Ever since the first 911 call was placed in the town of Haleyville, Ala., in January 1968, the national emergency number has been one of the primary cornerstones of communication in the emergency response industry. In the following decades, first responders have used this and other emergency resources and technology to rescue and assist millions of Americans.
While emergency service needs have continued to expand with the rising population, many departments are falling behind the needs of their citizens. The National Emergency Number Association estimates that 240 million 911 calls are placed each year in the United States. While the call volume is high, however, understaffed call centers, underfunded first response departments and poor communication between emergency services have led to increased response times. The national average response time is over 15 minutes — more than enough time for an individual to die, a building to collapse or a criminal to escape.
Fortunately, there are solutions. Numerous tech upgrades are available to help increase the response times and effectiveness of emergency response departments, and funding is becoming increasingly available. Many departments across the country are finding it a little easier to gain access to funds for tech upgrades for their police, fire and EMS departments. If your department is seeking grant funding for tech upgrades, check out our resources. The question then becomes, which tech upgrades matter the most for your department?
The Role of Technology in Assisting First Responders Is Expanding
First responders have historically relied on a wide variety of equipment and technology to assist citizens quickly and effectively. Transportation vehicles have changed and expanded to meet the technological needs of departments, while communications equipment has evolved to include the Internet. The roles of first responders have similarly changed, involving a greater use of technology in their daily operations. While not all departments have had the funding or technological infrastructure to make use of the most recent advancements, most emergency response departments have deployed improvements in notification and dispatch services.
While 911 has been around since 1968, there have been significant improvements in the technology involved in the system. The new 911, called enhanced 911 or E911, has automatic caller ID and database information so the dispatcher can see the caller’s phone number and address. This capability allows dispatch to track and call back an individual calling in as well as to send an ambulance, police car or fire truck to a location with more accuracy. At present, 93 percent of counties with 911 coverage have E911 services.
E911 only works for landlines, however. With over 29.7 percent of households using wireless, 911 services have further evolved to include wireless capability, which allows dispatch to access phone numbers and automatic caller location information for wireless callers. This technology is now implemented in some form in 97.1 percent of counties with 911 coverage. While not ubiquitous, wireless technology has improved dispatchers’ ability to quickly and accurately deploy first responders, and the technology is continuing to improve.
On top of this, consumer notification systems for emergency services are more common than ever. Many vehicles and home security systems can now send alerts to providers who can then contact emergency services on behalf of the owner. These systems can help emergency services get to accidents and break-ins more quickly, allowing them to provide a higher level of assistance.
This is hardly the extent of first responder technology — mobile computers, smartphones, drones, cloud systems and police body cameras have all been deployed in various departments across the United States to help improve communication within and among departments and improve efficacy and accessibility. However, variations in funding, infrastructure and interoperability have severely impacted the ability for many first responder departments to adopt these technologies effectively.
How Communications Challenges Undermine First Responders
Communications challenges for first responders are deadly, especially in emergency situations. On September 11, 2001, after the first tower fell, communications broke down between first responders — police helicopters warned others that the second tower was going to collapse soon, but their radio system was incompatible with that of the fire department, and the message only reached police officers. On top of that, firefighters’ radios had such limited range, teams on different floors could barely communicate with each other, and some even resorted to using a bullhorn to relay evacuation orders. Similar issues have occurred in subsequent disasters with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013.
Some of the biggest challenges presented by current first responder communication technology include:
- Interoperability: Many systems for different departments rely on incompatible technology. Departments may communicate on different radio frequencies or use technology that doesn’t allow them to share information with other system types. In one survey conducted by the Public Safety Wireless Network Program, 30 percent of fire and EMS agencies said that a lack of interoperability has decreased their ability to respond to incidents, and 43 percent said that it affected their ability to communicate with agencies in surrounding areas.
- Limited mobility: Mobility is essential for first responders — the ability to change locations quickly and communicate over a long distance is critical for emergency situations covering large territories. However, radio systems are often limited in range. These limitations are even more present for many computer systems first responders use — even though Internet access can help emergency services access critical information, many departments don’t use mobile computers or have computers that are limited in mobility and capability.
- Connectivity: One of the significant issues for first responders with mobile devices is connectivity — many departments operate in areas with limited mobile coverage, making mobile devices less effective, and they don’t have the infrastructure or funding to improve the performance of these tools.
- Security and physical ability: On top of these issues, having systems that are rugged enough for emergency services work and secure enough to hold sensitive information is a challenge, as these systems are highly specialized and funding to implement them can be difficult to come by.
All of these issues contribute to a less cohesive first responder network, which is dangerous for citizens as well as for responders themselves — officers, EMTs and firefighters rely on reliable communication to understand a situation and keep themselves and their citizens safe while handling a call. Failures in these communication systems can have potentially lethal consequences.
