One of the challenges facing emergency services agencies during a crisis is managing data and maintaining reliable communications networks.
At the recent Cisco Live event in Melbourne, the Australian National Safety Agency demonstrated its Emergency Services Integrated Communications Vehicle concept.
The idea was born out of series of natural disasters in Australia, particularly the 2009 Victorian bushfires that saw 173 lives lost.
“We waste a lot of money in duplication, particularly in public safety where agencies operate in silos,” says Des Bahr, Chair of the National Safety Agency. “There is a vision to look at how we can effectively bring the agencies together.”
Corralling the data
Increasingly emergency service workers are being overwhelmed with data as more intelligent devices are deployed in the field and more sources of information, such as social media feeds, are available to the public and those affected by disasters.
The mobile command is intended to help emergency service commanders, community leaders and the public understand events and assist agencies in deploying resources more effectively in a crisis.
Along with creating a centre for integrated communications, the vehicle also provides a community hub in times of disaster with large screen displays for residents to gather information along with Wi-Fi hotspots, power sockets and Ethernet ports for affected locals to recharge devices and contact loved ones.
Touring the truck
The truck itself is 20m semi-trailer converted from a refrigerated unit that contains a full communications centre, satellite and cellular data links along with a self contained 65KVa diesel generator that can maintain power to the vehicle for up to twenty-five days.
Of the external features, the most notable is the wall of video displays at the rear of the truck. This allows operators to display video, data, news and social media feeds to emergency responders and affected local residents.
“In our view, the public are as important as the emergency services,” says Bahr. “It’s important to get information to the public so they can make decisions on whether to stay or go.”
The community area also has power and Ethernet ports available; depending up the situation these can be made avialable to local residents for recharging devices and contacting loved ones in areas where communications or electricity networks have been disrupted.
A key part of the communications hub is the software provided with it; volunteers and emergency service workers can download and use an Android or iOS app for use on tablet computers and smartphones that patch into the relevant information streams from the truck.
During crises, agencies can give authorised users access to various features and information sources which can include real time statuses, video feeds and voice communications.
Attracting younger volunteers
The National Safety Agency also sees these apps as attracting younger volunteers to the emergency services. “Most volunteers are retired and we’re trying to attract them with technology;” says Paul Prosser, the project’s director.
Also outside the truck are Wi-Fi hotspots with the capability of installing RF, 3G and LTE base stations on the truck, making the vehicle a hub for patching conversations between networks and co-ordinating the efforts of various agencies.
Within the truck, the command centre has 35 LCD screens with five dedicated workstations for different agencies that can patch in their own data feeds or public streams such as social media posts and weather data.
On the truck is an mainframe and storage containing maps, simulations and hydrology data to help commanders analyse data and predict conditions without relying on reliable internet connections during an emergency.
The truck has cost five million Australian dollars to develop and the National Safety Agency is looking at rolling it out with clients as diverse as the Saudi Arabian police and Victorian state fire brigades.
Catering for future needs
One of the future tasks of the truck is to monitor the location of vehicles and personnel; “right now there’s no record of where the appliances are,” says Paul Prosser.
Currently the proposal is for the truck’s staff to provide tracking units for vehicles, however in the future that it’s likely that both appliances and personnel will have their own direct data links built into their equipment.
As public safety and emergency management becomes increasingly data driven and devices that automatically gather information become ubiquitious in the field, vehicles like the Emergency Services Integrated Communications Vehicle are going to become essential in processing data in real time on the sites of disasters and emergency situations.