Two of the hottest trends in tech these days are "cloud" and "mobile" (throw in "big data" and you have the perfect trifecta of tech buzzwords). Regardless of the buzz, the reality is that critical changes in user behavior and technology are transforming the way emergency services are delivered by both private companies and government agencies.
Public safety agencies in particular are seeing a transformation in how responders communicate with the public whose very safety they are entrusted to protect. Through improved flows of communication, public safety is establishing more direct, immediate links with citizens. Not only is technology plugging holes in aging emergency communications systems, it's allowing public safety to be more effective in engaging citizens to take an active role in their own safety and the safety of others in their community.
Government agencies approach emergencies in four phases: mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery. This is also a useful framework for looking at some of the technical innovations in the industry. Here are some examples of how mobile and cloud technology trends are impacting each of these areas:
Mitigation: The best solution is one that stops an unwanted event before it occurs. Many municipalities and campus safety organizations today are actively crowdsourcing tips and potential hazards. Today's "see something, say something" campaigns utilize cloud technology that supports Web-based reporting and two-way SMS messaging, including sharing of photos and videos. Citizens can anonymously report suspicious people or activity, allowing authorities to identify and neutralize a dangerous situation before it starts. The more sophisticated systems even automatically route information to the appropriate responders and dedicated crime centers, enabling them to identify trending issues or coordinate an effective response.
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It is important to distinguish between these reporting systems and Text-to-911. While the idea of interacting with citizens via text may not sound very advanced, it's important to note that public safety answering points (PSAPs) are local -- there are 6,400 across the country -- which means messages aren't delivered to a single call center and then routed based on the caller's location. While the FCC has mandated wireless carriers to support Text-to-911, the regional rollout to 911 centers is taking time.
Preparation: According to the CTIA, more than 35% of households are wireless-only, and that percentage is even higher in some areas. Previously, the primary means of notifying citizens of emergencies was via automated calls to landline phones in the local jurisdiction. Since mobile directories don't exist and opt-in rates never reach full coverage, the shift toward wireless-only has made it difficult for agencies to identify and notify all citizens of emergencies. New developments are filling this gap, including FEMA's new wireless emergency alert technologies (WEA), which push location-based messages to wireless users and the use of other communication modes such as social media and even physical roadside signage.
Response: On TV, 911 responders seem to pinpoint a caller's location with precision. This is just not true. Today's 911 infrastructure is based on 40-year-old technology designed around landlines, so when you call 911 from a mobile phone, your local PSAP gets only your general location. There are inherent flaws for mobile and VoIP callers with this outdated system: It was never designed to support devices other than landline telephones. Mobile location services simply aren't able to deliver pinpoint accuracy, especially indoors or in very rural areas.
On the enterprise side, depending on their provisioning, corporate campus PBXs and multi-line telephone systems often display caller locations that are blocks or miles away from the actual caller. As nomadic WiFi calling increases, this problem will only increase.
NG911 (next-generation) is a major effort spearheaded by the 911 industry to overhaul the emergency call infrastructure to better support newer IP-based communication modes (including text-to-911) and devices, and improve overflow call routing and sharing of services. This new architecture is based on secure private clouds, deployed regionally, and managed by either municipalities or service providers. Many agencies have even deployed services that allow their constituents to share critical information, such as medical conditions and building layouts, in advance of an emergency.
Recovery: During major incidents, agencies are challenged to identify and prioritize help to those most at risk. Key to this process is identifying and managing data on vulnerable populations. Secure cloud-based solutions enable citizens to self-identify vulnerabilities and special needs.
Major emergencies tend to occur across jurisdictions, so information-sharing and interoperability becomes paramount. Identifying individuals who have a medical dependency on electricity, for example, helps prioritize evacuation and deployment of repair resources across the entire area of a power outage rather than in only a single city or county. Again, cloud-based technologies are uniquely suited to help out in such situations. Not only can a shared service invest in a geo-redundant system that is not affected by a local catastrophe, but a multi-tenant permissions-based model for data collection and access can simplify interoperability. Data standards are rapidly emerging from FEMA and others to ease integration and facilitate sharing across solutions.
Cloud services and mobile devices are enabling better communication and flow of information across the emergency response spectrum. Mobile devices have revolutionized the way citizens can connect with emergency services and the types of data they can share.
The scalability and flexibility provided by the cloud will prove to be critical, especially as the US continues to upgrade the 911 infrastructure to keep up with advances in consumer and enterprise communications. This will enable faster, more effective responses to emergency situations and better outcomes for all.
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