Top 5 Technologies Impacting the Performance of First Responders
While communication challenges are still an issue, it’s a problem that is widely recognized, and many counties and states are working to improve first responders’ communications technology and any tech that could potentially assist in that effort. Some of the most promising technology to advance public safety includes the following:
1. Vehicle-Mounted and Mobile Computers
Vehicle mounted computers for first responders are some of the most versatile tools available, and they’re becoming increasingly more advanced. The most recent mobile computers have computing capabilities that used to be available only in buildings. Now, police officers can reliably access essential information from their cars, allowing them to stay on patrol longer and be more effective while they’re out. Internet access through mobile computers is a technology that can impact fire departments as well — mobile computers and rugged tablets can help firefighters access building plans and local statistics to discover the best access points for burning buildings and potential dangers. EMTs can also benefit from this technology, as they can use rugged tablets to send video and information to the emergency department of a hospital, allowing teams to prepare for the patient’s arrival.
2. Drone Technology
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are extremely effective for relaying visual information, especially over long distances or in unsafe environments. Many emergency response departments have started using drones to navigate through extreme conditions to assess the situation and provide assistance without risking the lives of first responders. In the future, specialized drones may become more commonplace and more capable, equipped to provide emergency relief, on-site support or even bomb defusing abilities.
3. Cloud Capabilities
Cloud-based systems provide a level of accessibility and flexibility that first responders need — access to the cloud is a standard for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) computer systems and is one of the areas of need identified by the DHS for first responders. Cloud computing brings data and communication together into a centralized data bank so authorized users can access any of it at any time. A centralized system for all emergency responders for a particular area can help keep all departments on the same page, and further development of the technology may allow for increased collaboration, especially in emergency situations.
4. GPS and Location Tech
Location technology has a wide range of used for emergency responders, from dispatch to the field. While many emergency dispatch services are still using outdated and imprecise triangulation technology, some areas are starting to use GPS and location services to pinpoint the location of a call and provide a prompt response. Location services are also being explored in the field — tracking and verifying the arrival of first responders on a scene and tracking their locations can help coordinate efforts and keep first responders safe.
5. Artificial Intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is also being explored in a variety of first responder applications. Emergency dispatch services in some areas have started using AI to filter through calls and identify certain signals that could indicate specific types of dangers. This can help improve the workload of overburdened emergency call centers as well as the response times by automatically directing calls to the correct emergency services.
The tools described above aren’t the only technology upgrades police departments and emergency service providers are pursuing. Police body cameras can help keep track of essential information and interactions, and improved hands-free visualization technology can help first responders navigate and detect victims and perpetrators in low-visibility situations. Digital medical IDs are becoming more commonplace, allowing EMTs to easily see conditions, medications, blood type and more. Virtual reality training is also gaining traction as a way to put first responders through realistic training without placing them in danger, allowing them to learn how to communicate and react in real-world situations.
These technologies drive first responders, and they’re just the beginning. As the DHS seeks better tech and technological capabilities continue to expand, communications tools for first responders will continue to advance and progress to improve their ability to serve the population.
Contact Datalux for Mobile Computers for First Responders
Police, fire and EMS providers all work in a challenging environment, and they need the best tools available to help them provide the services the public needs. Datalux can help, with mobile computing solutions that first responders can depend on.
Designed to stand up to all kinds of wear and tear, Datalux products deliver maximum accessibility, allowing responders in the field to access the back-office information and real-time intelligence that makes the difference in an emergency. Our vehicle mount computers and rugged tablets for first responders fit safely and ergonomically in safety vehicles and have the versatility, security and durability needed to provide reliable service even in the harshest conditions.
Datalux products include:
- Mounted computers: Our all-in-one mounted PCs have helped police, fire and EMS personnel for over a decade. With bright screens, several connection options and a user-friendly interface, mounted computers like the Tracer Fixed Mobile computer are valuable tools for first responders.
- Rugged tablets: Rugged tablets combine accessibility with mobility, allowing first responders to access information anywhere in the field. With a lightweight yet durable design and a powerful processor, the rugged tablet is the premier option for first responders looking for maximum mobility.
- Mobile PCs: Powerful mobile PCs are essential for first responder units. Small yet rugged, computers like the Databrick can be placed anywhere in a vehicle, but provide enough power to keep public safety operations running smoothly.
- Durable monitors: Durable monitors are essential for public service officials, and touch-screen enabled monitors can help streamline search processes and improve user experiences. Datalux provides both, all optimized for maximum operability in first responder vehicles.
- Vehicle mounts: No matter the system you choose to implement, you need a safe and secure mount to hold it. Datalux provides ergonomic mounts, vehicle docks, keyboards and peripherals for any type of public safety vehicle.
Datalux builds all of our systems to order and tests them with an extensive quality control process. When you’re ready to implement our products, we also provide installation services and a strong warranty so you can trust that your system is the best it can be.
Since it was established in 1990, Datalux Corporation has focused on providing specialized computer products for unique applications. We pride ourselves on developing and delivering top-quality solutions for the most demanding environments, and we have done so for a wide range of companies throughout North America, Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. With our dedication to excellence in manufacturing and service, we’ve maintained our position as a leader in our field, and we know we can provide your department exactly what you need.