This is the third in a blog series that will explore the FirstNet Authority Roadmap domains. You can also learn about: the Core, Coverage and Capacity, Voice Communications, Secure Information Exchange, and User Experience. Download the full Roadmap at firstnet.gov/Roadmap.
Transforming Data into Actionable Intelligence
First responders are faced with different situations every day. Some calls for service are routine, and others are once-in-a-career incidents. No matter the scenario, first responders need situational awareness, the ability to aggregate the information coming from different data sources and transform it into insights that can be used to help them respond safely and more efficiently. In other words, first responders need as much information as possible about the scene before they arrive and as the situation unfolds.
With recent advancements in technology, there are countless potential sources of data for first responders gathered through cameras, wearables, and sensors. This information, coupled with enhanced mapping and location-based services (LBS) data, can give responders a more comprehensive look at the situation they are facing, ultimately increasing their situational awareness. And with FirstNet, the nation’s dedicated public safety broadband network, this information is made available reliably and securely in the hands of first responders.
Thomas Randall, First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) Senior Public Safety Advisor, spent 37 years of his career in law enforcement and has seen firsthand how additional situational awareness data is transforming public safety operations. “Looking back on my career in public safety, I remember when most of the information available to first responders was shared by their dispatchers over radio,” said Randall. “With FirstNet, we now have the ability to provide real time access to information directly at the fingertips of our public safety professionals’ devices out in the field, where they use and need that data. First responders now have the ability to view and manage more lifesaving data, live and on-scene, than ever before.”
Situational Awareness in Action
Situational awareness data needs vary by discipline. For example, firefighters are interested in building sensors and devices that can help detect hotspots or the presence of hazardous gases, while video cameras can provide a law enforcement supervisor with a real-time view of an accident scene or crime in progress. But across disciplines, first responders are using a variety of tools to collect and analyze data to improve situational awareness and help them save lives.
When a gas outage occurred in Newport County, Rhode Island, during single-digit temperatures, first responders needed to go door-to-door to check on residents and conduct wellness checks. Using FirstNet-enabled cell phones and WiFi hotspots, firefighters and law enforcement officers used an application with geographic information system (GIS) mapping software to help them indicate where wellness checks had been performed and provide additional notes and pertinent information. This information was securely relayed in real-time over the FirstNet network to the command center, where others involved in the response could use it to inform their decisions.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) are being used on an increasing basis to help public safety agencies with situational awareness by collecting data through video feeds at major events. During football’s Big Game in Atlanta in 2019, first responders relied on tethered drones positioned on buildings to provide aerial surveillance of the area. The drones could be used to zoom in on incidents and help first responders see what was happening in more detail. The cameras on the drones could also follow responders as they worked through the crowds, and that video could be used to help direct the responders to the exact location of incidents. The FirstNet network provided 12 public safety agencies overseeing the event with enough bandwidth to quickly and securely stream this video footage to the appropriate command posts.
The Situational Awareness Roadmap Domain
The FirstNet Authority understands the importance of having access to critical information that can help provide responders with actionable intelligence. As the FirstNet network continues to evolve, it must support the situational awareness tools that public safety needs. With this in mind, the FirstNet Authority included Situational Awareness as one of the six key technology areas or domains in the FirstNet Authority Roadmap. The Roadmap is a guide for the growth, evolution, and advancement of the FirstNet network.
The Roadmap was developed after hundreds of engagements with thousands of stakeholders throughout 2019. Public safety described the need for LBS and mapping tools that can help them track personnel and assets, and they stated a need for enhanced data analytics to effectively use all of the data at their disposal. The importance of these tools continues to arise in our engagements with public safety. Half-way through fiscal year 2020, the FirstNet Authority has conducted 534 Roadmap engagements, with nearly 45% of those meetings specifically discussing situational awareness. The most commonly addressed aspects of situational awareness were LBS (discussed in nearly one-quarter of the engagements) and mapping (discussed in approximately 20% of the engagements).
Situational Awareness for Public Safety
Based on the feedback we’re gathering from public safety and current research on public safety communications technology, the FirstNet Authority continues to work on the two priorities within the Situational Awareness domain:
- Act as a catalyst in the industry for the creation and evolution of mapping and display technologies that allow easy consumption of geo-location information.
- Collaborate with industry and advocate for the development of standards, devices, technologies, and systems that collect, synthesize, analyze, and share information regarding personnel, assets, threats, and hazards in a manner that improves public safety operations.
As we hear from public safety, there is an operational need for mapping and display technologies designed for first responders that clearly show the location of personnel and assets. They also want standards-based devices and technologies that can aid in collecting and synthesizing the vast amounts of data points from other devices and sensors. It is also important that these technologies are designed specifically for public safety. Unique needs of first responders require unique tools and applications.
The FirstNet Authority is ensuring these needs are met through three components.
- The first is the development of LBS capabilities that are specific to public safety. Currently, there are commercially available LBS for anything from recommending a local restaurant to tracking a NASA lunar lander. First responders need more specific location information to help them understand the physical environments to which they are responding or in which they are operating. For example, they need to know entrance and exit points; locate potential hazards; and be able to track responders’ location – pinpointing latitude, longitude, and vertical location – as well as their movements and changes in speed and orientation.
- The second component is the development of mapping systems built specifically for public safety. There are several mapping engines used every day – these are a basic tool for first responders. However, responders face unique challenges and they need more layers with more data that help them build a more comprehensive picture of the incident, increasing their situational awareness. Through our engagements with public safety, we are gaining a better understanding of what those needs are.
- The third component is building actionable intelligence for first responders based on the data available to them. As technology continues to advance and more LBS and mapping capabilities become available for public safety, the amount of data and information will increase. This inundation of information can be difficult to sort through quickly and efficiently, limiting its ability to help responders make rapid and informed decisions. Therefore, it is important to have tools to help process all of the data and present the meaningful information to incident commanders, emergency communications and operations centers, or others in the field. Currently, many public safety agencies have individuals dedicated to monitoring many different sources, such as video cameras and sensors, and providing analysis support. As more information becomes available, analytic tools that amplify the ability of these individuals to process the additional data will be paramount.
The FirstNet Authority is supporting the development and advancement of these tools and resources in several ways. We actively participate in 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body meetings to represent public safety’s interest in the development of standards for mobile communications technologies. For example, the way that cellular networks produce location data (latitude, longitude, and vertical location) is standardized through 3GPP. The FirstNet Authority is working to ensure those standards meet the needs of public safety, and that the technology developed is in line with the standards.
Additionally, the FirstNet Authority is working with the National Institute for Science and Technology’s (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division to support innovation contests and challenges aimed at designing and building applications, software, and tools for first responders.
The Future of Situational Awareness
Public safety agencies are using situational awareness tools every day. There are many options available currently, but first responders need personalized resources. The FirstNet Authority is engaging with public safety to understand what’s available now, what needs to be modified, and what needs to be built to meet their needs. Ultimately, this will result in better situational awareness tools and systems in the future – all specifically designed and built for public safety.
For more information on the Situational Awareness domain and its relation to the other five Roadmap domains, visit www.firstnet.gov/roadmap and listen to the Public Safety First podcast episode, How drones enhance first responders’ situational awareness.
To engage with a FirstNet Authority public safety advisor in your area or schedule a Roadmap engagement, please visit www.firstnet.gov/public-safety/your-advisor.