UK emergency services will be radically transformed by 2020 as new technologies such as drones, telemetry, mobile apps and cloud computing impact on the way public safety organisations operate, a new report by Airwave, the UK’s public safety communications network operator, says.
The report, Blue Light Futures, identifies how these technologies can be harnessed by police, fire and ambulances services to boost efficiency, make better use of existing resources, save money, and above all improve outcomes both for the emergency services, but also more importantly, for the citizens of the UK.
The report also sets out the challenges that the government, public services and industry need to overcome in order to realise the potential of these data-reliant technologies. It also offers seven recommendations that will help ensure the long term resilience of the emergency services and drive public safety.
Chief amongst these is the formation of a multidisciplinary working group comprised of key government departments, public safety professionals and industry experts to ensure that the UK has the right data systems, security controls and risk management plans in place to fully realise the benefits of new technology.
Innovations such as drones, telemetry, mobile apps and cloud technology will create, rely on or carry significant amounts of data. Airwave argues that this throws up a number of major challenges that will need to be addressed sooner rather than later, as the UK is now at a point where the need for secure, reliable and resilient mission critical communications is greater than ever.
The Airwave report makes the following recommendations to confront these challenges:
1. Upgrade wireless networks to ensure that they offer sufficient coverage, resilience and availability to cope with increasing volumes of mission critical data.
2. Ensure data protection is of the highest priority and all data handling systems are encrypted and protected against hacking.
3. Agree clear guidelines and regulations for how public data should be shared.
4. Ensure technology risks are comprehensively and honestly considered, thoroughly evaluated and that any necessary mitigation plans are suitably robust for each new technology.
5. Build a single, centralised, and secure cloud-based, emergency services data management system that is capable of storing and processing the vast quantities of data, from multiple sources, that emergency services will rely on in the future.
6. Responsibility for driving these agreements and developments forwards should be taken by a multidisciplinary working group, such as the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme (JESIP). This should include representatives from all of the emergency services, the Home Office, the Criminal Justice System (CJS), the Department of Health (DH), and the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
7. This multi-disciplinary working group should encourage nationwide uptake of new technologies and data systems in a way that is consistent, maximises the benefit of the technology, and continually strives to define and achieve best practice.
Speaking to Wireless just prior to the release of the report, Euros Evans, chief technology officer at Airwave, explains what prompted the report. He points out that 16 police forces are now using Airwave’s ‘paperless policing’ Pronto suite of mobile data applications for handheld devices.
Officers are able to synchronise information captured in the field with back office systems by using electronic forms that can be sent directly to databases, thereby reducing paper form-filling and enabling them to spend more time on the front line. Pronto has the potential to save each force over £1 million per annum. It is this kind of technology that is beginning to reshape public safety.
‘It seems the right time to step back and ask ourselves where do we want to be in five years time,’ says Evans. ‘What is the art of the possible? What is next? I tried to think about what is out there today and what is likely to appear. I looked at the apps consumers use such as healthcare wearables with all the big data implications that go with that and other commercial apps public safety might use in certain situations like speech to text or language translation services.
Telemetry tipping point
‘But I think the big tipping point is around telemetry,’ he continues. ‘If something happens to me medically and I was wearing a Fitbit wearable healthcare device, I’d like to think that would help the paramedics and hospital staff if they were able to access my medical information. But it could be weather, explosive detection, traffic congestion warnings – there is lots of information coming in,’ points out Evans.
On top of that there is a lot of structured and unstructured data including social media, which can now analysed, tones detected and inferences made from it, that can help public safety. ‘If you add all this up there is a real richness of data out there. The question is: how do we harness it from a public safety perspective?’ asks Evans.
A key point here is that many of the technologies that have the potential to transform the emergency services already exist, but are either not being used to their full potential or need to evolve to provide significant benefits.
For example, drones can access hard-to-reach locations, lowering the risk to responders and improving services to citizens. Telemetry can be harnessed in all sorts of ways; one of the most obvious on the horizon is the fact that the EU has recently mandated that a telemetry system be installed in every new vehicle by 31 March 2018, so that emergency services are automatically notified of incidents.
Mobile apps & cloud technology can be combined with a centralised emergency services cloud service, which could lead to streamlined working practices and knowledge-sharing behaviours that ultimately save money and time on administration.
‘I find it helpful to think about various scenarios in public safety and look at how these things come together,’ says Evans. ‘For example, police officers in their day to day role come across things that induce stress: be it pursuit driving or dealing with public order events. We can monitor their stress levels from the control room using bio-harnesses and cameras. The data will reveal their stress levels and could trigger an alert or a response. In fact, you can almost see the emergency button becoming virtual as a result.’
