Monday, November 11, 2013

Human Factors Design of Onboard Critical Communication & Navigation technologies in Emergency Responder Vehicles

Performing any task under time pressure, leave alone high stakes, is hard enough. It gets harder when one is a driver; say, driving on a crowded freeway to the airport when we are running late to catch a flight.

Now let us switch roles and imagine that we are driving a first responder vehicle, a fire truck or an ambulance to the airport, in response to a major fire. Where initial reports suggest that many are seriously injured, which includes a few fatalities whose number might grow if the situation is not brought under control.  Needless to say, the sooner we get to the airport, more the lives that can be saved.

As an emergency responder our drive to the airport is filled with the percussive blare of the sirens wailing, lights flashing; including, a variety of in-vehicle radio communications (voice and data), which provide continuous updates to us, on issues ranging from coordination to what to expect on the scene. So that we are mentally, physically and organizationally prepared when we arrive on the scene.

An emergency response driver may have to participate in these communications as s/he must build a mental model of the unfolding emergency situation. He does this when driving at or above the speed limit, and deftly maneuvering the vehicle, through heavy traffic. Stated otherwise, the emergency vehicle driver's situational awareness of the road, traffic conditions and heading (navigation) should be above the norm to avoid collisions or getting lost -- which only delay the emergency response.

Distraction takes on an entirely different meaning when you compare the citizen-driver with that of the emergency vehicle driver.  However, you would be surprised to hear that for all the attention "distracted driving" has received with regards to the citizen / consumer car (texting, cell phones, etc.), the emergency vehicle has received little attention, if any, in research, design & engineering and the popular press.

The current approach to designing the emergency vehicle, be it a fire truck or a police car, is simply to pack it with more and more technology (2-way radios; data terminals; lights & siren controls; etc., etc.). Furthermore, in most cases, general consumer vehicles conceptualized and designed with very different goals, have been adapted (retrofitted) with emergency responder vehicle technology. It is akin to taking a pleasure yacht -- then stripping and retrofitting it with suitable technology and offensive capabilities -- to turn it into a navy frigate. (see below).

 Retrofitting a pleasure yacht to do the job of a naval frigate (USS Bainbridge, shown above) to patrol the pirate infested seas off the Horn of Africa is not the kind of solution that would be desired by the US Navy

Much needs to be done in the design of emergency responder vehicles. Just adding (literally) bells & whistles won't do.  They under serve the emergency responder due to poor ground-up human engineering and top-down human-system integration of technology within and without the vehicle -- compromising safety for all concerned.

Distracted Driving

Driver Distraction due to onboard technologies -- voice calls or text messaging on cellphones being the most ubiquitous culprit of our times -- has received widespread attention both in academic research and the popular media.  It is a very serious topic because a distracted driver can inflict great harm to him or herself, and others on the road.  Cell phones aside, there are many other interactions (and distractions) due to onboard technology, e.g., the entertainment system, navigation device, HVAC -- and other non-technology-related activities (eating to rubbernecking).

This is in the consumer world. But let us now dive deeper into the world of emergency responders.

Professional Emergency Responder Drivers

Emergency vehicles are driven by the need to deliver a quick response at the site of the incident or accident and/or transport injured people to the appropriate emergency medicine or trauma center. Public safety personnel (law enforcement, firefighting or EMS) who are charged with the delivery of on-scene, first line of response have to arrive in the shortest possible duration without compromising either their safety or that of citizens or property.  To accomplish this, first responders or emergency responders utilize various surface transportation modes (e.g., police car, motorbike, fire truck, ambulance).  More often than not, the emergency responder may also assume the role of the driver (a.k.a., EVO: Emergency Vehicle Operator); The EVO has to communicate, coordinate, collaborate, navigate and signal (C3nS), to enable him/her to arrive at the right location; and develop the correct mental model and situation awareness a priori to enable him/her deliver the appropriate response.  Thus the visuo-spatial-cognitive demands placed on the EVO, due to the primary task of high velocity, tactical driving and high priority, secondary tasks (C3nS) that must get done on the move, can be overwhelming due to the following reasons:
  • Disparate human-machine interfaces (HMIs) or user-interfaces (UIs) and their spatial location of the various C3nS technologies inside the cabin or cockpit (see Figure below).
  • The emergency situation or danger-induced emotional modulation and impoverishment of cognition (a.k.a., High Velocity Human Factors; Rahman, 2007)

Emergency responder technologies (2-way radio communication, mobile data terminal, etc.) found in a police cruiser. Note the disparate human-machine interfaces and technologies, including their spatial locations.

Distracted Driving: The Emergency Responder Case

Several definitions for distracted driving have emerged over the years and there is no one generally acceptable definition (Trezise et al., 2006).  In its most basic essence, one of the best definitions for distracted driving is described as “attention given to a non-driving-related activity, typically to the detriment of driving performance” (Pettitt, Burnett, & Stevens, 2005). 

A vast cornucopia of research and literature on driver distraction, including reviews (e.g., Reagan, Lee and Young, 2009; Young & Regan, 2007), naturalistic studies (Dingus, et al., 2006), and distraction mitigation (Engstrom & Victor, 2009; Donmez, et al., 2008), which address the topic from multiple perspectives (theory, empirical research, modeling, design, engineering, etc.) in the consumer and commercial vehicular is available. However, there is a paucity of driver distraction research insofar EVOs are concerned.

