Public Services > Blue Light

It's the data, stupid: new technologies and public safety

Published 11 November 2015

As the public sector embraces new technologies, it is vital we stay ahead of the curve and ensure that our data systems are equipped to deal with them, says Euros Evans, chief technology officer of Airwave


Life is never easy in the emergency services. Budgets are tighter, scrutiny tougher, the threats more severe and sophisticated.

That is the bad news. The good news is that the range of technologies available to meet those challenges and reduce costs is developing even more rapidly. From drones to virtual control rooms, from smart helmets to digital health monitoring, technological advances are not some CTO's sci-fi fantasy: they are everywhere you look.

New secure, resilient and time-saving technologies are being tested, trialled and rolled out by innovative emergency services and first responders around the country. Just this week, in fact, it was reported that two police forces in England are set to trial airborne drones for crime scene photography and missing person searches.

Drones are eye-catching. Paperless policing might be less glamorous, but it can save a lot of time and money - and make the police more effective into the bargain. Which is why over a third of police forces have already taken an unprecedented step towards paperless policing by ditching notepads in favour of Airwave's Pronto suite of applications.

Then there are the body-worn cameras already being trialled on streets up and down the country, or the West Midlands Fire Service's 999eye, a livestreaming app for the public to report fires.

These are all great changes. Each of them has the potential to improve the efficiency of our emergency services over the coming years.

But they come at a price, not just in cash, but in data.

Drones, telemetry, and cloud computing solutions can and will increase the efficiency of our public safety services, sure, but each of these technologies will create, carry or rely on huge amounts of data. That alone isn't a problem. But factor in the availability and potential of generic, publically available data too and we've got a challenge on our hands.

Think about the emergency services of the future for a moment. In 2020, police, fire and ambulance crews responding to a large scale incident will need access not only to drone telemetry of the scene or the vital signs of their personnel; but also to publically available data. The prevailing weather conditions, for example, or the flow of traffic en route to the scene. On top of this, by 2020 it's likely that many members of the public will be wearing devices like a FitBit that could allow responders to monitor their vital signs.

The sheer volume and richness of data can - and in many cases already is - a huge boon to public safety professionals. The challenge is in the disparate nature of the data. How do we secure it? How do we make sure it's available in the right place at the right time? How do we ensure that networks can cope with it? These are the key questions we need to plan for today: comprehensively and strategically, not piecemeal.

We at Airwave have been thinking about this evolution and what is going to happen next. We have 15 years of experience developing and maintaining a network for the emergency services that is encrypted, interoperable and resilient, and we are the leading supplier of application services to Great Britain's police forces.

In a new paper, Blue Light Futures , we have set out a number of recommendations to confront the data-related challenges now. Solutions range from ensuring that data is protected and the public is aware of and satisfied with how information is shared to upgrading wireless networks so that they possess sufficient coverage and resilience.

But above all, if we are to apply, integrate and properly exploit these new technologies, there is a need for planning and oversight. Evolution, not revolution. We believe a multidisciplinary working group is required, on the model of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme (JESIP) - established to drive the widespread adoption of new technologies and to define the access to wider data sources to make that possible.

In time, when the conditions are right, Airwave's existing Tetra network will be replaced by LTE (4G) for mission-critical voice and data communications, as countless data-hungry technologies change the way that public safety practitioners operate. And as the rest of the sector continues to harness new and emerging technologies, it is vital that we all stay ahead of the curve and ensure that our data systems are equipped to deal with them.

In doing so, we can safeguard the UK's current reputation as a leader in mission-critical communications, and most importantly, elevate public safety to new levels.

Euros Evans is CTO of Airwave

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