Frontline online. Smarter blue light services

13 March 2018

Emergency services are on the cusp of digital change. New technology is set to transform how information is stored and shared to create smarter and more joined-up services. Nick Hurd MP recently announced, “while policing’s greatest asset is its people, its biggest opportunity is technology”. Successfully exploiting this opportunity promises more efficient, more collaborative, and more responsive emergency services, fit to respond to citizens’ needs.

Creating digitally enabled services means better handling of data. Emergency services are swimming in data from the 10 million incidents they respond to each year. Sharing this information effectively means creating an ICT infrastructure that is compatible across services and organisations which welcome the secure sharing of information.

Basic data recording issues, risk-aversion within organisations and public anxiety towards the sharing of personal data can be overcome by developments in legislation and technology. The upcoming General Data Protection Regulation is focused on giving individuals greater control over personal data and ensuring that data is managed more securely. New technologies, such as blockchain – a virtually unhackable distributed ledger – could be used to enhance security and decrease risk. Tom Guthrie, former Vice President at Motorola Solutions, described efforts in the sector to create “entitlement controls”, providing all employees in emergency services with unique logins to grant “person-by-person rights to information”.

The new ICT infrastructure needs to support the secure sharing of information at all times. The Government’s new Emergency Service Network (ESN), which will transfer communications to a commercial 4G network, will improve the speed and quality of data-sharing, assuming Government is able to successfully extend the network across the UK.

Smart technology, such as electronic health records, videos from drones, and augmented reality glasses, can be used to get this information to the frontline and provide ambulance, police and fire crews with knowledge at their fingertips (see below).

Technology can be used to provide those on the frontline with information at every stage of a crisis, increasing the effectiveness of service delivery. On the way to an incident, responders can instantly receive information directly from the ground.  Last year, West Yorkshire Police trialled an app on which users could immediately send frontline responders videos and texts alerting them of the situation prior to arrival. Drones, currently in use by Surrey and Sussex police forces, can get to an incident much faster than ground security teams, providing information at the moment of the incident. In San Diego, digitised lampposts, enabled by the Internet of Things, which uses real-time monitoring systems to continuously update data, have been used to recognise gun shots, and immediately alert emergency services of incidents and their precise location.

Once at the scene, technology can aid situational awareness and identify those involved. For firefighters, thermal imagers, which render images based on heat rather than light, can be used to guide a firefighter safely through a building, and real-time feedback can be provided to colleagues on the situation. Biometric technology can then help identify the needs of the people involved, to understand interventions that might be needed. In February, the Home Office announced a successful trial that allowed police to record fingerprints on mobile devices, allowing frontline officers to identify individuals instantly.

After an incident, smartphones can minimise administrative tasks by instantly recording information remotely, increasing the time spent by emergency service professionals on the frontline. In future, mobile devices could connect those involved to the appropriate follow up services, such as mental health or probation services, and help understand the outcomes of different interventions.

Smart technology has the potential to transform the frontline. By embracing this technology, emergency services will ensure they are providing the best response for those most in need.

Sarah Timmis, Researcher, Reform

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