Nevertheless, the issue of injuries and fatalities resulting due to emergency vehicle crashes has been recognized and has been reported (FEMA, 2004; USFA, 2011). Driver distraction and human factor elements of emergency vehicle operations have been recognized (FEMA, 2004; IAFC, et al., 2010) as safety issues and guidelines (policies & procedures) have been published.   No literature that report findings on driver distraction caused by in-vehicle emergency responder technologies – basic or applied research (simulator or naturalistic driving) – to my knowledge is available in the public domain. However, a recent initiative by the United States Fire Administration (USFA, 2011) was announced to initiate a public safety emergency vehicle study.

Emergency Responder vs. General Public Driver

Emergency responders differ from the general public drivers in a number of ways, given their overarching goal of arriving at the scene or transporting the patient to the hospital in the shortest possible duration; or in some cases, embarking on hot pursuits (law enforcement). These cognitive and behavioral differences, as it applies to the in-vehicle experience and driving, are listed below:
  • Emergency event or [high speed] driving caused affective arousal (neural, hormonal, physiological) and its positive and negative modulation of perception, cognition and decision making (Rahman, 2011).
  • Time pressure: high speed driving; distortion of time perception; and speed induced under-estimation of speed and trip related durations (Cœugnet, et al., 2013)
  • Knowledge, skills and abilities specific to emergency vehicle operations (e.g., police officers; Coyne, 2000)
  • Differences in vehicular platforms (motor bikes to heavy vehicles), between consumer/commercial vehicles and emergency responder vehicles, including in-vehicle technologies.
  • Emergency responder drivers are usually not in a position to exhibit operational-level, compensatory behaviors on the primary task of driving, unlike regular drivers who, for example, may reduce their speed when performing secondary tasks (e.g., talking on the cell phone) [Young & Regan, 2007].

Research, Design & Engineering (RD&E) of Emergency Responder Vehicles

Consider fire trucks. Pumpers, ladders, rescuers and tanker trucks are highly customized creations for the Fire Department from an operational standpoint. A truck maybe fitted with a 2000 gallon tank or with a pump capable of delivering 500 GPM.  But scant attention is likely to have been paid to the in-vehicle technologies the crew and the driver have to interact with enroute to an incident. Same applies to a police car.  The communicate, coordinate, collaborate, navigate and signal (C3nS) capabilities might have just been retrofitted. Driver distraction, human factors and social intra- and inter-crew(s) interfacing, during a mission within and between first responder agencies may not have been addressed at all.

The RD&E must move away from the current retrofitting paradigm of civilian vehicles. This neither serves the emergency responders, citizens nor industry as it compromises safety and results in poor efficiencies. From a business standpoint, the incentives are lacking for industry -- automobile manufacturers to emergency communication vendors -- to change this paradigm.  

As a first step, mobile radio and computing technologies that are currently being retrofitted into a range of vehicles should stop taking the one-size fits all approach. Their design should be considered from the standpoint of what they need to do -- and assist EVOs and first responders in transit -- from an emergency communication and information transaction standpoint without causing "cognitive distractions" (taking the mind off the road and/or other higher priority tasks pertaining to driving and navigation.) Next, their user-interface design should go beyond run-of-the-mill ergonomics -- such as where to place knobs, size of push buttons or graphics of the screen -- but should also consider the cognitive, social and affective aspect of interaction brought about by high velocity human factors / HVHF (stress-induced emotional modulation of cognitive and perceptual capabilities of the body and the brain). 

Ultimately, creative business models, public-private partnerships, and human factors standards and guidelines are required to design emergency vehicles ground-up that deliver unrivalled safety and utility. This is contrast to the piecemeal and ad hoc retrofitting of consumer or commercial vehicles that is done today to transform them into emergency responder vehicles. 

In the engineering world, the vehicle Controller Area Network (CAN) interface is designed with great attention to detail so all digital components in the automobile work flawlessly, lest they cause a critical malfunction resulting in a safety hazard. Now the time has come to pay equal, if not more, attention to the emergency responder vehicle Human-Machine Interface (HMI). This is to ensure that emergency responder vehicle's onboard technologies do not result in driver distraction -- compromising safety -- where the emergency responder vehicle ends-up costing lives instead of saving lives.

Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. He specializes in:

"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."

For more information, please visit:


Key References 
Cœugnet, S., Miller, H., Anceaux, F., & Naveteur, J. (2013). How do time pressure drivers estimate speed and time? Accident Analysis & Prevention, Vol. 55, 211-218.

Coyne, P. (2000). Roadcraft: The Police Drivers Manual. London: HMSO.

Dingus, T.A., Klauer, S.G., Neale, V.L., Petersen, A., Lee, S.E., Sudweeks, J., et al. (2006). The 100-car Naturalistic Driving Study, Phase II: Results of the 100-Car field experiment (Tech. Rep. No. DOT HS 810 593). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Donmez, B., Boyle, L.N., & Lee, J.D. (2008). Mitigating driver distraction with retrospective and concurrent feedback. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 40, 776-786.

Eisenberg, C. (2006). SLP-11: Law Enforcement Vehicle Pursuits - Policies, Training, Tactics and Technology. Retrieved on May 13, 2013, from,-clyde-paper-pdf.aspx

Engstrom, J., & Victor, T. (2009). Real-time distraction countermeasures. In M.A. Regan, J.D. Lee, & K.L. Young (Eds.), Driver distraction: Theory, effects, and mitigation (pp. 465-484). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

FEMA (2004). FA 272: Emergency Vehicle Safety Initiative.

Hedlund, J. (2006). International Conference on Distracted Driving. Summary of Proceedings and Recommendations. International Conference on Distracted Driving. October 2005.

IAFC, AFL-CIO & CLC (2010). Best Practices for Emergency Vehicle and Roadway Operations Safety in the Emergency Services. Washington, DC: Authors.

