Navigating the next frontier

As the UK prepares for the next generation voice and data network for the emergency services, John Rennie says it could present new challenges as emergency responders move from operating with a minimal amount of information to having possibly too much.

Mar 12, 2015
By Paul Jacques
Harriet Harman

As the UK prepares for the next generation voice and data network for the emergency services, John Rennie says it could present new challenges as emergency responders move from operating with a minimal amount of information to having possibly too much.

Public safety lives on information. For a long time that meant radio communication and coordination among first responders. Then photographs and GPS (global positioning system) aided understanding of incidents, both as they unfolded and afterwards. Now, new initiatives are offering first responders a vastly more comprehensive view of any situation.

In the US, for example, the FirstNet initiative aims to bring high-speed, wireless broadband communications to first responders, ensuring they have a system independent of public networks to handle their needs through all types of disaster.

The move to IP (internet protocol)-based communications is another leap forward, making possible next-generation 911 that enables citizens to contact authorities using text messages, video, and other rich media that can then be relayed to officials in the field.

Drawing on video and other multimedia, first responders will have a more detailed awareness of a situation before they arrive on the scene. Voice, photographs, GPS and other existing technologies can be enhanced with video, including live feeds, which changes the whole scope of search and rescue and response.

Video used to overwhelm wireless networks, but as capacity catches up, video will be one of the most important tools for first responders. The advent of FirstNet in the US – and the UK’s forthcoming Emergency Services Network (ESN) – opens up the bandwidth for these capabilities, accelerating the entire response and recovery cycle. Responders making tactical, life-saving decisions can use real-time views of the incident to plan how to approach the situation, allocate resources, and navigate dangers on the fly.

And yet these capabilities, while enabling more informed approaches for first responders, also create new issues. The number of cameras available to public safety officials has grown exponentially. From fixed surveillance cameras to body-worn cameras, service animals, robots and drones, the variety of perspectives and feeds is unprecedented. Officials use multiple cameras to collect different information: a big-picture view, a close-up view, a thermal view and various other data from specialty sensors that grow in number every day.

But especially in emergency situations, when time is of the essence, sorting these many video streams into understandable, actionable information presents a new, big data challenge.

In order to pinpoint a suspect, locate a missing child, or better understand how an incident played out, officials need tools that tie together those myriad video feeds. New analytics are already emerging to integrate multiple sources and fill out a picture that no single stream could provide on its own.

Video analytics can provide a real-time look into events in progress. From hundreds of available video feeds, analytics can spot suspicious activity, abandoned luggage, trespassers and other incidents. Analytics can even home in on a particular suspect or victim across hundreds of video feeds based on a simple description. It can find where the person was, where they went, whom they talked to and more.

Analytics can also be invaluable in reviewing past incidents. Video’s complete picture of what people saw and did, combined with audio communications and other sources, offers a clearer understanding of an incident and how it can be handled better next time. Even successful operations can always be carried out faster and more efficiently. The goal is to manage the incident, keep people safe and then mitigate the time to get back to a normal way of life.

As public safety moves from operating with a minimal amount of information to having possibly too much, analytics will sort through the terabytes of video recorded to make sense of the data. FirstNet and the ESN should provide a

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