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Response redefined - ICT and the future of public safety

Mobile broadband and distributed computing, coupled with industry-wide standardization efforts, can transform emergency response. This paper explains how to use ICT architecture and consulting frameworks to create truly mission-critical, multi-agency platforms that enable effective communications and information sharing. At the same time, factors such as affordability and ease of implementation should lead agencies to embrace solutions based on open standards.


Aging populations, changing social norms, global terrorism, extreme weather, and natural and man-made disasters are among the diverse situations that today's public safety organizations are required to manage. 

At the same time, many national governments are looking to reduce budget deficits, while the public has ever higher expectations with regard to security and safety. As a result, government scrutiny of spending has increased, as have demands for higher productivity from organizations that work with public safety.

Technology can and will play a key role in bringing about this improvement in efficiency and productivity – but technology alone is not enough. Solutions with a diverse range of attributes are required to satisfy the needs and alleviate the concerns of all stakeholders. These attributes range from affordability to flexibility. The key to satisfying these different needs, and maximizing the utility of each solution, is to understand and manage the flow of information. 

This paper describes how an Enterprise Architecture-led approach can transform public safety through the use of ICT. Recent advances in mobile broadband and distributed computing, coupled with accelerating efforts in industry-wide standardization, make this transformation a more realistic proposition than ever before.

Why information flows matter

Public safety organizations are challenged on all sides – to lower costs, improve response times, reduce crime, improve outcomes for victims, and manage the impact of natural disasters and extreme weather. Dealing with this range of events requires multiple skills and capabilities, often from many different organizations, each with its own specialist capability. In addition, the time that elapses from the moment an alert is raised to the response can be critical to the outcome. 

For example, a study carried out by the Scottish Ambulance Service and the University of Glasgow showed that reducing paramedic response times from 15 minutes to five doubled the survival rate of heart attack patients [1]. 

Heart attacks are by no means a special case. In general, the faster the response time of emergency services, the smaller the chance of damage occurring or life being lost. 

However, when serious incidents occur, the response rarely involves only one public safety organization [2]. In major emergencies, multiple groups and specialists tend to be required. 

In many countries there is a legal framework that mandates what constitutes an emergency and how the response should be managed. The definition of who should respond extends beyond the traditional blue-light emergency services (the police, ambulance and fire services) and requires utilities, transport, environment, commerce and trade unions to be involved, albeit on a secondary basis. The roles and responsibilities of the state, public safety organizations and other responders are incorporated into these legal frameworks to give responders the necessary emergency powers to be able to respond effectively without undue bureaucracy [3]. Importantly, these laws explicitly differentiate such powers from any military action or threats to national sovereignty.

Figure 1: Key elements of the emergency management legal framework

The emergency management legal frameworks, as shown in Figure 1, require first and foremost cooperation and information sharing between all the responsible agencies. Risk assessments must also be made to evaluate where populations are most vulnerable, and where investments and resources should be deployed to minimize the impact of an event. In addition, emergency plans are made and rehearsed on a regular basis to ensure responder remain familiar with the tools and processes at their disposal. 

A critical part of this planning is the establishment of a chain of command to take responsibility not only for communicating with responders, but also with the public (many countries already have or are considering establishing national civil alerting systems [4]), as well as business and voluntary organizations. Scenarios can range from terrorist attacks, severe weather and industrial accidents, to the outbreak of an infectious disease. 

Fulfilling these obligations requires organizations to have common processes and systems, so information and instructions can be shared, and the organizations can respond appropriately. If these systems break down, or are not in place at all, the consequences can be tragic.

Case 1: Tasmania bushfires, 2012-2013

Bushfires are an important part of the ecosystem in southern Australia and particularly in Tasmania [5]. However, high fuel loads, coupled with dry, warm and windy weather, meant the 2012-2013 bushfire season lasted for almost six months – unprecedented in the recorded history of Tasmania. 

As the fires spread to populated areas, public mobile communications services and the internet were compromised, as the fires disabled power and telephone lines. Some radio base station sites used by the emergency services lost power, and the public lost communication services in the same way when they were unable to recharge their mobile phones. 

During the 2012-2013 bushfire season, more than 20,000 hectares of land were burned, resulting in a cost of more than AUD 69 million (over USD 52 million). 

Incompatibility between the police and fire service radio systems compounded the problem of organizing an effective response. Following the official inquiry into the fires, 103 recommendations were made, many of which related to planning and chains of command, specifically: 

  • that all agencies and the government support the transition to an integrated communications technology for the police and emergency services.

As a result, significant steps have been taken since 2013 to improve the interworking between the police and fire service's radio systems.