Moore, G.A. (1999). Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers. New York: HarperBusiness

McGehee, D.V. (2011). The Building Blocks of Driver Distraction Policy. Ergonomics in Design, Vol. 19(4), 25-27.

Pettitt, M., Burnett, G., & Stevens, A. (2005). Defining driver distraction. Paper presented at World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, San Francisco, CA.

Rahman, M. (2007). High Velocity Human Factors: Human factors in mission critical domains in Nonequilibrium. In Proceedings of the Human factors and Ergonomics 51st Annual Meeting (pp.273-277). Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

Rahman, M. (2012). Emergency Medical Responders and Physicians: Diagnostics, Decision Making and Therapeutic Care in High Stakes Situations. Proceedings of the 2012 Symposium of Human Factors and Ergonomics in Healthcare. Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

Regan, M.A., Lee, J.D., & Young, K.L. (2009). Driver Distraction: Theory, effects, and mitigation. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Trezise, I., Stoney, E. G., Bishop, B., Eren, J., Harkness, A., Langdon, C., & Mulder, T. (2006). Report of the road safety committee on the inquiry into driver distraction. Rep. No. 209. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Road Safety Committee, Parliament of Victoria.

USFA (2011). USFA, Justice Department Initiate Public Safety Emergency Vehicle Safety Study. Retrieved on May 8, 2013, from

Young, K. & Regan, M. (2007). Driver distraction: A review of the literature. In: I.J. Faulks, M. Regan, M. Stevenson, J. Brown, A. Porter & J.D. Irwin (Eds.). Distracted driving. Sydney, NSW: Australasian College of Road Safety. Pages 379-405.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Creative Disruptions (or lack thereof) in Mission Critical Communications Technology

In this post, I will go out on a limb and make the audacious claim that the first and, thus far, the biggest "bottom-up" creative disruptor in mission critical communications industry (a.k.a., First Responder communications) has been the elimination of the "runner." That is, the messenger who relayed messages between the command post and the front lines. Legend has it that the most famous runner of all time was Pheidippides who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens, in 490 BC, to relay the message that the Persians were defeated.

Then came the mother of all "creative disruptions" insofar mission critical communications were concerned: Wireless communication.

Thanks to the 2-way radio. The job of the Runner has become obsolete and "marathon" has turned into a competitive sport. But it took a tragedy concerning "Public Safety" --  a lack of, and poor, radio communication capabilities on the high seas, which resulted in the sinking of the Titanic -- for the first major federal legislation concerning wireless communications to be enacted into law. It was the Radio Act of 1912. And, public safety, has never been the same since (for the better).  However, it was the impetus of WWII and the realization by the US Signal Corps on the importance of portable radio communications for the dismounted soldier, which resulted in the commercialization of the first generation of handheld portable radios.

Handie-Talkie (SCR-536) military radio - circa 1945 – the first model of a hand held two-way radio ever produced.
(manufacturer was Galvin Manufacturing which became Motorola during WWII)

Success in mission critical domains (first responders, transportation, energy generation, healthcare, etc.) is contingent on timely transmission, receipt and comprehension of mission-relevant information. This could range from runner-based relayed communication, semaphores (hand signals), smoke signals to wireless radio communication (voice, data or homing signal); the latter is invaluable because of its lightening speed. Radio communication not only saves lives, it also serves as a"force-multiplier" as it enhances the effectiveness and efficiency of work done and services delivered by first responders.

Now lets explore mission critical communication in general and the extent to which "two-way radio" communication has evolved from its humble beginnings over the last 50 years. This is to find out what and where is the state of the art of radio communication; and have there been any creative disruptions since the advent of the wireless radio in the mission critical domain.

Bottom-Up Creative Disruptor vs. Top-Down Innovation 

I define a bottom-up creative disruption as one where the fundamental nature of how work ought to be performed -- to make it safer, cleaner, efficient and effective with multifold gains -- is realized with a game changing technology. Wireless radio communication was certainly one such game changing technology for mission critical professionals. In fact, it was such a revolutionary technology it found its way into the consumer market, and its cousin, the cellular phone, became a wild success.

Now to top-down innovations.  These are mostly small, but very much necessary, incremental changes that make a technology better. In the two-way radio case, those familiar with industry jargon, will point out such innovations: conventional to trunking; analog to digital; single to multiband; Simulcast; interoperability between different vendor equipment (APCO P25 Standard); etc. Many of these top-down innovations were necessitated to exploit the extremely valuable and crowded Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum -- and also to deliver some benefits to first responders in the field.

In a similar vein, the consumer cellular phone has seen many such top-down innovations (FDMA, CDMA, TDMA, GPRS, 3GPP, 4G LTE), but has also vastly benefited from a number of bottom-up creative disruptors. These range from color screens, multi-touch user-interfaces, speech recognition, location-based services, GPS, Internet and an "app" rich ecosystem,  and much more. A good number of these were driven by the need to meet the end-users wants and needs; and/or out think the consumers themselves to provide them with services they could not have imagined. For instance, it is said the legendary former Apple CEO, the late Steve Jobs, could imagine and intuit what the (consumer) end-users' digital interests and pursuits would be or should be, even though they (customers) wouldn't know it until the they experienced it! In the consumer space, an open market and intense competition, resulted in many bottom-up creative disruptions. Thanks to titans, past and present, such as Motorola, Nokia, Blackberry, Apple, Samsung, among others.

The Revolution in Consumer Communication Technology vs. the slow Evolution in Mission Critical Comms.
Note: The devices are shown for representational purposes; the pictures themselves only tell less than half the story, as the technology within and without (network and ecosystem) has much more to do with creative disruptions and innovations in their respective market verticals.

Have Mission Critical Communications withered on the Vine?

