Public Safety

NIST research highlights the changing roles of data in emergency response

A broadband ‘firehose’ of data has the potential to better inform and direct our approach to incidents.

Part I: A broadband ‘firehose’ of data has the potential to better inform and direct our approach to incidents.

The latest Public Safety Communication Research (PSCR) survey from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shows an emerging but unmistakable shift in the data technologies used by first responders.

Describing the research findings, NIST’s Dr. Yee-Yin Choong pointed to the transition from land mobile radio (LMR) to the new LTE/wireless broadband based Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) as an important enabler of new information technologies that are changing the nature of emergency response. A bigger data pipeline allows more information to be stored and distributed to where it is needed. This can include site specific pre planned strategies as well as situational awareness (vehicle and personnel real time locations). It has also increased the appetite for better and more accurate applications of data, along with new sensors and displays.

A growing number of incident command applications are able to store, process, and share real- time data for the buildings involved, the location of known hazards, and the firefighting infrastructure available. 98% of firefighters now use cell phones and 65% use tablets on the job. Automatic vehicle location (AVL) can dramatically improve situational awareness, especially in larger fires, and the location/status of individual teams can be monitored centrally.

Examples of data usage and display tools


A significant percentage of the 2,617 firefighters surveyed in the PSCR study identified the following broadband applications as important to their work:

Preplanning: 65% of the firefighter respondents said that they currently have access to a preplan application (including 73% of career/non-volunteer firefighters). Of those that have access, 81% use the applications at least occasionally during calls.

…We used to do inspections, and now we do what we call pre-plan. So any new construction, we walk through the building. We look for hazards. In the event that that building starts on fire, we’d say, “All right. In that corner, that’s where an ammonia is. And that’s a roof access over here. That’s our FBC… These are exits. This is how we’re going to lay hoses, and this is where we’re going to throw our ladders.” So it helps us out.
-PSCR survey respondent

The improvement in broadband communications means that preplans are moving from binders to a central database to easily distributed and updated mobile displays. The challenge with preplans is ensuring consistency and accuracy in their preparation, along with integration onto real-time incident command applications.

As first responders, to have access to the water maps, sewer maps, gas shutoffs, all those kinds of critical infrastructure, would be ideal. We’re not quite there yet. But one day we’ll get there. Having access to the information that’s on the web and out there in books in digital format so you can carry all of it on your phone and not in your pocket.
-PSCR survey respondent

Mapping: There is widespread usage of mapping and navigation apps. 93% of firefighters said they have access to navigation assistance at work, and 93% of those with access use it routinely.

Unfortunately, over 60% said that they regularly encountered problems from the maps that they are presented with.

MDT/MDCs: Display remains a technology in transition, as nearly 41% said that they do not have these displays. Almost 96% of firefighters who do have access to a mobile display terminal or computer use them, with 67% with access claiming heavy usage.

One essential function of the display terminals is to present the right map, but often those maps are a source of frustration. Common complaints include being out of date, providing navigation that is ill-suited for large trucks, and lack of detail surrounding the incident site. Some firefighters feel that the MDTs are still mostly oriented towards law enforcement and don’t meet their specific needs.

[MDTs are important] because you can also relay very critical building components from preplans. For example, fire department connections, where are they at and where is the gas shut off. Where’s the water shut off? How was this building made? Is it a light-weight construction? Is it a truss roof? It’s giving you the information that would help any sort of commander or the first officer arriving, help base your decisions, what your actions you’re going to take.
-PSCR survey respondent

So what happens next?

The respondents were asked to list technologies that they hoped would become available for their day- to- day use in the near future.

In Part II, we’ll examine the new displays, sensors and location based technologies that NIST is funding through its research portfolios. They represent the best effort to turn the high powered data pipeline into actionable strategies for incident commanders.

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