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AI and the cloud: digital transformation in public safety

Public safety is a high-pressure sector, and digital transformation can yield the dynamism needed to tackle the scale, complexity and unpredictability of fluid, multi-dimensional incidents, as well as complex legislative demands. 

Collaboration between public-safety agencies is vital to keeping the people of any region safe and improving their quality of life. The key to effective collaboration is a technology foundation that ensures all relevant emergency services are connected and receive the necessary information as quickly as possible for effective mobilisation and decision-making. Increasingly that foundation is built on the cloud and features advanced capabilities such as real-time artificial intelligence.

Cloud-based systems can help emergency response agencies fulfil the vital criteria of easier integration between all the systems they depend on and scalability during larger incidents when more resources are required. Additionally, embracing emerging assistive artificial intelligence (AI) strategies will help improve decision-making further for a more effective response.

Multiple layers of emergency service structure 

In the UK, the government is looking to streamline emergency service integration and collaboration. However, it is complicated because there is such a variety of different authorities responsible for setting policy and overseeing service delivery amongst the emergency services. These commissioning authorities differ between the three services in their geographical scale and their local political accountability and often have boundaries that are not coterminous. Further, the commissioning authorities can even differ by location and the scope of their authority leading to different priorities and local agendas.

For example, in most areas fire and rescue services fall under the control of fire authorities, which are typically county based. But in some counties, these have been replaced by locally elected Police, Fire & Crime commissioners that combine this function with the governance of the local county police force; and in metropolitan areas where there is an elected mayor their office sometimes performs this function. The Police service and its elected commissioners are also generally county based but there are a number of mergers and in these cases there can be several county fire services for one police.

Moreover, since 2008 ambulance services have been managed regionally and commissioned within the National Health Service, covering much larger areas, to a national agenda and typically working alongside four or five different fire and police agencies working to more local priorities. This complexity introduces barriers to information flow that, in the interests of public safety, must be overcome. Cloud-based systems can act as a bridge between the different public-safety authorities in each locality.

Another significant issue is that different organisations may have competing political priorities, as well as their own legacy IT systems, which act as barriers to comprehensive integration. This is another obstacle cloud can help overcome. 

The advantages of cloud-based systems

There are many benefits to moving public-safety systems, such as computer aided-dispatch, into cloud-based architectures. For example, they offer greater access, flexible connectivity and communication through a government-accredited, secure platform between all organisations. A shift to the cloud facilitates better informed and more prompt decision-making by public-safety agencies. This optimises the use of resources, as the right personnel are appropriately directed when responding to an incident, which, in turn, boosts public trust in emergency response. 

Cloud-based platforms create a shared point of access to data that cuts across regional and political boundaries. All emergency service organisations can access the same, security approved, information in real-time, improving coordination in a crisis event. This better protects both the lives of the public and first responders, as more efficient communication allows authorities to handle incidents quickly and effectively in coordination. 

North West Fire Control UK.

Images supplied by Author / Contributor
North West Fire Control UK.
Images supplied by Author / Contributor

The role of AI

AI also has a key role to play in the digital transformation of emergency response. In a control room, AI can act as a second set of eyes, helping personnel make more informed decisions from large amounts of information and covering ‘blind spots’ that they might otherwise miss. While hundreds or thousands of calls for service may come into a control room each day, the ability to analyse data immediately to inform decisions is limited. Staff do the best they can to capture, process and convey information under pressure, but deeper analysis tends to happen after the fact, to inform and improve future performance. 

Here, AI can play a positive role. For example, call takers and dispatchers dealing with dozens of calls during a major traffic accident might miss that a lorry involved in a crash was described by one witness as a ‘tanker’, which could indicate the presence of potentially hazardous materials. Having such information may be crucial to police, fire and ambulance crews dispatched to the scene. An AI component reviewing incoming data could flag that detail and alert all dispatchers, who could then assess the situation and inform first responders, so they could take necessary precautions.

However, AI alone has its limits. In incident response, AI must never be the sole decision-maker. Instead, there must always be a human involved in all decision-making. ‘Assistive AI’ is the answer. This is a framework through which AI augments, and acts as a force multiplier, but never replaces human judgement and intuition when swift decisions are required.

Wielding technological advances

When it comes to digital transformation in emergency response, there are clear next steps that must be taken for public-safety agencies. First, the use of the cloud should become more ubiquitous allowing for the sharing of information between agencies as they react to incidents on the ground. Then, the use of emergent AI technology can better inform agencies as they meet crisis events, with all information shared to the cloud. The spread of these technologies will yield multiple benefits to the public and first responders, as smarter, more responsive services lead to the saving of lives. 

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