For some, the above question is a heresy. How dare one ask such a question...? But have we seen the kind of user-based, bottom-up creative disruptions in the mission critical communications industry that are on par with the consumer communication market? The basic anatomy of the mission critical radio has pretty much remained the same over the years. The user-experience has not really become intuitive and user-friendly, particularly under High Velocity Human Factors (HVHF) conditions -- say, in a high stakes, dangerous and highly stressful situations. (In HVHF states the user's cognitive capacity is diminished due to task overload and other threats; there is insufficient cognitive bandwidth to interact with technology.)

At the end of the day when there is a loss of life and/or assets, the fire fighter or the police officer is blamed because he didn't know how to get to the tactical talk net (group or channel). Or the buck is passed around and "lack of training" gets blamed. But what about the root cause: the design of the portable communication radio or the network that supports it? Some daring visionaries, from industry, regulatory bodies, and first responders agencies, have thought about it, and have tried hard to improve the utility of the radio, but for any number of reasons have been stymied.

These critical radio problems (device and network infrastructure) were brought into the limelight in two recent incidents that ended in loss of life: the Navy yard shooting and the Yarnell Hill wildland fire.

It is important to note that adding a color display and making bigger, bulkier knobs or best-in-class Push-to-Talk buttons with a "sweet spot" to a mission critical radio does not solve the kind of problem that confront the first responder. Certainly, they make the specific I/O interface easier to look, twiddle or press.  But what is the point of making a fundamentally unintuitive product that lacks critical utility when that ability to communicate is lost in critical moments? The reasons could range from lack of connectivity to the inability to figure out -- particularly, under highly stressful situations when the ability to think is altered due to danger -- on how to get to the right channel on the radio. Or stated in operational terms get to the the closest fellow first responder, with the appropriate skill set, say, a paramedic, from one's own team or another department.  Remember "moments" time matters in first response. A severe arterial bleed could take a life in a matter of less than 5 minutes. Bluntly stated showroom usability of buttons and knobs does not necessarily equal to actual utility delivered on the fireground, or when taking fire in a SWAT operation.

Thus one is forced to conclude that mission critical communication technology lags and not leads, both in absolute and relative terms (compared to consumer comms.), in terms of what ought to be done. For one, no noteworthy innovation that was born in the mission critical space has gone to the consumer markets in the recent past. Whereas innovations from the consumer space (e.g., Google Glass) are knocking at the doors of mission critical. There are many reasons for the paucity of innovation in the mission critical space. They range from poor economies of scale, lack of viable business models, insufficient or skewed competition, insufficient hardcore human factors engineering related R&D due to lack of a vision or funding, absence of a strong partnership among first responder agencies/end-users, vendors and regulatory bodies, among others. (Recently Politico alleged about special interests trying to impede the proposed Public Safety Broadband Network.)

Creative Disruptions in Mission Critical Communications

The need of the hour in mission critical communications is not so much about getting the police officer an iPad or a Google Glass. They may have a role, assuming they are not distractors but truly deliver utility during normal and abnormal situations.

What really should matter, as a first step, is a thorough understanding of how first responder work is best done before we think of "engineering" a solution. In many instances, first responder work is done inefficiently or dangerously either to compensate for the limits of technology or inspite of it. To understand the "socio-technical" aspects of a firefighter, paramedic or police officers work one needs cognitive ethnographers, social and human factors researchers study their work in real time, in the field -- and in context. (Questionnaires or focus groups should be used to support field work not as substitutions; by themselves questionnaires reveal very little.) This type of work is done by teaming-up with first responders (the actual end-users and not purchasing decision makers in first responder agencies) and including them in "participatory" design exercises.

At a high level, one needs to understand the following factors, their interplay, and how goal driven tasks are best accomplished.
  1. First responder physical and cognitive demands
  2. Nature of first response, situation or context
  3. Individual and team task execution needs; inter / intra departmental coordination and collaboration
Data collection from the above described field work, followed by interpretation and ideation should drive the discovery of solutions. The solutions could range from training, technology, organizational factors to operating procedures. In other words, technology is one among other factors.

Insofar technology is concerned it may or may not involve using or adapting commercially off the shelf technologies; or it may require something new to be invented resulting in a creative disruption.  Such an approach, would increase efficiency of first response and protect first responders. For example, a firefighter should be made aware before he enters the building whether he would be losing his ability to communicate (transmit and/or receive). Simply put, an inability to receive a command to evacuate may have life threatening consequences.  There are several more such issues (known and unknown) that hobble first responder communications and put them into danger. Unfortunately, these problems can neither be solved with a bigger, better ergonomic knob nor the world's best push-to-talk button; or for that matter augmented reality afforded by a head mounted display such as Google Glass.

So what needs to be done? Part of the answer lies in product design (bottom-up, creative disruptions and top-down innovation). But is there an impetus or an incentive for creative disruption in the mission critical industry market vertical?: yes and no. I will reserve this discussion for another article.

In the meantime, I solicit feedback, and would like to hear your thoughts on the state of the art of mission critical communication.

Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. He specializes in:

"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."

For more information, please visit:


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Future of First Response & Emergency Management: New Technology Considerations

The mission critical communication industry is moving towards enhancing the effectiveness of first responders by making multiple streams of information in various modalities, or multimedia, converge; a.k.a,, unified communications. This includes bringing together voice (Land Mobile Radio; Cellular; PSTN (telephony); VoIP; Video / Data).

