides to ESOs, and you can expand its geographic reach over time.

Boddam-Whetham: I agree. It's very well for people to have situational awareness, but it has to roll up into a view that makes sense to the end user. There is a lot of technology that can help deal with planned events, but in the area of unplanned events there are still a lot of intangibles in terms of your cultural readiness and your leadership readiness.

So, I think that is where a lot of people are really focusing their efforts: at the heart of organisational resilience is ensuring you are in a position to deal with those unplanned events. They're the sort of events that can cripple communities and cripple businesses, and have a major financial impact. – David Braue

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