September 5, 2017

Preparing for a new kind of control room

It’s no secret that the number of control rooms is shrinking. And they’re getting bigger. Alexander Richardson, market analyst, control rooms, emergency response & critical communications at IHS Markit, says this trend as seen in the US is causing the vendor ecosystem to consolidate, as “smaller computer-aided dispatch (CAD) suppliers can’t handle those big opportunities, so they get bought out by bigger firms. An example of that was Motorola buying Spillman technologies.”

Turning to Europe, Richardson says the Netherlands is consolidating down to 12 or 13 control rooms, while Norway is reducing the number of its control rooms to around six to eight. However, despite this trend and the growing availability of web-based platforms, he believes that there will always be a need for physical control rooms, especially for managing crises.

As part of the move towards consolidation, in many cases there is a shift towards using the same control room(s) for multiple emergency services. For example, according to Hexagon’s Andy Harrison, over in New Zealand, the fire service emigrated over to the control room used by the country’s police when they moved from three separate systems to a single national system. However, Harrison notes that the use of standards, such as DEIT and MAIT in the UK, to share information is “the easy part”. He adds: “The more challenging part is that organisations have to want to share information – there has to be political will to make it happen.”

At BAPCO 2017, Sarah Wilson, head of North West Fire Control, a company in the UK that operates a single control room that handles four English fire and rescue services (FRSs), and its operations manager, Mandy Liffen, discussed how their system has accommodated the differing needs of each fire service (such as wildly varying risk profiles for the regions they serve and the innovative crewing models that have arisen due to funding pressures) and helped maintain their independence. Wilson said they have Telent acting as their prime contractor and their integrators, providing the control room’s technology as a managed service, while Hexagon provides its ICAS CAD system, with the integrated communication control system (ICCS) provided by Frequentis. She said the resulting system “is also a pretty configurable and future-proof system”.

There has (perhaps inevitability) been some convergence in working practices, with all four FRSs and North West Fire Control adopting a standard radio procedure, national call signs, naming conventions for appliances, equipment and officer skills and a common incident set, “so that every fire and rescue [service] uses the same incident type, however the information attached to that incident type is different depending on the geographical location of the incident”, explained Wilson.

Liffen added that the automated part of the system includes pre-alerting, which speeds up response times by ensuring that crews can leave as soon as they receive an incident address. The system allows individual FRSs to pick and choose how they want to mobilise resources, catering for situations where crews are shared between fire engines with different roles. It also features dynamic mobilising and road-routing, providing accurate journey times, which can take account of road closures and flooding, together with vehicle height and weight restrictions. The system allows the FRSs to individually set which assets should automatically attend any of the incident types, with these being grouped into response plans, which can be selected depending on the pressure on a FRS’s assets. For example, during Bonfire Night, a FRS could switch to a response plan in which for any incident the default would be to dispatch a single engine. There are also preset rules governing cross-border collaboration, raising red flags should they be breached, although the operator has the final say.

However, there is much more technology still to come. “Right now, everyone [in the UK public safety sector] is looking at migration of communications over to the new LTE network [ESN],” said Mike Isherwood, managing director of APD Communications, in a presentation produced for BAPCO 2017. “The most important thing is you start to choose your communications software which is fully ready to take advantage of future data applications running over the new network. You need to look at a software ICCS that can flex and scale with your organisation [and can process] video that is being captured out in the field, both body-worn and in-vehicle. You don’t want to be paying a huge CAPEX sum, you want something that is software-as-a-service capable.”

Big data
Isherwood highlighted the benefits of big data but noted the danger of “paralysis by analysis”, especially in an emergency services context. He sees AI as one of the tools to speed up and improve decision-making, thereby breaking out of this trap, and added that Professor Alan Winfield, an expert in robotics and AI, APD’s founder and a non-executive director, has suggested that the biggest challenge with data and AI is the security aspect. Isherwood sees blockchain as a possible solution, given its use of cryptographic security, value exchange, process automation and distributed databases. In a public safety context, he sees a role for it in national distributed database sharing. He said: “Imagine the whole of the UK police forces sharing information, using and securing that data using blockchain. You would limit data breaches and you could automate a lot of organisational rules for input authorisation, sign-off, sharing of data, and this could be used nationally. It really starts to open up opportunities for sharing that data [in a secure way].”

In summary, he said: “The LTE networks allow you to share and create data, AI gets the value out of the data and blockchain gives you the cryptography to protect your data against hackers.” Isherwood highlighted a fourth element – the use of augmented reality to visualise the data and enable you “to look and listen to various different talk groups and watch CCTV video feeds while policing a football match or major event, or even streaming body-worn or in-vehicle footage of a car chase or a fire, for example. While all this may seem a little far-fetched now, it really isn’t. The Dutch police are starting to trial this technology and find different ways of utilising it, and APD has started creating demonstrations of control room technology using Microsoft Hololens.”

Richardson adds: “The Chicago police department has quite an advanced system that pulls [and aggregates information] from several different databases, like records management; it will even pull from arrest warrants, ANPR cameras, all of this. They’ve developed a heat-list of the 300 most dangerous people in Chicago. It can essentially tell the police who will be involved in a crime in a certain area and if [someone] commits a crime, who would be linked with them, what businesses might be affected, all these kind of things. That’s something that we’re seeing more and more.”

Matt Bishop, digital advisor and CTO for policing at Microsoft, highlighted the shift in the commercial space towards greater use of conversational interfaces (which provide an instant-messaging-like experience) for the buying of goods and services by consumers, thanks to natural language technologies capable of understanding the context of conversations, and bot technology, “which is becoming mainstream, it’s easy to use, easy to code, easy to deploy”. However, he said people’s need for an authentic human experience means that the need for 999 calls isn’t going to disappear, but there might be conversations supported by digital assistants (such as Microsoft's Cortana). “The person that is most important is the citizen, and if we’re thinking about the future [of control rooms], we need to start with them and we're working with police forces in the UK to transform the contact experience."

While speaking about the operational changes that need to be made when integrating different types of data, Reinard van Loo, senior advisor/subject matter expert, public safety at Frequentis, said developing new procedures and workflows can benefit from value-stream analysis, a tool used in manufacturing and process industries that can be applied to control rooms, together with trying to get feedback from the operators. This approach has led to a system that presents conversations in the same way regardless of the medium over which they are taking place (voice, text, social media, etc.) and a setup that allows for operators to be presented with the relevant information in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, as soon as a call connects. Similarly, the system demonstrated at BAPCO that combines Frequentis’s LifeX platform with ESRI’s ArcGIS (GIS – geographic information system) and Microsoft Dynamics 365 allows the operator to access the same information regardless of which of these systems they are using at the time.

Van Loo also noted the creation of new roles within the control rooms, such as an officer tasked with gathering and processing real-time intelligence from social media and other channels including video during incidents, adding that this has already happened in the Netherlands, as they discovered supervisors and dispatchers couldn’t handle the additional data in their existing workflows.

Clearly, it’s an exciting time – with so much change taking place (and with much more still to come), but it needs to be carefully managed to stop fatigue from setting in, realise new technology's full potential and keep costs under control.