Improving Coverage, Situational Awareness for Disaster Response
Tuesday, March 08, 2022 | Comments
As disasters increase in frequency and severity, strong communications in impacted areas are critical. MissionCritical Communications asked Marcus Claycomb, business development manager at Panasonic, about some of the challenges facing responders in the field during disasters, as well as ways to address some of those challenges.

What are currently the biggest challenges facing first responders for on-scene disaster communications?
One of the biggest challenges facing first responders when it comes to on-scene disaster communications is having reliable connectivity, both to centralized networks and to teams. With so many parties involved, from police and fire to EMS and utilities, reliable connectivity is critical to maintain communications and deliver a coordinated, efficient response. However, it can be a challenging feat when multiple agencies from different jurisdictions gather at a scene using different mobile devices. That’s where software programs like ATAK become especially useful, as they let multiple agencies connect devices in real-time with both on-and-off-duty responders from neighboring municipalities.

Responders at the command level can typically communicate without issue, but those who are on the ground responding directly to an incident often face more connectivity challenges. As a former law enforcement officer myself, I know how frustrating it can be when you see all of the other officers but cannot easily collaborate in real-time. Push-to-talk (PTT) applications that leverage Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and LTE can help facilitate that instant line of communication and give command teams insight into where individual responders are.

Weather and location can also impact connectivity. Using mobile devices with access to broadband networks like FirstNet, Built with AT&T and Verizon Frontline can help ensure first responders have cellular access in both rural and urban areas. Other device features like dual-subscriber identity modules (SIM) enable first responders to switch between different networks if one service goes down. The ability to conduct mesh networking and share connectivity signals with teams is also critical to maintain a coordinated response across a large team.

Connectivity plays a key role in first responders’ ability to deliver a coordinated response and deploying the right mobile devices and software applications can help mitigate against service barriers.

How have these challenges changed over the past decade?
The advancements we’ve seen over the past decade from both a network and device perspective have helped ease some of the challenges connectivity has posed to real-time communications. With each new generation of wireless technology from 3G to LTE and now 5G, first responders have gained the ability to download and share data (and real-time video) significantly faster. Similarly, the expansion of dedicated first responder networks are helping to ensure that first responders have access to reliable service in both rural areas and crowded urban settings.

Expanding the networks of first responders from vehicles to individuals has led to greater connectivity. In the past, the vehicle with a laptop docked inside was the main network. At the start of a shift, officers, firefighters and EMS teams would gather internally to make a plan and then go off on their own. Now, when first responders leave for a mission, they stay connected with their peers the whole time.

Departments using outdated and disparate systems still pose a significant challenge to conducting coordinated, multi-agency response, however. As a former officer, I know the tight budgetary restrictions that many municipalities face, but the ability to connect devices is especially crucial when responding to a dynamic, rapidly unfolding event.

Is the technology to solve these challenges available or does there need to be a bigger focus on advancing future technologies for public safety?
In large part, the technology is already there to solve most of these communications challenges. More solutions are being designed with the ability to talk to each other and connect in real time to enhance collaboration and data-sharing capabilities. That doesn’t mean the industry should stop looking for ways to advance solutions and enhance workflows.

The next challenge becomes helping municipalities find room in their budgets to experiment with and ultimately implement these new solutions. It all starts with getting information to the end user. First responder agencies often have small IT departments that are focused on keeping current devices and solutions working, so there isn’t always time to research new device features and applications.

Without background and awareness of the latest solutions, first responders may continue to run into hurdles posed by outdated technology. New solutions can be gamechanging for first responder workflows. One recently developed software application, for instance, can detect languages and translate a conversation, so first responders can communicate clearly and effectively regardless of language differences. From a hardware perspective, a device cannot be an efficient tool without a reliable battery, microphone, speakers and connectivity. So, as hardware and software partnerships provide new solutions to our industry, it’s critical to spread awareness and make these solutions more readily available for first responders to test and deploy.

In terms of situational awareness, what are some of the challenges facing first responders in the field?
One of the most significant barriers to situational awareness is mobility. While having easy access to a laptop docked in the vehicle is helpful for conducting research from the field, it also leaves you tied to the vehicle. Leveraging a two-in-one device where the laptop is docked to the vehicle, but officers can take the tablet outside, is critical to boosting situational awareness. That way, officers can walk around the car and have full eyes on their surroundings as opposed to staring at the screen. This also gives them more opportunities to interact with the community outside the vehicle.

While digitizing the time-consuming process of reporting is important for efficiency, typing on a laptop means officers can’t have a full view of their surroundings. Leveraging dictation software helps officers to complete reports more quickly and completely, while allowing them to keep eyes on their surroundings. Devices equipped with built-in barcode readers also let officers accomplish more at the point of interaction. At a traffic stop, they can scan driver’s licenses while talking to the driver as opposed to walking back and forth to the vehicle.

Additionally, the development of 5G and the expansion of mobile devices means officers will be able to collect and share more data quickly. While this insight will improve situational awareness, the challenge then becomes sorting through all of that data to deliver the most critical insights to officers at the right time and place.

What technologies can we use to help address these challenges?
Many developing and emerging technologies are helping to boost situational awareness and give first responders more insight into incidents as they unfold.

Some first responders are already leveraging drones, powered by mobile devices, to monitor scenes remotely and coordinate response teams as necessary. They are especially useful for wildfire response, as firefighters can monitor the status of a fire without sending individuals to a potentially dangerous scene. Police departments can use drones for crowd control and can even survey consumer drones flying over an area and take down the ones deemed harmful.

Likewise, the ability for 5G to enhance streaming capabilities, will support more real-time video collaboration. This use case will be especially important for EMS teams, so they can conduct video calls and strategize in real time with ER doctors to deliver more efficient care in the field.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will likely play a crucial role in helping first responders organize, analyze and interpret the multitudes of data they can now collect. While having access to more data can help boost situational awareness, it only becomes actionable insight when it’s in a usable format first responders can easily access.

What new and developing technologies do you think best promise to help first responders as they deal with future disasters?
Next generation 9-1-1 (NG 9-1-1) will significantly transform the situational awareness of first responders. It will give citizens the ability to share photo and video with dispatchers, providing emergency response teams with greater insight into an incident. Teams will be able to better estimate how many responders they’ll need and ensure they’re heading to the accurate location.

Filtering this information and developing clear dashboards that quickly display this data to show responders the most important information they’ll need will be an important evolution. The development of NG 9-1-1 will accelerate the adoption of AI as a tool to analyze data and turn it into actionable insights.

The development of light detection and ranging (LIDAR) and 3D mapping capabilities will give first responders a greater sense of their surroundings by providing access to building plans. This way, they understand the structure of a space before they enter, making it easier to locate individuals who need support.

Likewise, the development of tools like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will transform the training capabilities of first responders. The technology can simulate real-life scenarios for officers, so they can practice a realistic response. A clinician in the UK was even able to perform a procedure remotely through real-time video streaming and VR, guiding the paramedic through the process with haptic glove technology.

The continued development of technology for first responders will enhance their situational awareness and give them the power to accomplish more tasks and deliver more real-time service from the field.

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Comments
On 3/9/22, Hartley Gardner said:
As disasters increase in frequency and severity... -- says who Every study I ve seen that actually looks at the frequency and severity of natural disasters says that there has been no significant increases across the last 100 years or more. I realize that this isn t the real concern of the article but this sort of ignorance of actual data does not speak well of the authors.

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