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Providing support for decision-makers

Date: 01st February 2012
Topic: Monthly Features
Technology: Digital PMR, TETRA
Tags: control rooms

Mission-critical control centres around the world are facing an increasingly broad set of challenges to their traditional ways of working, finds Alun Lewis.

As was illustrated by the high attendance at IIR’s recent Control Room Communications conference in London – and the wide ranging, enthusiastic debates that took place there – planners’ and managers’ minds are being concentrated by a diverse set of factors: technological, political and social.

On one hand, there’s a growing drive in many countries around the world to economize by simplifying and consolidating their emergency service operations, infrastructures and control centres. In many regions, these have evolved organically over the years, reflecting the organizational and political realities of their time – but which are no longer so relevant in such an interconnected and cost-conscious time as now. That said, decisions made on financial or technical terms will inevitably have a political dimension if particular areas feel that they may lose out on the community-focused and relatively independent emergency organizations that have served them in the past.

On the other – against that backdrop of financial stringency in an often politically and socially sensitive context – come a whole range of issues to do with technology change. For a start, the citizens themselves are now becoming interconnected and this will increasingly
affect the public safety environment in numerous ways.

Technology changes

Many local and national governments around the world are now opening up their systems and using the Internet to share information with the community – such as the geographic distribution of crimes in their areas. Citizens are far less passive than they used to be in expecting value for their taxes and, as part of the general ‘consumerization’ of society, are going to be much more active in monitoring and challenging the quality of service thatthey get from their local governments and public services.

Meanwhile, flowing in the other direction, cheap but powerful hardware in the form of CCTV systems, camera-equipped smartphones and digital homes running security and environmental monitoring systems will be adding to the flow of information and potential evidence flowing into the control centre.

In the emergency service environment itself, numerous technology changes are afoot – the shift towards broadband, IP-based communication being only one. For example, the emergence of cloud-based communications and applications services, already popular in the enterprise sector as a strategic, cost-saving solution, also has a potential in this environment – as long as the appropriate levels of reliability and integrity can be delivered.

Open approaches

For Euros Evans, chief technical officer at Airwave, the UK’s national Tetra-based public safety radiocommunications service provider, we’re currently embarking on a journey of major change in the way things are done at numerous levels: “Just like other sectors, we’re moving from a world where hardware and software are closely tied together – often in proprietary ways – to one that’s far more open. And cloud approaches will have a role to play, though clouds obviously mean different things to different people.

“If we step back for a moment and look at what exactly we’re trying to achieve for our emergency services and our communities, it’s already clear that while overall bandwidth is increasing we have to do much more to turn that data into appropriate and useful information to help support complex decision-making.”

Evans and some others in the industry believe that this is similar in many ways to what the mainstream telecommunications sector has had to do with its own back-office OSS/BSS systems in recent years – those IT systems that turn a network into a hopefully functional business. There, valuable information was often trapped in separate system silos that had grown up over the years and the costs for integrating new systems and or introducing new processes could be crippling.

Mergers, acquisitions, the roll-out of new services such as video, often relying on third parties and new devices to ever-more demanding customers, and an explosion in the amount of data to be managed in real time challenged the status quo – just at a time when both operational and equipment budgets were being cut.

On top of that, the ‘first responders’ – the expensive repair and maintenance engineers out in the field – were being confronted by far more complex problems than ever before that had to be resolved in ever-shorter timeframes. All in all, it was a fragmented and almost craft-based systems environment – rather than one that was truly automated with clearly defined workflows.

In this setting, a huge amount of time and energy has been spent by organizations such as the TM Forum in defining and standardizing terminology, processes and workflows to help vendors and operators streamline and integrate their operations, introduce new software frameworks and eliminate unnecessary baggage and costs.

Increasing integration

“It’s a real journey of transformation that we’re talking about here in terms of technologies, processes and the increasing integration that needs to happen”, Airwave’s Evans comments. “In the UK, for example, we’re seeing ever-greater collaboration between the different emergency services themselves. In some situations, this involves the sharing of call centre resources between regions and services in the case of call overload or other problems. While this is pretty straightforward in technology terms, a lot of thought has to go into standardizing shared processes and the presentation of information.”

This is a perspective supported by Martin Worrell, technical director at the control room systems supplier APD Communications – who also sees great potential for new technologies to both enhance relationships with the wider community as well as develop new tools for the emergency services to exploit.

