How Cloud, Smart Devices, and Other Innovations Are Changing First Response

Public or private, few industries in the United States can boast a technological history as deep, prolific, or long-lived as that of first response. Colonial-era public safety agencies enhanced their capabilities with purpose-designed tools as early as 1648, nearly 120 years prior to the founding of the United States. The discovery of Ancient Roman “bucket brigades” and Egyptian water pumps, along with the human tendency to conquer challenging situations with the use of tools, suggests the tradition has existed in some form since the beginning of recorded history.

Today, the industry remains in effect thanks in large part to the public sector’s sustained willingness to invest in technology that helps public safety agencies keep better pace with innovation. Vendors, naturally, have responded favorably to this shift in conditions, with more third-party sellers producing a better selection of tools than ever before. Between mission-specific products—body cameras, dashboard computers, or GPS software that tracks fire hydrants and general-use tools such as email programs and IP-based telephone systems, technology plays at least a limited role in almost every task a department carries out.

The healthiest budgets and biggest collections of tools mean little if the available solutions lack the proper utility. While factors like reliability and usability remain constant, the response industry’s needs tend to diverge from those of other markets. Many of its challenges do not occur outside the response sphere and its general-purpose tools are bound by strict privacy and security regulations, challenges that ultimately limit the number of vendors willing to offer solutions.

None of this is to say the challenge is insurmountable. Vendors and associated technologies that do provide the industry or its individual branches viable utility have plenty of ground to conquer. In terms of adoption and transformative potential, the following innovations have had particular success, giving organizations a set of attributes to look for when searching out their next technological upgrade and developers a point of reference when designing their own solutions.

1. Cloud: The modern responder agency’s technological backbone

At a high level, an ideal first response technology should be affordable, light on infrastructural requirements, and scalable with its storage or power (where relevant). It should also be less susceptible to outages, user-side disruption, and cyberattacks. While “cloud” is technically a grouping of innovations instead of a strict, single technology, it largely excels at hitting these qualifications; this makes it a rare one-size-fits-all in an industry where the best tools tend to pinpoint and specialize.

If anything, cloud’s presence is so widespread, its uses so diverse, that it may appear invisible at ground level. Technologies under the cloud banner are present every time a body camera wirelessly transmits recording data to an offsite storage location, for instance. When a GPS unit attached to a fire engine or ambulance notes traffic congestion and suggests a different route, it is cloud technology enabling the research and disseminating the data. When an area supervisor logs into a training management system, and checks hundreds of employees for learning compliance with the click of a button, it is the use of cloud technology saving them from chasing paper files across multiple buildings.

Depending on the cloud technology used and service rendered, cloud can also offer major infrastructural savings. Returning to the body camera example above, for example, storing video from “always-on” devices requires substantial storage capability, a need that scales with each officer on-shift. Compared to the huge upfront costs of local storage, cloud technology provides an alternative that only charges departments for what they use. Even if monthly costs project to outpace the price of buying, maintaining, and expanding an on-site storage solution, cloud makes new strategies possible: a hybrid system whereby department systems house new data and immediately migrate them to cloud after a certain point, for example.

To be clear, this is only a small slice of what cloud does for responder agencies. Its presence extends to cover every other item on this list, along with untold thousands of other technologies various responder organizations rely on. These factors combine to make cloud one of the most important innovations to rise to prominence in the digital era, undoubtedly one reason for government’s heavy investment in the medium. In this regard, the most surprising thing about cloud may be that it can still get bigger.

2. Smart devices: Small size belies considerable flexibility, potential

Like cloud, smart devices such as smartphones and tablets provide value through their endless flexibility. While relatively few devices in the category come expressly designed for first response use, most off-the-shelf purchases can be modified to suit any agency’s purposes. Once a device has been configured by IT, connected to the appropriate services and security settings, installed with the necessary apps, and outfitted with a protective case, it becomes capable and tough enough to pass muster.

