From a young age, we're taught to call 000 in the event of an emergency. We assume we can rely on the appropriate emergency services to arrive quickly on the scene to help. We also assume those first responders have the technology to find the exact location of the emergency.

But what if the ambulance driver dispatched to a car crash in a new housing estate is using an outdated map and can’t find the specific location in time? Or, the local volunteer fire brigade can see the burning office block, but can’t determine if there are trapped people on the fourth or sixth floor?

For emergency calls, the speed with which a victim’s exact location can be pinpointed – and found by first responders – can literally mean the difference between life and death.

In this interview, Mike King, a global public safety expert, explains how location and the use of intelligent mapping technology plays an increasingly important role for emergency services worldwide.

King, who has been meeting with emergency services and law enforcement chiefs around Australia this month, shares his insights into the challenges with current approaches, the need to be able to process and understand three-dimensional location data, issues around the governance of address data and the risks of not getting it right.

Q. Given your experience with emergency response, what do you see as the most pressing issues in the emergency call management space?

We are seeing an evolution occur with what next-generation 000 really means. The definition is changing as rapidly as the discovery of all the data that’s available.

First and foremost, it’s the management of data; and using that data in a real-time way to enable people to make actionable decisions.

It’s no longer just about accessing an address database. Now, we need to include all the sensor and IP-based data and the huge volumes of data being collected through a variety of other sources. Next, we need to bring all that data into an environment where technology can analyse it and bring golden nuggets of insight to the surface – to really highlight what the problem is, or what the answer to a problem might be.

With that, we’re finding that most of the world is still struggling with a conventional, two-dimensional view of how to solve problems, yet we’re experiencing the world in a three-dimensional way. It’s critical we move into a three-dimensional way of thinking fast. In terms of managing 000 calls, this means we can no longer just look at a dot on a map, but at the elevation involved – so we can understand where the caller is, whether they are above or below terrain.

Q. You talk about the necessity of embracing a three-dimensional view of the world. Are any countries ahead of the game in terms of using technology to address this challenge?

Despite the critical importance of a 3D perspective, there aren’t many agencies doing this well. Most of the world can’t even figure out two-dimensional mapping. Yet, next year in the United States, we start receiving z-axis information that will tell us what elevation a person is in a building. Elevation adds the 3D perspective.

In Australia’s capital cities for example, it would be a huge deal to be able to confirm that a caller is between the third and the fifth floor in the north-west corner of a building. But we’re still struggling with how to both source and display that data in a two-dimensional way.

It boils down to the fundamentals of having a solid policy and procedure to manage address databases, and then being able to manage sensor data in 3D and other inputs – so then we can start solving bigger problems.

There’s not a part of Australia that isn’t touched by these challenges, because even the most advanced organisations in the country have not yet finalised their 3D strategies.

And a strategy isn’t just a matter of solving the Geographic Information System (GIS) problem – we’ve already solved the GIS problem of how to visualise 3D. But it’s the governance behind those kinds of challenges, the policy and procedures, the updating of 3D data and the creating of routes inside buildings – they’re the biggest challenges.

Even if z-axis datasets for Australia were five or even ten years away, authorities are already falling short in preparing for that data when it becomes available. There’s a lot that can be done – even today.

Q. Can you share some examples of how technology can benefit emergency services?

One example from about 18 months ago, was when a Chicago police commander was shot and killed. Some reports suggested that much of the initial radio traffic focused on trying to identify the officer’s location.

This officer died in the street as a result of a gunshot, yet most of the time was spent trying to figure out where he was, increasing the response time of medical resources.

In another instance last year in the United States, a young man was in a high school parking lot getting ready to go to tennis practice. He was in his parents’ van and reached behind into the back seat to grab his tennis racquet.

The seat broke and pinned him. He called 911 twice, barely able to talk because he couldn’t breathe. He gave his location and they were unable to locate him. Yet, four hours later, when the boy didn’t come home from school, his parents used a location tracking app on their iPhones, and drove straight to the location, where they found his lifeless body.

These are the real-life – often tragic – examples that demonstrate how we’re failing in being able to get location as accurate as possible. The technology’s there, we just need to apply it more effectively.

Q. The launch of FirstNet in the US last year was heralded as “a major breakthrough” for emergency services at a national level. Can you outline how location intelligence is being used in this instance?

FirstNet is a pre-emptive broadband network, established after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. One of the areas discussed in the subsequent investigation by the 911 Commission was the need for reliable voice and data communications during major catastrophes. 

After a number of years of research and debate, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) of the United States was created under the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 (MCTRJCA) as an independent authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). 

The purpose of FirstNet is to establish, operate, and maintain an interoperable public safety broadband network. To fulfil these objectives, Congress allotted $7 billion and 20 MHz of valuable radio spectrum to build the network.

FirstNet has been tested in a number of natural and man-made disasters and proven, where deployed, to provide first responders with a stable network capable of handling both voice and data communications.

This broadband network, or similar networks, are capable of sustaining the delivery of GIS information, including 3D.

Location intelligence allows decision makers to answer critical questions. Who is in an affected area? Where are they located? Are there resources nearby to support the necessary response? 

Combining data from a host of services including government agencies' internal data services, enterprise GIS, demographics and other sensor data feeds, opens up a world of possibilities for FirstNet. You can read more about FirstNet in this blog.

Q. It sounds like the technology is here, but what do emergency services organisations need to do to evolve?

Technology may not be the sole problem – the main hurdle may be governance. But, there needs to be investment in both the governance and the technology to enable organisations to consume the data once that governance is in place. It’s kind of a chicken and egg problem, so both need to be worked on at the same time.

This is the third interview of a three-part series with emergency services expert Mike King. In the first instalment, King discusses how law enforcement agencies can use GIS technology to manage and prevent drug-related deaths. In the second instalment, he looks at how mapping technology can help to catch killers.

Call 1800 870 750 to speak to an Esri Australia Emergency Services specialist, or send us an email.

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About the Author

Mike King profile image
Mike King
Former criminal investigator and chief
Former criminal investigator, global public safety expert and one of the world's leading advocates of GIS technology for law enforcement.

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