“In these cost-focused times, there’s a lot that public safety services can do using smart telemetry solutions to monitor and manage their vehicles and driver behaviour in much better ways. We ran a trial in 2011 with the UK’s Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) to show how using an approach like our Driver Vehicle Management System to capture a wide range of data about vehicle usage could deliver major cost savings both in fuel costs as well as vehicle and driver efficiency.

“In terms of improving relationships with communities”, he adds, “we’re also seeing an increasing commitment by the emergency services to what are essentially CRM (customer relationship management) systems, able to reach across multiple systems, co-ordinate responses and provide feedback. These can track and manage incidents in a number of ways and communicate appropriate information out to people out in the community through a variety of media, providing a consistency and continuity often absent in the past. This strategy is especially valuable in identifying crime hotspots or supporting communities suffering repeated anti-social behaviour.”

Analysing workflow

The similarity to the mainstream telecoms environment is also echoed by Matthew Palmer, product manager at Capita Secure Information Systems. He said: “You’ve really got to look at the whole workflow throughout an incident’s lifecycle and find ways in which you can improve the richness of the integration and interworking between the different processes involved – for example, how can you draw relevant data from other systems – which may not be actually owned and managed by the emergency service organization – and send it to the responder while they’re en route to the incident?

This would include, for example, information on whether firearms are held at the address, if there are vulnerable people there with health issues or if there’s already an incident history at that particular address. This also contributes to helping de-risk things for the responders. There’s also the additional benefit of being able to handle information flows in the other direction so that officers for example can book custody suites while on their way to the
police station.
“You can draw a parallel with other sectors”, he adds, “only in this case the ‘middle office’ is the control room while the ‘back office’ hold all the data. The problem is that often these systems have come from different vendors and run on different platforms and so we have to find ways of getting these to interact in more efficient ways.”

Sobriety returns

This drive for greater efficiency and lower costs at a time of major technology change is hitting numerous countries around the world. Jeff Gillan, product business manager for Cassidian in North America comments, “Public safety services in this region are far more fragmented than, for example, in Europe and there are many additional challenges to do with funding, staffing and legal jurisdictional issues above and beyond the technology itself.

“In the US alone there are effectively around 6500 control centres ranging from very large urban ones to tiny ones in small rural areas and proposed changes in this environment raise issues to do with territorial rights and responsibilities. There are also staffing issues involved in terms of who is legally allowed to carry out certain tasks – such as reviewing CCTV evidence which may contain potentially traumatic images.”

He also cautions strongly against applying technology for technology’s sake without clearly understanding how it is going to be used – another lesson from the world of mainstream telecom.

“While it’s true that we’ve quickly moving to a far more data-centric world, it’s essential to understand that these fashions can often move very quickly in a pendulum-like fashion. For example, a few years ago a lot was being talked about the need to support SMS in the emergency services environment; fortunately some sobriety has returned!

People at the time forgot that SMS was a store-and-forward service which wasn’t suitable for real-time situations because messages could be delayed and there was no guarantee of delivery.

“Interestingly,” Cassidian’s Gillan adds, “when we actually did some research amongst the youth market – supposedly the ones hungry to use this newish technology – we actually found that the vast majority preferred the reassurance and immediacy of talking to a human operator. There are, however, important roles for SMS in some situations, such as interacting with speech- or hearing-impaired callers, reverse notification that action is underway or in pushing important information out to communities. Some corporations are also using this technology to broadcast alerts to their staff in critical situations.”

Erosion of boundaries

If SMS was the fashionable acronym then, then M2M (machine-to-machine) communications is the flavour of the year now. While the GSMA has its Embedded Devices programme, many other companies are focusing on the huge potential this approach has – such as Ericsson with its 50 Billion connected devices program and HP with its CeNSE project – Central Nervous System for Earth.

While visions and hype naturally abound, it is already clear to see that new types of sensors and the continued drive to add connectivity to all manner of things has the potential to change the emergency service environment. With cars increasingly being equipped with communications and smart monitoring equipment, capable of sending out alerts for example in the event of a crash, it’s easy to see how data coming from these sources could be integrated with road monitoring CCTV systems to quickly co-ordinate the kinds of multi-agency responses that are often needed in these situations. All, potentially, without anyone at the incident actually having to report an emergency in traditional ways.

The problems that the control centres of today and the near future face are not new and have been faced – and are being resolved – by other industries. The erosion of traditional boundaries, the need to manage ever higher levels of complexity in real time, the explosion in data and the drive to turn it into useful and actionable information plus a vital need to reduce operational costs – all these would be familiar to IT and communication strategists in many other sectors. The difference is that public safety communications demands life-critical answers – not just mission-critical ones.

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