How Cloud Technology Benefits First Response

In the past decade, few computing trends have been discussed with the same reverence, or assigned the same potential, as the Cloud. The technology, loosely defined as a group of tools and techniques that allow devices to access resources on remote hardware, has become ubiquitous in recent years, with applications that run a wide gamut of user needs. Whether an organization needs to improve its technical capabilities, connect its field offices and personnel, or simply save money, some variation of Cloud computing or storage likely handles the brunt of the work.

The technology is often discussed in terms of its value to private businesses, but the public sector is hardly immune to its mix of utility and value. While the sheer number of public organizations make it difficult to ascertain a total adoption rate ala the private sector’s 93 percent, signs of its presence are certainly there. Amazon’s GovCloud service, which houses a number of critical Cloud services for government entities, has grown 221 percent year-over-year since 2011. Possibly more telling, both the current and previous presidential administrations [PDF link] have called for increased Cloud adoption at the federal level, despite fundamental disagreements on most policy- and governance-related matters.

These considerations alone make a compelling case for Cloud technology in first responder organizations. More notable, however, are the added benefits communities see when police, fire, and EMS organizations elevate their technical capability: responders with better tools can provide better and more efficient protection while keeping themselves safer from the dangers inherent to their roles. Because of this, and since there is a relative dearth of tools offering such a drastic mix of functionality and cost savings, the Cloud’s role in responder organizations will continue to grow. Still, there are important considerations for stakeholders:

Factor one: Financial efficiency

Because they tend to supplant large one-off purchases with comparatively low monthly costs, Cloud solutions are often positioned as a cheaper alternative to local computational and storage tasks. For cash-strapped agencies, cost concerns can make Cloud a leading candidate before considering the numerous other benefits it may offer. Keep in mind enhanced security needs and other potential drawbacks may necessarily inflate costs.

Many of these savings are a simple matter of architecture. With so-called “Public Cloud” solutions—that is, tools where vendors house computational and storage resources, with the client organization accessing them as needed. Agencies only need a suitable data connection and devices to access the distributed digital product. Accordingly, the agency spares itself recurring expenses it would otherwise shoulder, including:

  • Physical hardware, including servers and networking equipment;
  • Storage, a cost which grows with the number of servers et al. being housed;
  • Electricity for the devices and associated cooling, which can easily grow to hundreds or thousands of dollars per month; and
  • Qualified information technology (IT) personnel to manage it all.

Basic economics and business competition further drive Public Cloud prices down. Because vendors deploy special techniques such as virtualization to squeeze maximum performance from their hardware. They can parcel out resources the agency would need to purchase in full; a user cannot buy a fraction of a desktop computer, but they can utilize a fraction of a server when it is modified to act like a “whole” computing environment. Some Cloud solution markets are overcrowded to the point of dilution, leaving vendors to compete on price.

Public Cloud options also tend to be highly scalable. This is a major selling point for organizations with elastic computing and storage needs, since they pay only for the resources they use, and then only as they use them. A law enforcement organization putting large numbers of officers on the street for an annual festival, for instance, would only pay to store the bodycam footage they generate during that time. They would be no need to provision extra physical storage on the server rack, where it will sit unused for eleven months out of the year.

Note that Public Cloud is not the only Cloud technology utilized in the public sector. In a Private Cloud, organizations purchase and maintain their own hardware, distributing content to remote end users the same way a Public Cloud would. This method can still represent a large savings, particularly for entities with existing infrastructure and personnel. Virtualization, a technique by which individual servers are split into multiple virtual systems, consolidates existing servers (saving on electricity and space in the process) and staves off the purchase of new ones, for example; clusters of virtualized devices are also simpler to manage than large hardware collections, reducing the need for technical personnel.

Factor two: Performance and efficiency

Cost is only one part of the equation when upgrading systems and a solution that fails to improve performance or efficiency is not worth consideration. Here, responder agencies of all sizes can benefit from adopting Cloud tools, with many advantages stemming from the architectural details inherent to the technology.

The exposure trackers increasingly utilized by firefighters highlight this idea. While numerous states have passed “presumptive” cancer and disability laws, legislation that assumes certain cancers and disabilities stem from on-the-job exposure, others still decline to honor certain benefits without proof of exposure. In the latter case, it is reasonable that firefighters and their hiring organizations would need a product with distinct features. Ideally, it would be portable enough for multiple firefighters to carry to any scene and flexible enough to report numerous types of data; it would also need to be highly durable, considering the beating firefighting equipment can take in the field, and keep information throughout the course of the firefighter’s career and beyond.