Case 2: Hurricane Sandy, October 2012

Hurricane Sandy was the second-largest Atlantic storm ever recorded. It made landfall on the east coast of the US on October 29, 2012, and in the aftermath, 8.5 million people were without power, thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, and many areas were flooded. A total of 162 fatalities were recorded in the US as a direct result of the storm. 

In the US, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was well prepared for Hurricane Sandy, and had been tracking the storm's progress through weather reports since early October 2012. A large-scale response had been organized, and local and federal organizations mobilized. Local communities were warned and were able to take steps to evacuate and protect their property as best as they could. Sandy led to one of the largest deployments of emergency personnel in history; FEMA also provided housing assistance to 174,000 survivors and over USD 800 million of emergency funding to clear debris and restore infrastructure. 

Despite the successful response, the storm also presented FEMA with a challenge in terms of how to coordinate operations between federal, state and community organizations, as well as survivors [6]. 

FEMA issues mission assignments to direct federal partners to complete specified tasks in response to an emergency. In the case of Sandy, the process proved to be complex and the communications ambiguous. Support departments reported having received conflicting messages, and there were delays in processing requests.

During the peak of the recovery process, 12 days after the storm struck, FEMA deployed more than 7,000 personnel, including full-time staff, reservists and volunteers.

Figure 2: The diversity of organizations in emergency management.

Despite the success of mobilizing so many response workers, problems were encountered in trying to deploy these people effectively to perform the roles they were trained for and capable of doing. Keeping track of who was on duty and the tasks they were assigned proved difficult. Many had no access to FEMA's intranet, and in many areas, public telecom networks were unavailable owing to flooding and power outages. 

The examples of Tasmania and Hurricane Sandy illustrate the need for effective communications and information sharing across organizations – not only among the regular emergency services, but also among support workers and the general public. Failure on the communications front can lead to confusion, wasted effort and lost time, compromising actions to protect both people and property.

Each responder needs to know what to do, and where and when to do it. The people in charge must make quick decisions in a rapidly evolving situation about what information to share, and with whom to share it. The simple answer may be to share everything, but that can be problematic. As was seen in the case of Hurricane Sandy, too much information can be hard to assimilate and can cause confusion. It is not necessary to share certain sensitive information outside the public safety organization, and some may be confidential: medical records, for example. Technology should be used to assist, rather than hindering, the process of distributing information. Many public safety organizations use technology that limits the information they can disseminate and share rapidly. Many IT systems have evolved from point solutions with incompatible databases, operating systems and data formats, as was the case in 2013 with the respective radio systems of the Tasmania Police and Tasmania Fire Service. Furthermore, many legacy systems are unable to discriminate between “releasable” and confidential material, and lack the fine control required to manage both sensitive and non-sensitive data. Vital information becomes difficult to extract under time pressure, which leads to bad decision-making and poor outcomes for the victims [7]. And of course, in severe situations, the underlying infrastructure on which these systems rely may be disrupted. Power and telephone lines may come down, and flooding can destroy vital hubs. At worst, an over-reliance on non-mission-critical systems can and has caused a near total breakdown of the emergency response effort [8], with disastrous consequences for people and property.

Mapping out the transformation journey

With the advent of mission-critical wireless broadband systems, ultra-reliable distributed computing systems and accelerating standardization efforts, the next step can now be taken toward effectively managing emergencies of all sizes. But how should agencies make this transformation journey happen? 

The process of developing a truly effective ICT-based solution starts with the architecture – and construction of the architecture needs to start with the mission the agency is required to perform. 

For every responder agency, the mission must satisfy the following five key objectives:

  • deliver successfully
  • exceed citizens' expectations
  • use tax money wisely
  • share services and information to collaborate effectively
  • empower a highly effective workforce
Figure 3: The hierarchy of needs supporting a mission.

As shown in Figure 3, every mission rests on a hierarchy of needs. A top down approach is therefore a useful way for an agency to plan its transformation journey. At the same time, a bottom-up approach can help the agency evaluate the usefulness of new technologies as they become available. 

Agencies need to assess how ICT can transform each stage of this hierarchy. Starting with the mission, the agency should determine how it can be enabled by new capabilities. The next question is which systems can interact to form these capabilities. 

Systems in turn consist of people, processes and tools working together, which makes the latter the most fundamental layer when it comes to the mission's needs. The unique ability of ICT to process, distribute and store information makes it one of the key foundation tools on which an effective emergency response mission can be built. 

As an example, consider an organization with the mission of saving lives from fires. One of the capabilities required is to coordinate the response of all other agencies involved in providing support in an emergency. This capability is supported by a range of systems. Figure 4 shows, in a simplified format, how this mapping works in practice. 

