The terrorist attack on the Boston marathon provided yet another example of the enduring nature of terrorism. The explosion at the chemical factory in West in Texas also showed how industrial accidents can still occur.
In the immediate aftermath of both events, it was critical for the emergency services to be able to access information from the scene to determine the scale of the problem that was unfolding. It is said a picture saves a thousand words.
This is particularly true in the chaos and confusion that occurs in the seconds and minutes following a major event. Getting imagery into incident command centres is important. It can help focus where resources are deployed and can save lives.
The question however is from what sources do the emergency services obtain the imagery? For the emergency services, use of television images operated by the media are unreliable. They are always subject to a degree of censorship depending on how harrowing the scenes are at the location of the incident.
Step forward the citizen journalist and wide area networks in a novel development of what could become a new form of mission-critical communications. Those provided by members of the public at the scene who have up until now been accused of a macabre form of voyeurism; intruding into really difficult moments as the emergency services try to save people’s lives.
While this may seem a strange idea, ask yourself this simple question: just how many times do you now see people holding up mobile phones to video some event that is unfolding?
The role of the citizen journalist has been gradually increasing as the bandwidth provided by the mobile networks has grown. As the events in London on 7 July 2005 were unfolding, the BBC received a stream of single images taken by people at the scenes.
At the scene of the bus bombing in Tavistock Square, pictures taken by the public were quickly contradicting statements issued by senior members of the emergency services about the number of people who were dead at the scene.
In Boston eight years later, the police immediately requested any phone footage taken by people who had been present at the marathon. Immediately they were inundated with videos sent in by citizen journalists.
The initial prognosis in Boston was that finding the individuals was going to be difficult. They had not committed suicide and the concern was that they may have planned to go on to attack another location. Finding the perpetrators was therefore critical.
As events turned out, the imagery collected by the Boston Police Department was not immediately needed to identify potential suspects. They were located by tracing the mobile signal of the car driver who was hijacked by the alleged terrorists after their pictures were released to the public. This, however, does not mean that in the future such imagery may not be critical in helping bring someone to justice.
The idea of the citizen journalist having a wider role also has some merit. In May, Sir Ken Knight published his study of what can be done to modernise the Fire and Rescue Service. In his report he looks back at the rate of decline of incidents of fire, noting they have reduced by just over 40%.
His conclusion that, by contrast, the levels of manning in the Fire and Rescue Services had largely remained the same led to rather simplistic media headlines. Suggestions that large savings could be made through reduced manning levels simply missed important points about the need for resilience when faced by dynamic and new threats, such as the events in Boston.
However, one fact published by Sir Ken Knight that was not picked up by the mainstream media was that the rate of false alarms has remained consistently high over the last decade. It is a serious problem for the fire and rescue service. Anything that could reduce the impact of false alarms would be welcome.
This is another area where the citizen journalist could play a role. In control rooms, as commanders are trying to make decisions about responding to an emergency call, the addition of some video from a mobile phone could be really helpful. Streaming that video to fire fighters on route to a scene could also be important.
The increasing bandwidth that is available and the potential of LTE and WiMAX to deliver even faster and higher resolution images could all help commanders in incident control rooms plan a suitable response. Where a false alarm occurred, it would quickly become apparent.
The implementation of such a scheme would have its roots in the neighbourhood watch scheme that helps protect local communities from crime. Where a fire was detected, in addition to the usual 999 call, citizen journalists could then stream videos from the scene into the control room.
Simple training courses and online information packs could be made available to warn the public of the dangers and ensure they remained out of harm’s way whilst providing the real-time video feed.
Such a system of volunteers would also be an example of what the Prime Minister has called the ‘Big Society’. It could also help reduce false alarm call outs. For anyone tempted to try and make hoax calls, they would have to somehow create a video of the fire they were reporting. This is a deliberate step and legal sanctions could be introduced that would discourage such behaviour.
WiMAX already has a growing reputation for being applied in critical situations. In Aceh, after the devastating Tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 where all of the existing communications infrastructure was destroyed, WiMAX was quickly deployed to help fill the gap.
As Hurricane Katrina moved on from New Orleans volunteers quickly assembled communications networks donated by Intel. Combinations of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), satellite links and self-healing mesh networks enabled the emergency response to be better coordinated.
These are all examples of the way that society as a whole can play a bigger role in helping create resilient responses to any one of a range of possible disaster scenarios. At present, we have not fully appreciated the benefits that technologies such as WiMAX and LTE will eventually bring to helping the emergency services save lives.
Their use, however, does bring another dimension to the notion of mission critical communications. It also provides a distinct and important role for the citizen journalist.