This is underway as we are moving away from legacy circuit-switched technologies to interoperable and secure IP-based network-centric services that deliver video, file transfer, and unified messaging. And it is being operationalized on a transport layer: a mobile networking infrastructure (e.g., 4G LTE; FirstNet; IP-based interoperable platform) to deliver this [converged] rich information at the tactical edge to the first responder in the field.  This connectivity works both ways (inbound / outbound). The first responder(s) and commanders at the incident site should not only be able to communicate, capture information, query databases and stream multimedia information but also share what they have onsite with cohorts and/or reach back into the chain of command.

This degree of connectivity, communicability and flexibility made possible by the evolution of technology is both a boon and if not designed well from a human factors standpoint a bane.  

In this article, I briefly discuss the "boons." That is, how technology when designed well, by taking into consideration human factors (cognitive/physical capabilities & limitations) and organizational structure and cultures in which they perform, can amplify first responder capability. In other words, become a force multiplier.

Consider firefighting (structure and wildland fires), where both voice and data integration is being explored by equipment manufacturers and first responder organizations. This includes, but is not limited to, transporting data -- e.g., database interrogation, remote sensing, and telemetry, or computing data in situ, as part of a cognitive computing or intelligent network.  This may include a variety of data sets that range from alarm type, incidence location, geo-location, building layouts, hazmat info, etc., for structure fires; and meteorology, topology, fuel source,, etc., for wildland firefighting.  Last, but not least, some of the industry players are also moving towards tracking individual fire fighter's physiological measures, location / presence, etc., to monitor health, safety and performance, on the fire ground.

Next, let us look at law enforcement, which I will use to explain the elements of what is known as a "socio-technical system" or STS. If a police officer has to succeed at the tactical edge, s/he needs to be networked and connected with the rest of the players and technologies that make it happen. This amalgamation of personnel and technology(s) in an organization, with its own culture, structure, goals, and how it utilizes technology to get work done, is a "socio-technical system."  

Law Enforcement Socio-Technical System (People + Technology)
Brief HVHF note on how technology may either hinder or amplify first responder performance at the tactical edge. Available here.

Thus the design of a network or a handheld device can't be seen in isolation. If they have to be effective, their design should take into consideration both human interaction with it and how well it is integrated to accomplish organizational goals.  For example, wireless communication dead-spots, frequent outages, slow network speeds, sub-optimal preempting/prioritizing & squelching protocols or difficulty in maintaining the system or troubleshooting equipment can result in inefficiencies, low throughput and loss (human lives to property) in a first responder context.  Furthermore, it needs to take into account cultural and structural factors such as chain of command dynamics, centralization vs. decentralization, conformity vs. customizablity, operational doctrine, cultural power distance, short term thinking vs. long term orientation, policies, politics, intra/inter-organizational issues, budgets (equipment to training), etc.

So what is the ideal architecture for the human-machine interface for first responder technology?  How does one filter raw Data, to identify mission critical & essential Information that are relevant to the incident.  Next, put that information into context -- so that it is transmuted into actionable Knowledge for all stakeholders at the incident-site (e.g., enriching situation awareness and mental models of the progress & containment of the fire, search & rescue, safety, etc., for fire fighters & commanders). See Figure below. 


RAW DATA (when filtered for relevancy) (and put into context, inline with current goals) turns into mission critical & eseential INFORMATION (when this information is presented in a format, mode or medium where it could be accurately understood) then it turns into useful and actionable KNOWLEDGE 

To accomplish the above goal, a data rich ecosystem should, of course, first be data-driven, but then should be information-based and knowledge-led to be successful. This could be accomplished by abstracting the human-technology interface into three layers:
  1. physical / graphical user-interface (provides the perceptual gist from a semiotic and affordances standpoint); 
  2. cognitive interface (couples the physical / graphical user-interface's affordances, semiotic & information architecture with the work-related goals and mental models of the technology that the user brings to the task -- which produces a conceptual gist in his/her mind); 
  3. epistemological interface (aiding via predictive/prescriptive analytics and enabling the comprehension of relevant, goal supporting information -- nudging the human agent to take a certain course of action (CoA) among a set of choices, resulting in a CoA gist). 
The means to this end could range from exploiting commercial off-the-shelf technologies that might range from hardware or software / apps; or it might involve developing new products (if none exist off-the-shelf) to close the gap. 

But how does one determine what is the appropriate technological solution? Applying technology for technology's sake, or because it is there, is a dangerous proposition in a first responders' world. It could occlude his senses (e.g., poorly designed heads-up display), diminish situation awareness, not constructively aid decision making on the fly, which might eventually lead to the misuse or disuse of expensive technology; or worse yet, may result in wrong decisions and lead to catastrophic outcomes. 

Thus, first and foremost, we need to understand what is that we are trying solve. It begins by asking the right questions. The place to begin is cognitive ethnography (field research) to actually observe first responders performing their work in the field. It could be real events in real time and/or simulated ones like drills. (Asking questions to first responders in a closed room, out of context, via a focus group may provide partial answers. They are unlikely to be accurate; people say things that they thought they did in a time stressed situation, but in reality they may never have done it. Memory is fragile. It is distorted due to stress, lapses and  decay due to passage of time). 

The data collected from cognitive ethnography should be followed by a rigorous human factors design analysis to ideate, innovate and conceptualize usable and utilitarian solutions. 

The last step is to identify technology that can be either adapted off-the-shelf or developed from scratch. They are the portable / wearable / mobile / fixed devices, network infrastructure, and platforms (data centers, transport, service architectures) -- their form factors and user-interfaces -- that will accomplish the above stated goal of developing usable and utilitarian solution for first responders.