Fully connected environment
What we will see, according to Evans, is a shift towards a completely connected environment in public safety, but not necessarily one controlled by public safety; it will be collecting data from a far wider range of sources.
For a start there will be an increasing number of demands made on the 999 service, but these will not be as a consequence of dialling 999. Instead, they could be triggered by automatic traffic flow monitoring alerts; video analytics alerts triggered by ‘unusual’ events or behaviours, and other forms of non-voice, data-based alerts.
Or, information helpful to the emergency services might be accessed from devices such as a personal Fitbit wearable healthcare device that could provide vital data to paramedics or hospital staff. ‘But we need to work out the privacy issues,’ insists Evans. ‘When can we access that kind of private healthcare information; who can access it and in what situation? How do we bring that together to help public safety be more proactive?’
An example is the RealRider app for motorcyclists, which not only enables bikers to track rides and record points of interest, but will use the smartphones tilt and rotation sensors to detect when a rider has had a crash. It will then automatically send a GPS location, mobile number and any vital medical information direct to the ambulance control room.
Evans says that by combining all sorts of disparate data sets predictive policing and healthcare is possible. Social and demographic statistics, residential occupancy times, historical crime figures and weather can all be mashed together to provide heat maps of when and where certain types of crime are likely to happen. Police resources can then be allocated to either prevent crime or be close when it happens.
In the instance of healthcare, a device can be configured to monitor a person and help the medical profession take proactive action by detecting early warning signs of a heart attack, for example. An alert can then be sent and help activated at an early stage.
‘I want to take it a stage further,’ says Evan. ‘Yes, there is an identifiable group of people you can proactively address because you know they have a medical condition. But actually there is a much broader community of “fit” people carrying mobile devices that could contribute to healthcare if we can collect that big data.
‘You now have groups of people with these health monitors. You can combine that data with weather and air pollution monitoring data and see if it reveals patterns geographically and demographically of asthma, for example, or other medical conditions.
‘You could then take proactive steps to advise people or communities before it becomes a problem. You take steps to avoid a blue light response in other words, which helps husband your emergency services resources.
‘Look at how much money we spend on 999 calls,’ points out Evans. ‘999 call takers have to triage the call based on the information they are given over the phone. But with better information from bio-data, photos or even a video, many of those calls might not be deemed a Red 1 incident. That enables the 999 callers to enable a more realistic response and that will save time and money.
‘The question again is, how do we bring all this together, as many of these things exist in isolation at the moment,’ observes Evans. He adds that data protection is paramount within the emergency services, but personal citizen data must also be protected too.
Joined-up strategic approach
‘I would hate for someone to know my personal medical needs, but I would like the medical person, or the policeman, who turns up at my road traffic accident to be able to access it. We need to be able to share information, but we must also protect it, so that needs a joined up capability between agencies to ensure everyone is working to the same parameters in terms of what can be accessed and shared by whom and when,’ argues Evans.
The Blue Light Futures report stresses the need for public safety professionals, the respective Government departments responsible for them, and the communications industry to get together and come up with a strategic road map. What the UK does not need is piecemeal adoption of new technologies and systems across different organisations and regions.
Evans says this multidisciplinary working group needs to identify what kinds of technologies might be implemented in the future and assess what their impact is likely to be in terms of how public safety operates. It then needs to ensure that the UK has the right data systems, security controls and risk management plans in place to realise all the benefits that the new technologies can bring.
‘I wouldn’t wish to suggest this is an afternoon job,’ says Evans. ‘The key thing for me is that we bring national solutions together that address the needs of all three emergency services. That is challenging, but I think there is an increasing willingness to co-operate and share resources. I genuinely believe there is a momentum out there for this.
‘We can approach this from a technology view if we want,’ he notes, ‘but I think it is more important to approach it from an outcome basis. The focus must be on what we are trying to achieve as an outcome. Yes, that is difficult, but if we get it right it will be very rewarding for public safety organisations and the citizens of this country,’ argues Evans.
‘All three emergency services are about managing and dealing with risk. I understand why they need to specialise in their particular roles, but there needs to be a broader acknowledgment that by bringing expertise together you can make a quantum leap forward and create that future vision.’
Evans adds: ‘As a matter of urgency there needs to be a lot of emphasis on policy, so we must agree clear guidelines and regulations for how public data should be shared and under what circumstances. The public must be fully educated and aware of the choices they can make about how they share their data and who might access it.’
He concludes: ‘There is a lot of information out there that we could start to harness immediately. This is about evolution and continued adoption. The most critical thing now is to get alignment across the emergency services as to what the future of public safety is. If that is different to the vision articulated in our report that is fine. But if we get it right, the UK could be an exemplar around the world.’
The full report can be accessed here.