While a tracker installed solely on the firefighter’s phone might meet some of these needs, several troublesome gaps persist. For instance, the thought of someone losing years of evidence after accidentally dropping and breaking a device is simply unconscionable. By contrast, a tracker with Cloud-storage capability offers significant peace of mind. Every field filled out and box checked is stored offsite in a secure server, greatly reducing the incidence of tampering and all but negating the risk of complete data loss. A firefighter who breaks or loses their phone simply needs to log into an account to retrieve their lifelong exposure history.

Storage, which makes up a large chunk of overall Cloud usage, is not just valuable to the individual user. It is also complementary to a practice that touches every part of the agency’s operations: training records management. By grouping systems into a unified, Cloud-based access point, responder entities can greatly simplify several interrelated tasks, including fieldwork, administrative processes, and even courtroom defense.

Consider the number of systems the average first response system uses to record training records. Paper-based academy scores and observations may be kept on site, range and driving course scores kept in non-networked digital files, and POST and other continuing education records kept in a limited siloed system that fails to interact with others the agency uses. However, this system does not lend itself to tasks requiring a longer view. Finding uniquely qualified individuals for an elite post could require supervisors to dig through multiple systems, while a lawsuit could send a law enforcement organization scrambling to prove that the training provided to an officer matches departmental policy.

Thus, a system combining disparate data into a single file for each staffer can have an immediate impact. Unlike a file folder, a database does not grow to an unwieldy size over the course of an individual’s career. Training management systems purpose-built for first response include tools that encompass multiple aspects of training records management. A Cloud-based system that delivers the same modules to every firefighter, EMT, or officer that accesses them, then stores training scores alongside other career statistics (such as range grades and disciplinary records) has immense value to any responder agency mired in uneven recordkeeping practices.

These are just a few examples of the things Cloud technology can do. While storage-heavy tasks like exposure tracking and training records management are well-suited to the technology’s strengths, it can be a boon anywhere productivity or efficiency are at issue. For example, firefighters of the Longboat Key (FL) Fire Rescue Department currently use Microsoft Cloud technology to view hydrant locations, review floorplans, and give visual updates of hazard areas from a collection of truck-installed tablets. In a group of fields where speed and accuracy are paramount, tools that enhance both are a logical improvement.

Factor three: Potential drawbacks

It is fair to say Cloud technology has seen significant improvement since its inception, but no single medium is perfect. To that end, organizations would be wise to weigh the technology’s drawbacks against its considerable strengths as they look for ways to implement it.

With their unique structures and services, responder organizations are particularly sensitive to standardization and security concerns. The average police department might process payments, transmit personally identifiable information, and collect highly sensitive crime scene evidence as a matter of course. This might subject them to rules, regulations, and industry standards no other organization must observe in total, including NIST Special Publication 800-53 and the Federal Information Security Management Act of 2002 (FISMA)

Housing on Public Cloud solutions exacerbates these concerns. NIST and FISMA standards, among numerous others, impose strict separation rules for virtualized servers, and usually put ultimate responsibility for any shortcomings on the agency. The same basic thought applies for any industry-regulated standards an organization may be subject to, including the rules set forth by the Payment Card Industry (PCI).

Avoiding trouble on this front is usually a matter of due diligence. Responder organizations should be well acquainted with standards governing the data they handle. Accordingly, their vendors should be accredited in the area(s) of interest and be willing to submit to regular audits to confirm compliance. Furthermore, there are no shortage of expert consultants willing to review an entity’s proposed or current architecture for possible standards-specific violations. While third-party audit services and consultants tend to come with steep price tags, they are arguably the best way for responder organizations to reduce compliance risks.

Outages and downtimes are another area of concern, but one that comes with a mitigating factor: Ultimately, all data is subject to the risk of temporary or permanent loss. Just as a fire or faulty sprinkler system may ruin years of stored paper records, Public and Private Cloud storage come with inherent risks that could temporarily restrict access. However, the number of failure points in a Cloud system may exacerbate matters. Local problems such as computer viruses or data-provider downtime are constant concerns, are possible problems on the provider’s side. Responder organizations worried about viruses or downtime should ask their vendors about their failover options and continuity plans. Those with local concerns like unreliable internet may wish to pursue inexpensive emergency data options, such as pay-per-use 4G internet cards.

To be sure, Cloud technology is not without its challenges. It is up to each individual organization to decide whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. As ballooning adoption numbers in private businesses and public agencies across the country show, the technology tends to make itself “worth the trouble,” and is a trend that will likely continue as the processes, techniques, and technologies behind the scenes continue to improve. Given its capabilities, its role in first response will only continue to see an upward trend.

Additional Links

Virtualization vs. Cloud Computing: What’s the Difference?

Fire and rescue service improves discovery and efficiency with BPM on Cloud

New Zealand first responders embrace cloud technologies to improve turnout strategy and safety

Posted on Jan 29, 2019