Revolutionising Emergency Management Through Smartphones

By Deborah Bodger.

With nearly 70% of 15-65-year-olds in Australia owning a smartphone, it is safe to say that most security personnel and emergency responders have one in their pocket right now. Given such widespread adoption, forward-thinking emergency response organizations are starting to use technologies to turn individual responders’ smartphones into life-saving tools. Using leading-edge technology, these organisations are able to vastly reduce response times, increase situational awareness, and enhance communications within the emergency response network. Not only are outcomes being improved, but organizations leveraging the adoption of smartphones are optimizing their resources and generating significant cost-savings.
Traditionally, both in Australia and around the world, emergency handsets were specially-designed mobile phones or pagers that connected to a private mobile network. With the widespread adoption of PCs several decades ago, these networks were managed by a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, intended to expedite the first level of intervention and ensure that the appropriate apparatus was dispatched to incidents. CAD systems were a great leap forward for emergency response organizations, as they have enable dispatchers to communicate with their response units through Mobile Data Terminals. However, these platforms cost millions of dollars, rendering the solution unaffordable for smaller emergency response organizations and departments. Furthermore, CAD systems have no way of locating responders who are off-network, otherwise known as the “last-mile” problem. An off-duty firefighter or EMT who happens to be minutes away from an incident would have no way of knowing about it, and critical minutes might be lost when a responder who is further away must be dispatched.
Another type of solution, SMS notification systems, enables users to register their phone number with a vendor and receive dispatched calls within their prescribed zone or box area. Additionally, the SMS system can be used to mass broadcast pertinent messages, such as recalls and weather updates. As a result, members or employees of a department become situationally-aware and can react by self-dispatching to the scene. However, this may lead to the loss of crew integrity, with dispatch unable to ascertain responders’ location, availability or response status.
Among some of Australia’s Emergency Management Teams, there is the sentiment that dedicated infrastructure and on-duty personnel are needed whatever the cost. Following the Black Saturday Bushfires in February 2009, where 173 people lost their lives, there has been significant investment in the private mobile radio network and the issuing of mobile handsets or pagers for every volunteer.
Systems like these are expensive and require a dedicated on-duty team. However they still do not provide an answer for the ‘last-mile’ problem, or cater for cash strapped organizations or those that have a large volunteer base.
For example, in the NSW Rural Fire Service, there are 70,246 volunteers. Given that the national uptake of smartphones in Australia exceeds 70%, it is likely that almost all of the volunteers could be contacted directly via their own smartphone. This would exponentially increase the number of volunteers able to be dispatched in the event of a fire.
Solutions are available that address this ‘last-mile’ problem, for example, a SaaS (Software as a Service) model that utilizes a plug and play solution running on responders’ existing GPS-enabled mobile phones. This eliminates the need to purchase additional expensive hardware and most importantly, ensures that no matter wherever the responders are – in-vehicle, on-foot or off-duty – they always remain connected. Enhanced privacy settings enable responders to stay anonymous until they choose to respond to a particular incident, at which point they are identified to their dispatching organization.
Smartphones can dramatically impact the management of an emergency incident. Utilisation of emergency apps among emergency service personnel can speed up the response time to an incident by selecting the most appropriately trained person to go, finding the closest responder and navigating them to the scene using the internal GPS mapping system. This is all done automatically, in seconds, while at the same time providing live situational updates. The mobile app is backed by a comprehensive, web-based dispatch module that can work as a stand-alone CAD or that can interface with an existing dispatch system. This not only leads to better incident outcomes but by utilising existing infrastructure, it cuts valuable capital and operational expenditure.
United Hatzalah Rescue of Israel is a case in point. United Hatzalah is a rapidly expanding, 1,700-member non-profit, volunteer emergency medical service organization that responds to emergencies throughout the country. The organization decided to seek a new technology to better utilize their volunteers, following an incident at a hotel a number of years ago, in which a child passed away from a cardiac episode. An off-duty United Hatzalah paramedic had been in the same hotel at the time, but didn’t realize what was happening until an ambulance arrived and by then it was too late. The organization turned to NowForce, an Israeli start-up, to develop an intuitive, on-demand system, which connected their volunteers to the communications network.
The resulting platform, a CAD environment that utilizes a SaaS  model to connect dispatchers via a web-browser, has helped United Hatzalah reduce their average response times from six minutes to three minutes. The integrated CAD/Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) informs first responders via a mobile data terminal application installed on their smartphones. Within five seconds, the software performs an algorithm to identify and dispatch the closest and most qualified volunteers. Dispatchers also have the ability to:

  • send and receive instant messages with field responders;
  • determine who has read a message; and,
  • instantly collect field data to push into a time stamped report.

Supervisors and chief officers can manage incidents in the field with tablet applications in order to see who is responding to an incident, their location and their qualifications. All responding personnel can receive turn-by-turn directions and active event updates. Additionally, an integrated SOS-button immediately identifies personnel having an emergency, while providing their location and a direct audio feed through their cell phone.
A second example is the police forces of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. The governor of Rivers State embarked on a wide-reaching program to transform its security infrastructure in order to reduce crime and promote a greater sense of personal safety among the population. With a mobile responder application deployed on police forces’ smartphones and tablets, and a web-based dispatch program integrated with the local command and control center, the police have been able to reduce their average response times by 80%. As a result, Rivers State is now expanding its use of the technology, and emergency medical, fire, and other security forces will soon be benefitting from the software.
A SaaS-based emergency response platform is also ideal for special events and ad-hoc security situations. For example, during the Euro2012 soccer games in Warsaw and Kiev last summer, a temporary dispatch center was set up to answer calls related to the personal security and safety of the 8,000 VIPs attending the games. The mobile responder, SOS and dispatch modules were deployed on all security staff phones for reporting, monitoring and dispatch purposes. The command center had direct contact with all of the local authorities, and through a web-based dispatch module, it was able to direct all of its resources (personnel and equipment). The entire system was set up in less than a day.
While dedicated professional mobile radio and CAD systems can provide robust coverage for emergency response organizations with large budgets and a dedicated, in-house team, “lighter-weight” mobile apps and SaaS-based systems are likely to gain traction in the future, due to their ability to solve the last-mile problem and their affordability. Solutions such as the ones used by the police forces in Nigeria and the emergency medical organization in Israel run on responders’ existing smartphones and a simple web browser; no investment in additional hardware or software is required. Finally, for organizations with a large number of volunteers or those responsible for safety and security at special (temporary) events, a SaaS model that works on smartphones make both operational and financial sense.

Deborah Bodger has been a professional in the telecommunications industry for over 20 years. Witnessing the development of mobile technology from analogue through to 4G, it is the advent of the Smartphone and high-speed mobile data that drives her passion to see this technology fully utilised in emergency management. She is currently the Marketing Manager for TeleResources Engineering based in Sydney and represents NowForce, Israel.