COVID-19: Why pandemic-induced innovation in public safety is here to stay
Nobody really knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end despite recent claims by some nations that a vaccine is not far away.
Malaysia expected a series of Movement Control Orders (MCOs to end in August, but after a mild up-tick in new daily cases the Prime Minister announced the extension of the Recovery-MCO until the end of this year. Even then, we won’t know if MCOs will be extended further into 2021.
Elsewhere, a second wave of COVID-19 saw Melbourne, Australia restore stricter lockdown measures, with Daniel Andrews, Premier of Victoria conceding his state may never completely eliminate COVID-19.
Following an increase of daily new cases in August, New Zealand’s Auckland region went into Level 3 lockdown for two and a half weeks.
A spanner in the works
COVID-19 poses unique challenges for public safety and emergency response personnel. The pandemic has quite literally thrown a spanner in the works in terms of how their organisations work.
At a recent media round table event hosted by Motorola Solutions, Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES) volunteer Graeme “Stan” Stanley explained how protecting public safety in the face of the pandemic required the service to rapidly develop new and innovative strategies and procedures. This included new methods for training and the use of a variety of communication tools to manage resources remotely and communicate with other emergency services. All of a sudden, VICSES had to deliver its services with minimal face-to-face contact among team members and citizens.
Founded in 1950 as a civil defence organisation, the now 5,000 volunteer-strong VICSES is an independent statutory authority. It provides general emergency management services and supports other emergency services in events including floods, storms, tsunamis, earthquakes and landslides throughout Victoria. It also provides the largest road rescue network in Australia, with specialist teams in 102 of its 149 units.
Before the pandemic, teams from various depots came together in camps, local staging areas and incident management control centres from where they would provide logistical support to other agencies. The agency continues to respond to many disasters, but to avoid cross-infection, it coordinates its teams and resources remotely using a combination of video conferencing, cellular technology and land mobile radio communications.
Last summer (January/ February 2020 in Australia), when massive bush fires blazed across Victoria, many VICSES members were on holiday and not waiting at home to be deployed.
“We barely had time to take a breath from the bushfires when COVID-19 started,” Stanley said. “Since March this year, the disruption in how we would normally operate continues and it will remain that way for some time”, he added.
For instance, Stanley’s team used to meet once a week for training and equipment maintenance works – activities that had to change to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.
The difference now, is that the SES is not only responding to emergency events, but in a way is a part of the emergency itself. Stanley and his teammates suddenly had to learn new practices related to hygiene. This included how to disinfect vehicles, equipment and facilities after use. Compliance with the restrictions and adapting to new technologies also placed a heavier administrative burden on the organisation.
Unfortunately, not all team members are proficient in the use of social media and other modern tools. It has been challenging for VICSES to keep all team members engaged, requiring a lot more effort to adapt to new processes as part of the agency’s daily operations.
For instance, when a major storm event led to hundreds of requests for public assistance, a virtual incident control centre was created for five VICSES personnel playing different roles from their own homes.
Before COVID-19, VICSES would dispatch emergency response personnel to the scene. Now to conserve its resources, the agency spends more time triaging the situation before deciding how to respond.
“This adds to our communication burden. Previously we fielded voice calls from the public, now we ask them to send in their photos. That ultimately helps us to determine which resources to send, but it’s also another task that increases the amount of information we have to manage,” Stanley said.
“As a volunteer, I now spend more hours planning and communicating with people individually than I do with groups – so that’s another activity that is taking more time”.
In March, at the start of Melbourne’s first lockdown, a child with special needs went missing and Stanley, as Agency Commander, worked with police to conduct the urban search.
The incident briefing revealed the child had a fixation for water (posing a serious safety risk) what he was wearing and that he was travelling on his push scooter. The agency focused its search on parklands and waterways near where the child was believed to have gone missing.
Fortunately, the search was a success and he was found safe and well.
“Typically in events like this, the more people we can bring to bear the more likely it is that we will succeed. For the best results we would also assign people with strong local knowledge of the area”, Stanley said.
