What Can Public Safety Emergency Communications Learn from a Decade of War in Iraq and Afghanistan


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In preparation for our upcoming Whole Community Preparedness Conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we in the emergency communications business can learn from other industries.

Smart911 was born in no small part out of some of the concepts in place in commercial call centers around customer understanding and experience.  In my quest for seeing what other industries are doing, I kept coming back to the challenges facing the U.S. military in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.On the news we see videos of bombs dropping or maps of troop movements.  We hear stories about last minute mission approvals from across the globe going down to the soldier in the field in seconds. We see pictures of tents in the middle of the desert filled with monitors streaming situational data and racks of secure radios. 

The flood of data coming into a tactical command center sounds a lot like what we experience in a PSAP and are wrestling with as NG9-1-1 increases the number of inputs.  The demands on a broadband wireless network must be even more stringent than what we are envisioning with FirstNet in terms of security, resiliency, and the ability to be quickly deployed.  What lessons can we learn in terms of communications and command and control from a decade of combat experiences from our military?

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It turns out the Army has been doing a ton of work in this area under the heading Capability Set 13 (CS13).   CS13 is “a package of network components, associated equipment and software that provides an integrated network capability from the static Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to the dismounted Soldier” (http://www.army.mil/standto/archive/issue.php?issue=2012-09-26).  The goal is to allow units to utilize advanced satellite-based systems — augmented by data radios, handheld devices and the latest mission command software — to transmit voice/chat communications and situational awareness data.  Sound familiar? 

I’ve been working on an APCO project trying to define how NG9-1-1 and FirstNet interoperate and that sounds like a pretty good definition!  The first Division to deploy this is the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division.  “Imagine you’re a Soldier and you need information on a given area, or you want to see where units are located to your left and right,” Brig. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, deputy commanding general for support, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) said. “You don’t want to have to come back to headquarters; you don’t want to have to force a transmission over a radio net just to get that. You want to have that information readily available. (This network) allows us to do that on the move, and allows us to do it dismounted as well.” (http://www.army.mil/article/97910/First_unit_readies_for_Afghanistan_with_new_network/  )

BGs Flynn and Grigsby writing in AUSA Magazine about mission command and driving institutional adaptability made a bold statement about the need for information, that easily translates to our PSAPs and First Responders, saying “In today’s information-dominated environment, how we connect, acquire and distribute information is as powerful a determinant of unit performance as the ability to fire ballistic weapons systems or maneuver forces” (http://www.ausa.org/publications/armymagazine/archive/2012/02/Documents/Flynn_0212.pdf ). If the Army views information and their ability to effectively acquire and distribute it as critically as the ability to shoot at the enemy, shouldn’t we in public safety take a hard look at how we can better incorporate it into our operations? 

They went on to highlight another key learning for public safety agencies that should also ring true to those looking at implementing new technologies, “The Army has been fairly effective at producing and providing technology solutions to our formations but dreadful at providing the supporting education and training down to the user level. This is exacerbated when commercial off- the-shelf products are introduced to fill mission requirements because the institutional support is not planned for or available.”

We have a lot to learn from the military’s experience, but one key takeaway is that without a holistic approach including technology, education (both industry and the public) and effective hiring and training, any public safety project is doomed to failure.  Ensuring our responders are armed with the information they need to more effectively respond and protect themselves is too important a project to fail.

In addition to our Whole Community Preparedness Seminar May 6 in Boston, we also have an upcoming webinar where Mark Fletcher, Bill Schrier and I will discuss the changing role of 9-1-1 as NG9-1-1 and FirstNet become a reality.  Hope you can join us:

NG9-1-1/FirstNet and the Changing Role of 9-1-1 ” on Wednesday, April 9th at 2:00 EDT https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/603477159

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