Ok, I admit I’ve always wanted to go to CES 2014 (the premier consumer electronics and tech show held every year in Las Vegas), but when the folks at NENA asked me to participate in a panel on Broadband and emergency communications I have to admit I first thought “Umm… why?”. My job is to address emergency communications challenges –whether those are about getting a message out in a mass notification or making sure first responders know about an individual’s circumstances by delivering relevant data. What does that have to do with cool new consumer toys? But of course I said yes :).
Looking back, my short stay at CES was a great experience. We in public safety cannot ignore consumer technology trends and really need to pay much closer attention to them. We can try to pretend that our 40 year old landline based infrastructure is enough, but that’s really akin to taking an ostrich approach – stick your head in the stand and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Traditionally, we’ve waited to innovate until citizens demand it. Given the pace of technology innovation, that approach will leave us in a mode of continual catch up. Walking around the show floor and listening to the keynote speeches, it’s impossible to miss the trends: everything is going to be connected and Moore’s law continues (computers and getting more powerful and smaller). As amazed as I am at the technology coming to a lapel pin, baby onesie or watch near you, I was equally stunned at the lack of knowledge in the broader consumer industry about how 9-1-1 works.
So… here are my big takeaways:
As an industry we need to do a better job educating other industries. When carriers were in control of communications and devices that could connect to 9-1-1, it was pretty easy to manage both expectations and the reality of connections. Guess what? We’ve lost control. We’ve lost control because ever-advancing technology has so drastically lowered, if not eliminated, the barriers to develop a device or app with two-way communications capabilities.
I spoke with dozens of vendors producing products ranging from door locks and home monitoring systems controlled through an app on your phone to glucose and heart monitoring apps. All saw that the natural evolution of their solutions was a “call for help”. When you really dug into what that meant, the answers were scary. The most common answers were “we’ll just push a message into 9-1-1” or “We’ll automatically text message a trusted friend”. Really? Who does that friend call when they get your alert, and what does that 9-1-1 call taker in a different area do about the resulting request? How do you “push a message” to 9-1-1 and to which 9-1-1 center? How does the 9-1-1 call taker process that information and translate it into an appropriate emergency response (if one is even warranted)? How do we ensure that 9-1-1 call takers aren’t overwhelmed by the vast array of information that might be headed their way?
We need to make sure those creating products for consumers understand what we do and how to engage with us. These technologies are amazing and the innovation can have a huge impact on our ability to recognize and respond to emergencies, but only if we engage the broader industry community. Clearly the folks at NENA are leading this charge as participation in the CES session this year showed. They need our support. Also, through our Smart911Connect platform, we have begun to engage a broad spectrum of entities wishing to deliver data to 9-1-1 and are excited about the doors it has opened.
Embedded devices and extremely small form factor computers will revolutionize first responder tools, and drive the need for better collaboration and communication. Intel’s CEO demonstrated an amazing array of products that will come to market in 2014. Moore’s law continues to hold true, with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich showing a chip that looked the size of a nickel that was a fully functioning computer containing not only a processor rivaling my laptop but Bluetooth and wifi as well. Coupled with a new wave to micro-monitoring devices, the possibilities for public safety and first responder tools are near limitless. Imagine the badge of the future that not only includes one of these mini computers. Linked to other nearby badges via Bluetooth, wifi (or FirstNet), sensors for detecting temperature, mini cameras, sound sensors and even CO2 levels you could create a mesh network of computers that are constantly evaluating threats based on heat, the location of shots fired, CO2 levels, the lack of proximity to others, etc. The possibilities are limitless, but without effective command and control and communications the potential benefits will not be fully realized.
Seeing all the amazing innovation at CES was thrilling, and a little scary at the same time. We are in a period of rapid and immense technology change. We in the public safety industry need to embrace innovation, but temper that embrace with good old fashioned common sense and a bunch of redundancy!