The release in late 2012 of the detailed report into the events at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster makes sober reading for many senior people in the ambulance service.
The events 23 years ago are readily recalled by those watching television that day. They are vividly in the minds of those that were at the scene.
But at the time, the understanding of how serious the situation was seemed to develop slowly. The media cameras based in the stadium simply were unable to depict the scale of the problem as producers and editors were concerned at probing too deeply into very delicate situations as the dead and injured were being cared for at the stadium. The emergency services responding to the events were also unsighted as to its scale as they responded.
What clearly emerges is a need to have imagery networked from an evolving disaster into the cabs of those involved in responding. This is especially true when mutual aid arrangements are enabled, bringing people to the scene over larger distances.
Tracking evolving incidents
Rather than listen to the radio as they hurry to the scene, they need to be able to grasp the sense of the unfolding disaster. Hospitals put on standby also need to be better informed. Reliance on a media that is necessarily wary of what it places in the public domain can hamper rescue operations.
One solution would be to create ad-hoc networks of image information that are routed from a common source across the high bandwidth 4G services into Gold, Silver and Bronze command teams that are charged with saving lives and mitigating the impact of the disaster.
As with many disasters of this kind that unfold in front of people, the appreciation of the sheer scale of the unfolding tragedy took time. Mercifully that kind of event is very rare. But that rarity also has an impact upon the incident commander’s ability to gauge the situation and deploy resources. What is needed is a capability to be able to get an overview of the situation quickly.
Eye in the sky imagery
In the last two years the police, and more recently some elements of the fire and rescue services, have started to explore the potential of unmanned drones to generate imagery of an area to help inform incident commanders of the nature of the situation they are addressing.
Whilst the word ‘drones’ might conjure up a series of stereotypical images created by Hollywood, in fact they are a very useful platform for providing an eye in the sky above major developing situations.
Military drones carry arms and sensor systems to detect the enemy. Their civilian counterparts carry a mix of visual and infra-red sensors that can be used to detect casualties and survivors on the ground. At present, such data feeds are provided by helicopters operated by the police service; although few, if any, operate video downlinks to first responders.
Any analysis of the situation is done by the observers in the air. Rather than replacing the helicopters the drones might be used in ways that are complementary, allowing commanders on the ground to share the view of the eye in the sky.
For the ambulance service incident commanders seeking to deploy resources to achieve the best possible result, the image generated by the drones could prove invaluable in helping develop that situational awareness. The eye in the sky, after all, has a unique vantage point.
Blue light interoperability
Post-Olympics 2012, the main agenda item for many senior members of the emergency services is interoperability. The issue is how the various parts can find ways of bringing their own unique expertise to bear at a major incident in an efficient way that also immediately reassures the public.
Drones have the potential to help provide a really useful source of information that is under the control of the emergency services, unlike the media’s cameras.
With the coming introduction of 4G mobile telephony services in 2013, the potential for imagery derived from a drone to be quickly broadcast and shared with a group of incident commanders starts to arise. A selective sharing network could be established where a single feed from a drone could be fed to mobile terminals for all first responders and their command teams.
In time this would require the emergency services to agree on the nature of the information required and how it should be operated. Interoperability would be at the heart of that debate. This kind of capability mirrors the way that military drones link to ground troops to relay imagery collected in a number of different tactical situations.
This would allow people en-route to the incident to familiarise themselves with the scene before they arrive. In time, digital maps may also be overlaid onto the imagery and transmitted across 4G networks.
Virtual reality will also provide insights into the imagery to help first responders gain accurate situational awareness and prepare their plans ahead of arriving on scene.
Better situational awareness
This of course means that situational awareness has to become a single interoperable environment for the emergency services.
In addition to each service deploying its own command and control vehicles to manage their own resources, the information that feeds into those vehicles must come from a single integrated picture that has been developed from on-line media feeds as well as the related sources already described.
Through such development of an interoperable situational awareness or common operating picture (COP) the overall interoperability between the individual services will be improved. Commanders and the public will gain reassurance of the effectiveness of the response.
The fusion of virtual reality, maps, digital imagery collected at the scene and the eye in the sky views from drones would dramatically change the ability of commanders to assess the situation.
For those still suffering the agonies of losing loved ones at Hillsborough, this kind of technical evolution is far too late. But its exploration and implementation just might help avoid or minimise the scale of the inevitable future man-made or natural disasters.
About the author: Dr Dave Sloggett is an independent academic, author and freelance writer specialising in irregular warfare with over 20 years of experience in communications systems.