Each of the systems on the right-hand side of Figure 4 could be implemented as a separate system and still deliver the capability. However, ICT allows these systems to share resources and be integrated in a way that increases their effectiveness. It is important to understand that the integration of systems does not always fundamentally change the capability (although this can happen); rather it allows the capability to be delivered more efficiently, faster and with fewer mistakes.

Figure 4: Mapping from mission to systems.

For example, the address book and directory can be shared with all other systems such as telephony, e-mail and social media systems. The logging system can record who sent and received which message. Taken a step further, the directory can be integrated with a resource management system, so it is easy to see who is on duty. This can be further enhanced by tagging the status of a user with their location and displaying this information on a map. If the resource management system is populated with skills and coupled with machine-readable messages, it is possible for the system to suggest to those in command who is the best person to respond in terms of time and skills.

Figure 5: A modified architecture showing shared support systems.

This kind of integration can have a profound impact on the effectiveness of the agency's mission. For instance, an ambulance team can not only respond quickly, but can do so with the right skills and equipment to treat the patient more effectively. This capability is essential for high-quality emergency response [9]. 

Once the capabilities are established, the flow of information through the chain of command can be mapped to gain an understanding of who needs to be involved, where they are, and the best way to communicate with them. This information begins to guide the solution toward the type of network needed, whether it requires the users to be fixed or mobile, and even what sort of device is appropriate for communication purposes.

Figure 6: A simplified information flow for a helicopter support request.

A ficitious scenario based on the Tasmania case study

A fire officer coordinating the response to a forest fire may need to ask a local military commander for helicopter support to rescue victims cut off by fire. The request could be issued as an e-mail, and similarly, the response may be a confirmation e-mail or phone call containing details of the helicopter flight and radio frequencies, so the pilot may be contacted. This simple example assumes an implicit level of trust between all parties. Trust may also be enforced by the ICT solution, if required. 

The interaction can be mapped as shown in Figure 6, which illustrates how the different systems interact to create a capability – in this case, coordination of responders. This diagram can also be redrawn to show the message flow in time sequence, if necessary. An ICT solution can incorporate timers and escalations that will trigger alarms if a response is not received within a certain amount of time. 

In this example, the airfield and air traffic control contact points are probably fixed and can use a screen and keyboard. The pilot probably needs to use a hands-free device, while the fire department may require the flexibility to switch between fixed and mobile resources. 

The examples in Figures 4, 5 and 6 show how systems can be mapped and organized through the use of ICT to enhance capabilities. Once the people and groups that need to be involved are identified and their preferred means of communicating documented, reasonable assumptions can be made about the type of network and devices to use. However, the environment that the solution operates in and the quality required also need to be taken into account.

Accelerating the transformation journey

Once the architecture begins to take shape, other aspects of the design can begin to be considered, so a complete picture of the solution can be formed. These considerations often concern quality attributes that go beyond the required functionality and yet are critically important to the overall effectiveness of the solution.


The first consideration is affordability. As discussed earlier, using taxpayers' money wisely is a key concern for public safety organizations. The key functional aspects of the solution will not be the only factors impacting affordability. Non-functional and other quality aspects are just as important. 

The example in the previous section shows that a sizable catalog of messages and information flows can emerge when analyzing a mission, and that any effective solution must support that catalog. Developing a unique solution for each type of message is time-consuming and fraught with technical risk, as well as costly and difficult to maintain. 

Affordability is a key attribute of open standards. Open standards have created a diverse ecosystem of suppliers and a competitive market for products, solutions and expertise. Open standards are promoted by various bodies including 3GPP and the Internet Engineering Task Force.

LTE and 4G technology standards are examples of open standards from 3GPP that are widely supported and used by the global telecommunications industry. 3GPP is currently extending its standards to include public safety and other mission-critical applications. 

Some open standards are designed specifically for public safety. One example is Emergency Data Exchange Language (EDXL). This suite of specifications allows organizations to exchange emergency information in a secure and reliable manner without having to purchase identical equipment. EDXL is built on XML, which is a generic data standard widely used across the internet to support machine-to-machine communications.

Ease of implementation

Open standards have done much to simplify message processing and reduce risk during implementation. 

For example, if the ICT solution shown in Figure 5 supports open standards, the introduction of new capabilities becomes much simpler. The mapping system showing where responders are can also be used to show rising water levels or roads blocked by debris, as the underlying message format is the same and can be read by a machine.

Additional factors

As a result of the impact of open standards on affordability and ease of implementation, public safety agencies should always consider these standards as the first option, unless there is a need for very high performance or security. 

