Role of communications in times of disasters

Marcel Verdonk / Motorola Solutions
27 Apr 2018

In the golden hour immediately after a natural disaster strikes, the speed at which aid agencies and emergency services respond is critical in mitigating the amount and severity of damage inflicted. Emergency response teams must race against the clock to rapidly scale up their services to deal with huge spikes in demand for assistance and urgent medical care, and one of the most fundamental needs for responders is for reliable communication. This is especially important when cellular networks are damaged or destroyed by disasters such as earthquakes and floods.

Asia Pacific is more susceptible to natural disasters than anywhere else in the world. From the continuing impacts of landslides in The Philippines, flooding in Sri Lanka, to earthquakes in Nepal and beyond - natural disasters in our region continue to bring devastation and disruption to lives, infrastructure and socio-economic systems. ASEAN and United Nations Agencies last year reaffirmed the importance of continued partnership to improve response and resilience to natural disasters in the region, as strong collaboration must continue to strengthen the region’s capacity for disaster management and emergency response.

First responders working in stressful environments require access to instant and reliable voice communications and basic forms of data to form a more complete picture of the event as it unfolds and the dangers it can bring. Emergency services organizations also comprise a mix of different departments, divisions and workers performing different roles - and all of them use different communications tools. Fortunately, it’s now possible to securely connect all of these workers on the same communications network via two-way radios and dedicated smartphone infrastructure made for critical conditions.

Extending access to essential voice communication helps to ensure that all responding agencies receive and share the right information from multiple sources. This enables critical and timely decisions to be made, including where and how to place physical resources to minimize risks to responders and victims.

Planning, preparing and responding to new threats to public safety in Asia Pacific

For the past 40 years in the Asia Pacific region, our organization has worked closely with the public safety community to design and develop mission-critical communication products and solutions that perform reliably in the most extreme of circumstances.

This process must always start with a comprehensive examination of the unique characteristics of the communities that responding agencies need to protect.

Making the right technology investments requires careful consideration of factors including population densities in cities and regions, geographic and environmental considerations, historical trend data and more. For example, Asia Pacific is looking into LTE-based networks for its public safety systems, which provides cloud and mobile access to officers out on field. Officers are now able to have a constant flow of critical, real-time information while policing.

Preparing for major events also requires a continuous cycle of strategic and operational planning, ensuring that the right priorities can be established along with the right equipment and training needs. For example, there is the consideration of interoperability between multiple forces working on joint, large-scale operations, which IP-based communication bridges can solve by seamlessly linking the different technologies of multiple agencies and jurisdictions together for improved team communication and collaboration.

All of these preparation efforts must focus on effectively coordinating and managing events throughout their entire lifespan - from the initial onset of an emergency, through the recovery phases and until the event is over.

Similarly, managing new and emerging threats to public safety and security, including terrorism requires greater investment in sophisticated tools and IT systems. These systems must be highly secure to protect emergency services’ critical information while enabling public safety agencies to communicate and share intelligence with each other in real time to enable the protection of national borders.

Technology’s potential in improving mission-critical communication

For first responders working in any emergency or crisis, the most reliable and secure communication available today and for the foreseeable future are mission-critical, voice-based communications systems. These systems are used by millions of emergency services workers all over the world every day and are proven to work reliably in the most extreme circumstances. Because they are standards-based (known as the P25, TETRA and DMR standards), these technologies are unmatched in terms of the level of security, reliability and instant communication access they provide.

While it is generally acceptable for us as consumers to experience a phone call with poor audio quality, a lost connection or the inability to connect at times of peak congestion, this is simply not an option for first responders. For first responders, not having access to reliable communication in an emergency could potentially put thousands of lives at risk.

While mission-critical voice communications will be needed to manage emergency response well into future, it’s clear that mobile broadband and software technologies will further enhance emergency operations over time. The Thai government for example has turned to technology to manage weather-related emergencies such as floods or droughts with the launch of a mobile data center that will travel across the country and survey the conditions of lakes and rivers. In the Philippines, smart mapping technology is being used to connect people with emergency services during natural disasters to raise alarms, communicate with loved ones and crowdsource vital information. In Indonesia, disaster response officials have created an app that crowdsources the latest information on active volcanoes from locals living nearby, and rely on smart maps which provide real-time monitoring of volcanic activity.

The use of data sources such as live video feeds and sophisticated analytics software can not only be used to respond to an emergency event or catastrophe, but to uncover vital clues to predict and prevent it.

Imagine the concept of a police force of connected officers wearing bodyworn video cameras patrolling a city to look for a dangerous suspect. If those video cameras were loaded with facial analytics software they could act as thousands of sets of eyes, scanning through a sea of faces in the city to find the suspect. A facial recognition match could automatically trigger an alert in the police agency’s control room. A control room worker could then make a discrete radio call to forewarn the officer of potential risks before the suspect is approached.

Over time, providing public safety personnel with increased access to rich, data-based information as well as voice communication will transform emergency management.

Another concept which highlights this is the use of mixed reality data sources - including sensors, video feeds, voice communication and other information - to provide first responders with a more complete picture of a dangerous situation.

Technology that combines all of this data within a virtual reality headset is now evolving quickly. Now imagine if a fire incident commander could project all of that information over the top of a burning building as a 3D, holographic image, enabling him or her to visualize what’s happening inside the building in real time. In critical moments, having access to the right information at the right time can make a major difference to public safety outcomes.

Today, we are only beginning to see how the continued evolution of broadband and data technologies are helping to increase awareness, collaboration, efficiency and safety with and between public safety agencies.

Impressive new tools are being developed to filter and analyze the masses of information that surrounds us, allowing emergency teams to combine their essential voice communication with critical input from victims, witnesses and the wider community.

The world will continue to change for first responders and expose them to new challenges which threaten safety in our communities. In order to perform at their best, first responders must be supported by technologies that bring together the most essential elements of voice and data and which perform reliably in any circumstance.

Marcel Verdonk is general manager for Asia Emerging Markets at Motorola Solutions

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