Thus when a technology is designed with a user-centered focus and driven by human and socio-technical factors, it can turn it into a great boon -- a "force multiplier" by delivering the following benefits:
  • Context sensitive information that yields knowledge (situation awareness, sensemaking, accurate analytics-driven decision-aiding).
  • Hyper-intuitive user-experience, even under stress (when first responders' cognitive resources are depleted), that makes technology second nature and delivering utility to the first responder at the tactical edge or for personnel in the back-end of the system.
  • Effective C2 (command & control): Locus of control for commander and emergency managers; and resilient delivery of first response and emergency services.
So before we conclude how cool that Google Glass will be on a first responder or Siri voice interface for light and siren controls inside a police car; or as a technologist get on the drawing board to design something from scratch; or as a purchaser in a first responder department making a purchase decision about a particular vendor's technology; let us pause and ask ourselves what is that we are trying to solve?: both from the back-end and at the tactical edge.

About the author:

Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. He specializes in:

"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."

For more information, please visit:


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

FirstNet Public Safety Wireless Broadband Network: User-Centered Design and Human Factors Driven Engineering of NextGen Public Safety Network

Data, Data, Everywhere...

The New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly testified to Congress last year that 
“a 16-year-old with a smart phone has a more advanced communications capability than a police officer or deputy carrying a radio.” 

10-4 ... Roger that! 

And, if I may add, the 16-year old revels in the data deluge delivered by this "advanced communications capability": Facebook, Twitter feeds, IM, SMS, YouTube, Spotify, and you name it! The young man or lady is socially connected, entertained and is up to speed with the goings-on in his/her social network. But how well does this apply to a mission critical, first responder such as a police officer, fire fighter or paramedic? 

There is no doubt about the need for an advanced communications capability for first responders. However, the first responder doesn't wish to be drowning in a data deluge that is devoid of immediately useful and actionable information or intelligence. His refrain would be "data, data everywhere, but where is my byte that matters most???"

Simply put, our mission critical professional has no time to google, mapquest, tweet or watch a video. In other words, a first responder on call doesn't have the time to:

  • google to figure out the nature of the domestic violence incidents at a particular house
  • mapquest a street in response to a fallen colleague's mayday call broadcast to get there within the "platinum 10" [minutes] and provide basic life support.
  • tweet during a hot pursuit to warn citizens that a fugitive is driving at high speed on the wrong side of a highway
  • watch a video-tutorial to compare the situation on hand and receive guidance on delivering advanced life support / antidote to a grievously poisoned citizen.

Drowning in Data, But Where is the Information?

Obviously, the public safety communication infrastructure and the subscriber units (the handheld 2-way portable radios and vehicle-based mobile radios, data devices, computing technologies, etc.) used today do not have the bells and whistles of an iPhone. Or to go back to Police Commissioner Kelly's analogy, they are unlike the 16-year old's smart phone with processors and chipsets generating bewitching animations -- and more importantly pumping unlimited data from a fat pipe (a 4G LTE wireless broadband network). 

But in the process, what we also forget is the fact that the 16-year old is enjoying his streaming music and emitting his tweets when his commercial-grade wireless network is standing like the Rock of Gibraltar. For example, it has not been physically attacked, virtually hacked or brought down by peak demand due to a natural disaster or terrorist attack.  Furthermore, the 16-year is doing all this in a threat-free situation, where his heart rate is not surging or the adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormones) are not coursing in his veins, prepping him for a fight or flight response. The good young man is neither in the situation of a hotshot surrounded by a raging forest fire nor is he a paramedic trying to figure out the best way to stop an arterial bleeding of an accident victim with a punctured lung and fractured vertebrae. 

Enough said!

A first responder is unlike you and me, the consumer. More often than not he is functioning in a system that is in non-equilibrium, where High Velocity Human Factors or "HVHF" comes into play.

On to Mission Critical / Public Safety Communication

The evolution of public safety communication networks (APCO P25 in North America, Figure 1; TETRA in Europe) have been slow from the days of the analog conventional radios that were so large they could only fit in the trunk of a car. But over the years they acquired the traits of the Rock of Gibraltar: hardened and solid in terms of survivability; reliability; security; velocity of voice comms.  For example, they have redundancies built into the base station and site controllers so that a single point failure doesn't take all communications down. And they are catching-up with their cousins in the defense space (JTRS: Joint Tactical Radio System): where the network is not only resilient but intelligent (self-healing and self-connecting networks; cognitive radios with programmable wave forms, which might change attributes on the fly depending on the communication link: rifleman to manpack radio in an Abrams Tank, or from from a Humvee to recon aircraft hundreds of miles away.)

Figure 1: The APCO P25 communication network was a major step towards standardizing disparate communication systems via a CAI (Common Air Interface), which was also backward compatible (worked with legacy analog, conventional systems), with the goal of promoting interoperability
(Source: Electronic Design)

Public Safety comms. have their weaknesses as well, the biggest one being lack of interoperability as they are fragmented, unconnected and constrained due to technology, jurisdiction and inter-organizational cultural impediments. Say, the Fire Department in County X may not be able to communicate with the one in County Y. Put in consumer-communication speak, if you are a Verizon subscriber from New York visiting Miami, you can't call the local restaurant because they subscribe to AT&T Wireless and land line telephony.

FirstNet: Sociotechnical-based, User-Centered, Human-Engineered NextGen Public Safety Networks

A brave new initiative called FirstNet -- a rugged, public safety-grade broadband wireless network -- seeks to retain the strengths of existing public safety communication networks but overcome its weaknesses (from lack of interoperability to the narrowness of its data pipes) is in the works.  

The design and deployment of FirstNet, including the subscriber units (portable radios to mobile computing technologies), have to considered with great care so that it delivers both utility and usability. This is no casual communication; life and limb are often on the line.