However, agencies also need to consider a range of additional factors in their ICT transformation, including reliability and resilience, an effective workforce, flexibility, accessibility and ease of procurement.

1) Reliability and resilience
The environment in which the systems have to operate must be taken into account. The attributes of reliability and resilience are important. Harsh weather conditions will often disrupt electricity supplies and other utilities, and geographic redundancy and fallback sites should be considered, as should systems that fail gracefully, with decreasing levels of functionality rather than a sudden blackout. 

Natural and man-made disasters should not be the only considerations; systems should also be resilient to cyber attacks and other malicious activity that can prevent an organization from fulfilling its mission.

2) An effective workforce
The emergency context means that an effective workforce is required to be available, along with robust business processes. Training and test systems should be implemented. They should utilize real data and have real interfaces. These systems should be isolated from the production system to allow the workforce to rehearse and practice scenarios. Recording and playback systems allow events to be examined to establish the lessons learned and identify the process improvements necessary. 

3) Flexibility
Many agencies have day-to-day roles as well as emergency functions. This calls for the attributes of flexibility and other aspects of usability. Systems need to be flexible and adaptable for use in everyday situations in addition to emergencies. They may be preconfigured with plans that can be invoked in the event of an emergency. Putting a system in emergency mode may allow extra staff to be deployed or extra permissions granted during the emergency, while maintaining its intrinsic operations as well as its look and feel.

4) Accessibility
As far as possible, solutions should be commercially available and in widespread use. Maintainability and extensibility should be considered as integral aspects of any architectural requirements and technology choice. It may also be useful to allow volunteer responders to use their own smartphones or laptops when required in order to access information that supports the emergency effort.

5) Ease of procurement
To complete the journey, the architecture must be documented and used as the template to guide the procurement phases. Choosing open standards and open source software represents an effective procurement approach that public safety agencies should consider. Partnering with volunteer organizations, industry and government can also help agencies speed up introduction of ICT and realization of the benefits it offers.


Emergencies and natural disasters are inevitable. Cases have shown that effective planning and emergency response efforts can lessen their impact on life and property. Effective communications and information sharing are vital, with ICT providing a transformative tool.

It is now possible to create truly mission-critical, multiagency platforms that will enable the most effective response to emergency events. 

The maturity of ICT architecture and consulting frameworks allows the objectives of the agency to be captured and linked to the underlying system solutions with far greater fidelity. This allows leaders to see with greater clarity how their requirements are being met by ICT, and how each part of the solution contributes value to the success of their mission. 

Whatever the solution chosen, factors such as affordability and ease of implementation need to be addressed. In most cases, these considerations should lead public safety agencies to embrace solutions based on open standards as their primary option. 

As leaders across public safety organizations review and update their strategic plans, lessons will be learned from past emergencies. Processes and policies will be updated. Continuous advances in mobile broadband, cloud computing, architecture and consulting will play a major role in this strategic review process, and will enable additional ways of working and thinking about emergencies and information sharing that were not possible before.


EDXL Emergency Data Exchange Language

FEMA Federal Emergency Management Agency

XML Extensible Markup Language


[1] British Medical Journal, Jill P Pell, Jane M Sirel, Andrew K Marsden, Ian Ford and Stuart M Cobbe, Effect of reducing ambulance response times on deaths from out of hospital cardiac arrest: cohort study, June 2001, available at: http://www.bmj.com/content/322/7299/1385


[2] UK Government, Civil Contingencies Act 2004, accessed March 2016, available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2004/36/contents; Federal Emergency Management Agency, accessed March 2016, available at: http://www.fema.gov

[3] Government of the Netherlands, Nationwide launch of emergency alert system NL-Alert, November 2012, available at: https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2012/11/08/nationwide-launch-of emergency-alert-system-nl-alert

[4] Tasmanian Government, 2013 Tasmanian Bushfires Inquiry Report, October 2013, available at: http://www.dpac.tas.gov.au/divisions/osem/2013_tasmanian_bushfires_in uiry_report/2013_tasmanian_ bushfires_inquiry_report

[5] Federal Emergency Management Agency, Hurricane Sandy FEMA After-Action Report, July 2013, available at: https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1923-25045-7442/sandy_fema_aar.pdf


[6] United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Emergency Preparedness – Staffing and Communications, March 2015, available at: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/ops-experience/japan dashboard/emerg-preparedness.html

[7] Emergency Medicine Journal, B Stoykova, R Dowie, P Bastow, K V Rowsell, R P F Gregory, Ambulance emergency services for patients with coronary heart disease in Lancashire: achieving standards and improving performance, 2004, available at: http://emj.bmj.com/content/21/1/99.full.pdf+html