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Managing emergencies in a not-quite-connected world

From locating gunshots to managing traffic lights to re-engineering the nation’s 911 systems, the Internet of Things promises to get you better emergency help, faster. It will just take time and money to get there.

When you call 911 to report an emergency, you are probably thinking more about getting help than you are about technology backbones. But the deployment of sophisticated sensors and telecom infrastructure to strengthen emergency response is evolving along with the smart cities movement, with the goal of delivering critical services faster and more efficiently.

"Like anything else in the tech world, few of these applications communicate with one another," says Mike McEvoy, chair of Emergency Medical Services for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "In fact, the more sophisticated we get, the harder it becomes to share data."

Furthermore, emergency response is essentially a local service, which means that every 911 system and every municipality does it differently and responds with different resources, down to the agencies that respond and the radio frequencies they use. The problem is, major emergencies frequently cross jurisdictional lines, making coordination a significant issue.

The good news is, despite the complex environment, advanced technology is changing the way cities respond to calls for help. Here are some of the most visible ways that’s happening.

Locating gunshots with IoT

On a local level, an application called ShotSpotter helps police identify and respond to gunshots. It’s common for gunshots to go unreported to 911—researchers at the University of Virginia and Purdue University found that only one out of eight gunshot incidents are reported. But ShotSpotter sensors can recognize the sound of gunshots and triangulate their location in less than a minute. The system is in place in about a dozen cities around the world.

In New York, ShotSpotter data is sent to a central location for confirmation. A human listens to a recording and decides if what the system heard was really a gunshot. When gunfire is confirmed, responding officers are sent surveillance video, crime and shooting histories for the location where the shots were heard, criminal records of people at that address, and information about guns licensed at that address. By the time they arrive on the scene, officers have that data on their patrol cars’ laptop computers or tablets.

City officials say the ShotSpotter integration with local crime records is proprietary to the city of New York, which licenses it to Washington, D.C., and Rio de Janeiro.

Centralized control of traffic

Less dramatic, perhaps, is a centralized ability to control traffic signals. Many cities have systems that give priority to approaching emergency vehicles. In New York, all traffic signals can be controlled wirelessly from a single console in the borough of Queens. It is theoretically possible to turn every traffic light in the city to red (or green) or to give priority to certain arterial roads to help in the event of evacuations.

"Basically, there's a control center where those guys have sort of real-time access in all of the conditions,” says Jeff Merritt, director of innovation for the city of New York and lead IoT coordinator for all its IoT efforts. People can manually see, "OK, we've got a backup here, what's causing that backup? Is it a car that's double-parked? Is it any of a number of different things?” Then, says Merritt, city officials can figure out the best action to take, whether that means changing lights or assigning someone to go out on foot to physically address the problem.

Learn the future of public sectors in a citizen-centric digital world.

More prosaically, DataKind and Microsoft are collaborating to analyze traffic data in New York, New Orleans, and Seattle to identify dangerous streets and intersections. Hot spots can be further scrutinized to determine if there are common factors such as confusing signage that can be adjusted to lower injury or fatality rates.

Getting medical data to emergency rooms fast

You’re probably aware of OnStar, the General Motors-owned automotive telemetrics system, as well as its competitors, such as Ford Sync. Besides its other functions, OnStar can alert authorities if your car gets into a wreck.

Going a step beyond that is Halcyon, an application under development that can transmit health data for the people in the car to emergency responders even before they arrive on the scene. When your phone senses that you’ve been in a significant crash, Halcyon promises to send your medical data to a network of responders. They use a common electronic health record format, so the responders know your health history—including your doctor’s name, pre-existing conditions, and drug allergies—before you get to the hospital.

FirstNet: Always-available bandwidth for responders

The Internet of Things relies on bandwidth, which can become a scarce resource in times of crisis. Moreover, different jurisdictions run on different wireless frequencies, making interagency communication difficult.

In 2012, Congress authorized $7 billion for the construction of FirstNet, a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders. FirstNet is an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. AT&T, FirstNet’s wireless carrier, has put aside Band 14 of its 700 MHz spectrum for the network. This part of the spectrum was given up by television broadcasters when they transitioned to over-the-air digital TV.

"Smart technology depends to a great degree on a communications system that goes beyond just voice transmission,” says Mike Metro, a retired chief deputy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. "We need bigger pipes for data transmission to our field units. With the acceptance of FirstNet nationally, the communication technology pipes will open up to the point that data will be easily transmitted. That may well be the tipping point.”

In July 2017, AT&T told Congress that it would build out Band 14 infrastructure only in areas where the company didn’t have sufficient public bandwidth to handle emergency traffic. In exchange, FirstNet would have access to all of AT&T’s LTE channels, not just those on Band 14. Public safety equipment would be able to preempt general traffic when necessary.

Next-gen 911

As telecom network have evolved, emergency call centers have lagged behind; the cost and risk associated with tinkering with systems that work often outweigh the advantages of upgrading. There is, however, a movement toward so-called next-gen 911 (NG911): IP- and standards-based response systems that are more flexible, reliable, and sustainable than legacy centers.

NG911 systems can more easily deal with non-voice information streams, such as video or text messages. "Across the world, many 911 centers use predictive injury algorithms coupled with crash sensors like OnStar to dispatch fire and EMS resources,” says the IAFC’s McEvoy. "Many localities accept text messages and some accept 911 video and camera photos, which allow faster dispatch of appropriate resources.”

"Next-gen 911 is going to enable data transmission,” says New York’s Merritt, "so whether it be text to 911 or potentially IoT systems that can transmit data to 911, the sky's the limit. Obviously, that's a heavy lift. It's completely redoing the entire system, and the important thing is you have trusted data that's coming in.”

Anyone with a residential burglar or fire alarm will recognize the problem. Most alarms transmit to private central stations, which screen out false alarms before alerting emergency services. If IoT or smart home devices communicate directly with the authorities, it’s not hard to imagine that they’ll be swamped with false alarms—or worse.

"That's going to require a lot of sort of regulation on the government side to make sure that we can trust those devices,” Merritt says. "They're opening up a whole bunch of sort of potential vulnerabilities from the cybersecurity, cyberterrorism side.”

NG911 will not arrive quickly. In 2016, its constituent organizations—the National Emergency Number Association, the National Association of State 911 Administrators, and the Industry Council for Emergency Response Technologiesset a goal to have upgraded systems in place in all 50 states and six territories by the end of 2020, a date the organization acknowledges is "certainly aggressive.”

Building local emergency systems on a national platform

One thing that makes emergency management a difficult field is that every jurisdiction does it differently, reflecting its local needs, budgets, and history. Depending on location and even time of day, a 911 call could bring a response from police; professional or volunteer fire departments; or municipal, volunteer, hospital-based, or for-profit medical service. Furthermore, the response could come from municipal or regional authorities.

There’s lots of room for growth and improvement. "I've never really seen anyone try to design a smart city using all these technologies,” says McEvoy. "Like anything else in the tech world, few of these applications communicate with one another. In fact, the more sophisticated we get, the harder it becomes to share data.”

This mosaic of needs, added to the long lead times and politicized processes in dealing with the public sector—plus requirements for scarce funding at the federal, state, and local levels—makes the response industry a particularly difficult one to play in.

However, the risk of standing still technologically—and the reward of improving services and saving lives—is driving improvements from the simple to the global.

Integrated emergency response: Lessons for leaders

  • Connected devices present an opportunity to speed emergency response.
  • Infrastructure to connect the IoT and emergency services is only spottily deployed.
  • The technology exists, but the money and political will to deploy it may be hard to find.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.