A hypothetical fire emergency may clarify the point. In the course of a single fire, a team away from the station may receive alerts about the event through their phones or tablets. They then use the devices to review tactical data (pushed from a supervisor’s computer), push real-time alerts containing text, picture, and video during the fire, locate the nearest alternative hydrant if problems arise, review emergency medical protocols in the event of injury, and track potential exposure to toxins and carcinogens to protect against the possibility of illness in the future. Multiply this sort of capability across all branches of response—and all the situations personnel may encounter—and it is easy to see how smart devices contain potential beyond their role as consumer-tech moneymakers.

3. Digital document management: Removing “baked-in” bureaucratic inefficiency

There is a reason so many negative terms about office life include references to paper (e.g. paper chase and paper pusher). Until recently, physical documents were arguably the biggest source of unavoidable inefficiency an office might deal with. In government, within an organizational framework built around the idea of documenting everything, this concern only compounds.

This alone makes the creation of digital documents an important technological milestone for responder organizations. Add in technology’s ability to streamline and automate related tasks, and things get even better. Instead of getting a given recruit’s training history, looking for the right binder, attaching the clipped documents to the right folder, putting it all back into the right cabinet, and so on, a management system can organize complex data on its own. It then enables the users to parse, analyze, and categorize as they see fit. On the administrative end, this ultimately reduces the “effort bloat” inherent to many paper-based tasks (including disciplinary proceedings, compliance audits, training checks, and qualification searches, among others) by distilling the process only the parts that need human action or judgment remain.

Like the other items in this list, digital document management is particularly valuable because the problem it addresses does not scale in a straight line. Though verifying recruit training requires the same core actions regardless of number, the process required to verify 300 entails far more complexity than the process needed to verify 20. That does not mean an agency needs to be large to enjoy the benefits of a management system. To the contrary, the technology’s ability to consolidate “bloat” means everyone gets the same simplicity.

4. Training management systems: The next step for modernizing agencies

Training is a universal duty for first response personnel and a universal responsibility for the organizations that oversee them. Besides the obvious need to educate employees in a field with such high stakes and the practical knowledge needed to navigate dangerous situations with skill, there is also the unfortunate reality of litigation. Lack of quality (or total lack of) training is a frequent, favorite target of plaintiff attorneys when questions of liability arise, making thorough documentation of all education activity a sacrosanct need.

Situations like these are one reason agencies utilize training management systems (TMS), but the others are just as compelling. Despite its importance to agencies, training is often expensive, time consuming, and full of fiddly logistical snags that pull qualified personnel away from more important work. Because of this, an organization could never see the back of a civil defendant’s desk and still get substantial utility from a TMS.

Consider all the tasks needed to plan a single, “simple” training course, and all the problems that can arise from them: Scheduling, verification of attendance and (where applicable) test scores, equipment tracking and management, and budgeting. Then there are the long-term needs. When a supervisor cannot remember whether an employee took the training six months from now, how do they pull up their file to confirm? Does the current system guarantee the right information will be in the right place?

Simply put, a TMS—specifically, a TMS built for the first response industry—provides utility by handling these and other tasks. Scheduling is largely automated, removing the need for intervention where possible and alerting stakeholders when conflicts arise. Courses and tests taken online are recorded to the respective employee’s file; those with a required physical presence can be documented from the instructor’s authorized device on-site. Relevant personnel can track equipment from course to course and check the cost of a given training against the agency’s annual budget.

Putting it another way, the constant responsibility of training and looming threat of legal liability necessitate a tool specifically built to harden against both. Agencies currently shoehorning multi-faceted management practices into a generic-use system will find industry-built tools better for planning, organization, recordkeeping, and vendor support. Those still on paper processes or sticky-note-on-the-monitor “systems” close off holes that turn common tasks into mistakes and oversights. Either way, the industry’s history of smart technology use now extends to one of its most complex practices—a reason for everyone involved in the training process to breathe easier.

Posted on Apr 10, 2019