“With COVID-19, we can no longer not mix our teams together because of the risk of infection. We have to communicate and collaborate with electronic tools to ensure we are searching in the right spot. We use social media apps, text messaging and pretty much whatever we can get our hands on to coordinate our efforts.
“This was a first-of-its kind search for SES. The event was very dynamic in nature and gave us many learnings,” Stanley said.
The road ahead in 2020
VICSES’s incident management guidelines outline seven principal “sleeves” that describe how to respond to incidents.
Stanley and his team are spending most of their time in the Planning and Intelligence sleeve to forecast which incidents may occur in the rest of the year.
The process involves gathering as much information from as many sources as possible and then using it to predict what might occur and how to respond.
“We don’t know exactly what the rest of the year will bring but we do expect extreme flooding in the south east of Victoria on the back of a very wet spring.
“It is going to be a big challenge figuring out how best to deploy our teams from Melbourne if we are still in a COVID-19 hotspot. That’s an important reason why we continue to evaluate which tools that can help us to better manage our teams and resources,”Stanley said.
Stanley has served for five years as a Victorian SES volunteer and before that, spent 10 years with the agency in New South Wales.
He is also an engineer with qualifications in project management and business development who currently serves as Motorola Solutions’ Public Safety Innovation Director.
Across these two roles, he has developed a clear understanding of the technology needs of emergency services and unique perspectives and empathy for the needs of first responders on the frontline.
Adapt as you go
Motorola Solutions’ vice-president of Technology, Paul Steinberg, said the experiences of VICSES during the pandemic mirrored what emergency services have been feeling worldwide.
One simple yet important change many agencies are making is the shift to paperless environments. For instance, managing daily workflows on mobile devices with intelligent software instead of using physical notebooks and pens. Replacing paper maps with digital ones is one important step that enables field and control room workers to collaborate and see where their resources are in real time.
“Video is also becoming increasingly important, with artificial intelligence (AI) being used to search through the huge volumes of video content being generated to make sense of it all,”said Steinberg. “For example, in the case of finding that missing child – instead of just using a picture, an AI-enabled video analytics system could help to identify the child by using critical details. That can include a description of the child’s hair and clothing colour, a description of the scooter he was riding and other important details,” he added.
Another emerging technology that can help remote teams is natural language processing (NLP) voice-to-text transcription. These technologies can search videos to identify people or be used to find important information such as vehicle license plate numbers. First responders can use the tool to search through agency databases with simple verbal descriptions that work in ways similar to Apple’s Siri virtual assistant.
The technology can also transcribe phone reports from citizens, identifying key words and phrases such as “address”, “baby”, “stolen vehicle”, “license plate” or “heart attack” – the likes of which could provide valuable context to first responders.
It is another capability that is helping to change the public safety sector’s dependence on paper based record keeping. With those reports being transcribed by software, the time police officers save writing down details can be reinvested into more worthwhile activities such as community policing.
Change is here to stay
Importantly, the multimedia component of this technology provides backup information that helps to overcome human errors. For example, if a vehicle should have been reported as a “blue pickup truck” instead of a “black sedan”, the system quickly identifies any discrepancies and provides clear visual evidence.
“The world is fundamentally changing due to the pandemic, accelerating technology changes in public safety from a few years to a matter of months or even weeks,” Steinberg says.
“Our company and industry has to help emergency services to adapt by combining individual pieces of technology to create more holistic solutions. That may include anything from cloud adoption and its underpinnings all the way through to teaching AI platforms very specific use cases to make things easier for first responders,” Steinberg said.
As the saying goes, necessity is the moth of invention. At the heart of these changes is the need to protect first responders and community members in new ways, Steinberg added.
“The first key trend we saw was the need for distancing and separation of operations, for example moving call taking from a traditionally centralised operation into people’s homes. We expect this trend to persist and it’s an important reason why our technology platform supports use both in remote and centralised operations.
“The massive uptake of telemedicine services has created more telemetry and a lot more virtual interaction for first responders. They can use all of that data in situations when they need to make critical decisions on how best to respond”.
“There is no way back for these changes – they are part of society now and are here to stay,” Steinberg concluded.