Cloud driving public safety improvements
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Jan 26, 2021
Public-safety organizations have more opportunity than ever to be efficient, interoperable and data-driven thanks to cloud computing, a panel of experts said during a webinar.
For instance, California’s Office of Emergency Service’s Public Safety Communications (PSC) Division turned to the cloud to use device-based location data for 911 callers. When that data first became available a few years ago, the equipment in the state’s public-safety answering points (PSAPs) couldn’t integrate it. Now, 82% of the state’s 911 calls come from mobile devices, and with cloud, dispatchers can immediately view location data on their screens and verify it with callers.
“It’s a game-changer because now the dispatcher can reliably count on that location information that’s coming in,” said Budge Currier, 911 branch manager at PSC. He spoke during the Jan. 19 “Public Safety and Justice Industry Digital Forum: The Future of Public Safety” webinar hosted by Microsoft.
In Canada, the Calgary Police Service issues smartphones to all patrol officers, who then use them not only for communications, but also for investigations. Supervisors there have discussed eliminating mobile workstations -- laptops in police cars -- and using smartphones only, Brent Dyer, the service’s executive director of IT and infrastructure, said during the presentation.
Automation also plays an important role in policing today, added Kirk Lonbom, director of public-safety and justice strategy and solutions at Microsoft and former CIO and chief information security officer for the state of Illinois. Every responding agency is looking to free public-safety workers from lower-value tasks through bots and other tools. That will enable them to “spend more time with the community, focusing on our job,” Lonbom said.
Cloud-based videoconferencing is another way to accomplish that goal. Officers in Calgary have been attending morning meetings via Microsoft Teams videoconferences in their patrol cars, getting them onto their beats faster, Dyer said. The technology can also be used to establish instantaneous information-sharing and incident management channels across disciplines such as fire and emergency medical services.
“We went from 10 people using Microsoft Teams … to having 800, 900, 1,000 people being able to use Teams. And just in this short period of time – short meaning a little less than a year – we’ve got people using this type of capability beyond my imagination,” Dyer said. “That’s just one example of how cloud and technology has changed how we do business.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the benefits -- but also the challenges -- of cloud, as public-safety organizations have, like many in the public and private sectors, scrambled to enable remote work.
When PSAPs have to shut down for a deep cleaning or because staff members have contracted COVID, “the current technology we have deployed in California … just really doesn’t support quickly moving those calls and that dispatch capability to another location,” Currier said. “There’s some huge technology barriers.”
Plus, California requires that any time a 911 call moves from Point A to Point B, it must do so over a regulated service. That means 911 dispatchers working from home cannot use their own internet connection to answer a call. The state is in the process of deploying next-generation 911, which will enable calls to be routed anywhere, but until that’s ready, PSC must work with local agencies, which have varying degrees of willingness to embrace new processes and technologies.
“You have to map [technology solutions] with the realities of the organization that’s answering the 911 call and how are they interacting with their radio systems, their computer-aided dispatch systems and all the other technology that those dispatchers need to have at their fingertips,” Currier said. “Those, I think, are the harder questions that we have to talk through. The technology side will probably be easier to solve than the operational side.”
Early and current cloud adopters had an easier time adapting to remote-work needs when the pandemic hit, Lonbom said. At the same time, the crisis removed some of the barriers that other agencies had about trusting and using cloud. “It will open the capabilities for public safety to really exploit the cloud,” he said.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.