Thus the goal here is not to drown the first responder with data because one has gotten hold of a fat pipe (broadband wireless network). In fact, for some mission critical use cases, (a data deluge) more data maybe worse than no data! Simply because, the constant data pings and voice chatter may distract the first responder from his primary task of saving someone. Remember HVHF! Under stress he has limited cognitive resources and they are precious. He needs to put all his attention and cognitive effort in either focusing on the threat or putting out a raging fire. He has no mental bandwidth left to idly monitor the goings-on in his network or surf the data that his streaming through his device.

To get mission critical communication design right, let's first, well, get to first principles.

What is Communication?

In its simplest form, communication results in the transmission of information, from a transmitter, with the goal of making the Receiver aware of something that he would otherwise be ignorant of (Figure 2).  Ideally speaking, the integrity of this communication should not be compromised either while being encoded (transmitter-end) / decoded (receiver-end), or due to "noise" (garbled) by a weak signal or cross-talk.  Here are three examples of mission critical communication: 

  • First responder at the accident scene communicating to dispatch; "Life threatening injury; need paramedics and transport to Level 1 Trauma Center."
  • Police officer after pulling over a vehicle [accessing data]: Interrogating a remote database for driver's license and registration information.
  • Accident Investigator: [video] Recording and transmitting video (evidentiary information for forensic analysis and/or to be used in court).

Figure 2: Mathematical Theory of Communication (cf. Claude Shannon)

Communication -- be it one-way, two-way, multi-way (conference call style, a.k.a., "TalkGroup" in public safety comms.) -- is all about context: e.g., seeking immediate rescue; enhancing situation awareness to prevent friendly fire; or enable sensemaking in a complex wildland firefighting scenario.

Thus communication, particularly one that is technologically enabled, to be successful needs to consider the social & organizational context; users' information and communication needs; and human cognitive & physical capabilities and limitations. These are discussed next.

Socio-technical System (STS) Based

Consider a major natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy. Several entities from FEMA, federal to local government agencies coordinate emergency management, search and rescue. When designing a comm. network, one has to take into consideration the intra- and inter-organizational factors among the various government agencies, in deciding, planning, collaborating and managing their work. This may encompass written procedures, trained responses, tactics, techniques and procedures, politically and legally mandated protocols -- and last but not least cultural factors (good and bad).  

As an example, FEMA's incident command system (ICS) is a scalable and manageable command and control system with the goal of integrating local, county, state, and federal assets to provide the most effective first response from a category IV Hurricane to a terrorist attack.

Figure 3: Incident Command System

As seen above, a fat pipe (broadband) may be a necessary but not a sufficient solution for effective communication. It needs to be agile so that it either self-configures (or is easily configured by a technician) on the run in real time (by recognizing the infrastructure [base station, site controllers, repeaters, etc.] and, last but not least, the plethora of subscriber units, which could range from portable radios, mobile computers, including consumer tablets and smart phones (BYODs); It must be intelligent and know what and which type of voice or data traffic to prioritize; It must be adaptive to the situation on hand so that it morphs (e.g., cognitive radio) to exploit the available RF spectrum to deliver connectivity on the ground to into the cloud. 

PLUS, the network should be hardened and have all the required attributes for public safety grade communications: survivability, reliabiity, security, interoperability, etc.

User-Centered Design

Consider a sampling of mission critical professionals: A hotshot battling a wildfire in a gulch, an EMT providing basic life support to a gunshot victim, or an officer with a search warrant have different goals, situational context in which decisions have to be made and informational needs. 

  • The hotshot serving as a lookout may require live meteorological and topological information and needs to be networked with the central command and his cohort, hotshots on the fireground; 
  • An EMT may have to look-up electronic health records of the victim for any pre-existing health conditions and contraindications and be in touch with the receiving ER physician; 
  • An officer with the search warrant who has descended to the basement might find himself cornered with no network signal and, thus, has to use Direct Talkaround to his partner in the floor above to summon help. 
Thus the information ecosystem and the communication networks shoud be user-centered in terms of delivering useful, usable and actionable intelligence in realtime to the mission critical professional. They could either be delivered on demand or with predictive analytics that carefully sifts through data to deliver useful and situationally relevant information.

Human Factors + Ergonomics + Cognitive Engineering

This final piece concerns the mission critical professionals themselves: the human operators, their physicial / cognitive capabilities and limitations; and how they have to be integrated into the public safety communication socio-technical system.  There are several layers to this integration, and one of them is the human-machine interface (HMI), also known as UI (user-interface). This covers both the physical (knobs, buttons, keys) and graphical user-interfaces (information architecture and human-computer interaction design) on the devices with which they interact: handheld / vehicle-mounted radios, tablet-computers, command & control computers, etc.

Whether it be a normal operational situation or an emergency, and, thus, an abnormal situation, the user-interface for any and all technology should be intuitive and usable. Furthermore, depending on who the mission critical user is -- e.g., front line first responder, commander or network administrator -- it should as an useful cognitive interface as well: augment their senses and deepen their comprehension of what is going right or wrong in the mission-space. This is critical, because they are the first and last line of defense with regards to protecting precious assets, from human lives to property.

The Fat Pipe Filtered: Data to Information to Knowledge

A communication network (Core to Nodes to Subscriber Units) when designed by applying an STS-based, user-centric, and human engineered approach gets its closer to the ideal solution -- where technology is used to amplify human capability. Simply put both the technology and human agents in the STS should work as peers and partners -- a joint cognitive system -- to produce best results. In other words, when an algorithm fails to provide the answer when confronted with a novel situation a first responder may solve it with his sudden flash of insight. On the flip side, the technology maybe the best handyman when a sensor, search and analytical engine does what it does best:  connecting an automatically scanned license plate to a stolen car, or using facial recognition technology to recognize the face of a man who is wanted for hacking ATM machines in a different state.

