Critical networks: the urgent need for digitalisation and innovation in public safety
By Thomas Rehberg*, Head of Public Safety, Nokia
Wednesday, 04 October, 2023
Those employed in the fields of public safety and critical infrastructure are, by definition, familiar with emergencies. But our world is changing rapidly, and a torrent of modern threats is ratcheting up the definition of emergency, adding more urgency to the need for innovation in critical communications.
Public safety is a tough job, and climate change and disaster response are making it even tougher. Forest fires in Canada burned through more than 15 million hectares this summer, shattering the previous record of 7.6 million, and led to the deaths of four on-duty firefighters. With a five-time increase in climate-related disasters in the last 50 years, according to the World Economic Forum, wildfires, extreme storms, rising sea levels and droughts are causing deaths, damaging critical infrastructure and costing billions.
Add to climate disasters the enormity of our modern socio-economic challenges and the situation worsens. A lack of housing and transport for a growing urban population are driving homelessness and crime in cities. Soaring living costs are pushing many into poverty. And just when we need more first responders, the industry faces a sector-wide labour gap. Fewer and fewer people are choosing a career in critical industries and public safety, and there’s a growing skills gap as digitalisation changes job descriptions.
Cybercrime adds another dimension as it diversifies and grows more frequent, from money scams and corporate hacking attempts to the misuse of artificial intelligence (AI) and social engineering cases that can lead to civil unrest. The pressure on the public safety community to operate effectively in a virtual world is enormous.
So, how do public safety operators tackle all of these threats?
The answer lies in developing digital capabilities at scale. Operators of critical infrastructures such as railways, power utilities and emergency response must do so to protect their own data, assets and operations against potential threats. Public safety operators must leverage digital and situational intelligence to prepare for escalating threats, and thus respond quickly and adequately.
New solutions for digital-age problems
There’s some relief in knowing that a robust toolbox of digital technologies already exists. Think AI, augmented reality (AR) and deep data insights. These kinds of tools can help public safety agencies protect and serve efficiently, safely and confidently.
For example, improved situational analysis can lead to better decision-making, laser-sharp preparedness and faster response times. The data to support this can be sourced in dozens of ways. By combining IoT sensors, wearables and body cam footage with real-time analytics in the command-and-control centre, it’s possible to follow the exact location, exposure and movement of first responder teams as well as monitor vital health statistics — helping to keep staff out of harm’s way.
Drones are an especially powerful tool to elevate intelligence as well as aid disaster response: from real-time video monitoring of large public events or ongoing emergency situations to utilising drones equipped with sensors and thermal cameras to support response after disaster strikes.
This type of project is already underway in Belgium, where telecom operator Citymesh has deployed 70 drones in 35 emergency zones across the country. Designed to gather information in the critical 15-minute period immediately following a call, the 5G automated drone grid ensures first responders are fully apprised of and equipped to respond to each unique situation.
This new level of situational awareness can be extended further into the general public. By deploying rich-media early-warning systems, public safety agents can enhance their communication with citizens and alert them in real time and based on their geolocation about an ongoing situation. Indeed, a report by the World Meteorological Organization found that early-warning systems and disaster management increased the lives saved almost threefold between 1970 and 2019.
The industrial metaverse
Though AR and the industrial metaverse may seem radical and far from where we are today, opportunities for applications within critical communications are taking shape.
With these new technologies, human capabilities can be augmented to naturally interact with the digital world, and real-world things can be dynamically represented in the digital world to also interact with them. This will bring a new level of control and monitoring of physical assets and operations.
Imagine a full 360-degree situational view for operators in the command-and-control centre that supports live data feeds and visual cues about surroundings to responders during an emergency. This might include the exact location of a person in distress, the exact pathway through a burning building or the extent and spread of a wildfire as well as relevant contextual data such as weather information.
Training for emergency what-if scenarios and dangerous incidents is another opportunity. Crisis planning for cyber attacks, natural disasters or a hazardous waste spill in a factory could never truly be simulated in the real world safely. With these new technologies, it is possible to prepare responders for worst-case scenarios without putting them at risk.
More tools are coming, such as robots that assess the danger level and conditions in a burning building before responders enter or are equipped with sensors that detect explosives, securing a building before police units enter. And digital twins of the public safety organisation, which can provide real-time end-to-end visibility into the productivity and efficiency of systems and processes, enable them to anticipate and unblock bottlenecks, detect capability gaps and identify areas that require additional resourcing.
The networks to drive safety
Making digitalisation and innovative applications happen means a change in the communications infrastructure. The public safety community selected 3GPP 4G and 5G technologies for the evolution of the public safety communications network. These open, standards-driven and secure high-performance networks provide the required bandwidth, speed and flexibility needed to enable digitalisation and innovative applications for reliable mission-critical communications in an all-digital era.
Still, much collaboration is required. Technology companies working with the public safety community and governments will ensure specific requirements are understood and incorporated.
Given the many challenges the world is facing, it is crucial that the transition from voice-centric mission-critical communications is accelerated, providing the layers of rich information and insights needed for improved situational awareness and emergency communications. These technologies — like robotics, automation, AI and others — will also help public safety address the worker shortage, even as a younger generation of digital-savvy candidates enters the workforce.
A modernised communications infrastructure that can sense, think and act, and enable the public safety community to build the resilience and digital capabilities they need to protect and respond safely and efficiently in the times ahead is a must. And it’s here — available today to futureproof public safety operations and ensure success for citizens and those who serve and protect them.
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