It is good to be gung-ho about new, better and faster technology. But technology should not be celebrated for technology's sake. So let me summarize what I have discussed so far in this article in the context of FirstNet, the public safety broadband network being designed in the United States: 
The purpose of FirstNet is to deliver actionable information at a high velocity -- which is comprehensible via an intuitive user-interface -- and not terabytes of useless data.  It must equip and enhance the capability of our public safety professionals.  It is a fallacy to entertain the mistaken notion that a Public Safety Broadband Wireless Network will do the first responding and the first responders will be transformed into IT workers who are busy manning the equipment.

About the author:

Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. He specializes in:

"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Funnel Cognition: How Macrocognition can inform Successful Adaptations in Competitive Tennis

Megginson (1963) citing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in the context of business management observed “…it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” This applies equally well when the ecology is no longer the natural habitat of a species but a tennis court on which the competitive tennis player (singles) finds himself at the appointed hour for a duel with his opponent. The tennis player on this occasion encounters a few invariants (personal racket, balls, court dimensions, rules, etc.) but also is confronted with a large number of variables. They range from exogenous variables (e.g., wind speed, crowd support, opponent’s physical & mental states, including his tactics and strategic intent, etc.) to endogenous variables (e.g., one’s own physical and mental states, fluency in execution on that particular day of practiced perceptual-motor skills, among others). Needless to say, the player has to rapidly make sense of these variables and develop strategies to overcome them through adaptations, without any external assistance, as no coaching is permitted in professional tennis. The ultimate goal obviously is to use these adaptations to his advantage to increase his likelihood of winning the match.

The 2013 Wimbledon Finalists Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic who are known to be Deep Thinkers and the most Adaptive Pro's to the Circumstances on the ATP Tour

I will discuss how a player can make such dynamic adaptations, not at the tactical level (e.g., whether to hit a drop shot vis-à-vis a top-spin ground stroke in a particular situation), but at a strategic level – i.e., by utilizing the information contained in the aforesaid variables to make advantageous adjustments. It will be shown that this could be accomplished by building a set of macrocognitive skills, specific to tennis, which are referred to as “funnel cognition” (as opposed to “tunnel cognition.”) This is tantamount to integrating information from a wide range of input variables (akin to the inflow-mouth of a funnel) to develop a hypothesis on current system state, which is a form of pre-kinetic, situation assessment (even before a ball is hit); this would be used to develop a specific strategy that is apropos to the situation on hand (the outflow from the funnel’s stem). Next, during the post-kinetic periods – brief breaks between points, games or sets – the player may reassess the situation again at a macro cognitive level by making suitable assimilations and accommodations (Klein, Moon & Hoffman, 2006) to redefine or refine the strategy. At least two well known approaches from Human Factors sciences – Sensemaking (Weick, 1995) and situated cognition (Suchman, 2007) – used in the context of human-systems design are applicable to sports such as tennis, where the embodied athlete has to solve high level problems without the assistance of an external agent (coach or technology). These formalized approaches and applicability to tennis have received little attention. Most of the analyses, that can be considered cognitive, has been done do develop and hone tactical skills for the kinetic phase in tennis (Teltscher, 2006; Elderton, 2010). It should also be noted that these macrocognitive skills discussed in this talk differ from the microcognitive, perceptual-cognitive skills – centered around direct perception of a projectile (Iacoboni, 2001), its effective anticipation (e.g., Singer, Cauraugh, Chen, Steinberg, Frehlich, 1996) and decision making (Elderton, 2010) – which usually fall under the rubric of “game intelligence” (Stratton, Reilly, Richardson, Williams, 2004) in sports research and literature. The latter have been widely studied by sports psychologists (for a review see Casanova, Oliveira, Williams, Garganta, 2009). Finally, how macrocognitive skills can be formally inculcated to competitive tennis players through methods such as Instance-based Learning Technique (Gonzalez, Lerch, Lebiere, 2003) will be discussed in a future article.

The science of human performance under high stakes and stressful situations discussed in this article shares many characteristics in domains such as first response, warfighting, piloting, emergency medicine, process control in abnormal situations, among others. 

Although, sports does not have life and death implications it can serve as a live laboratory to study cognition and decision making under high stakes and time stress. Knowledge gleaned from this may even contribute to the field of "comparative cognitive engineering."  Ultimately, the this will not only inform sports training and technology, but can also facilitate "antifragile" (cf. Nassim Taleb) approaches to design human-technology interaction in mission critical systems (first response to healthcare). So that the human agents such as first responders, pilots, emergency physicians -- and systems, particularly smart technologies that "learn" in real time -- adapt to stress and even gain from it. Much like an athlete getting stronger from the stressors (real and simulated) imposed on him / her during training and match play. 


Casanova, F., Oliveira, José, Williams, M., Garganta, J. (2009). Expertise and perceptual-cognitive performance in soccer: a review. Revista Portugesa de Ciências do Desporto, 9(1), 115-122.

Elderton, W. (2010). 21st Century tennis coaching: Learner-centered principles for the game-based approach: manual by Wayne Elderton, available from ACE coach

Gonzalez, C., Lerch, J.F., Lebiere, C. (2003). Instance-based learning in dynamic decision making. Cognitive Science, 27(4), 591-635.

Iacoboni, M. (2001). Playing tennis with the cerebellum. Nature Neuroscience, 4(6), 555-556.

Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R.R. (2006). Making sense of Sensemaking 2: A macrocognitive model. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(5), 88-92.

Megginson, L. (1963). Lessons from Europe for American Business, Southwestern Social Science Quarterly, 44(1), 3-13.

Singer, R.N., Cauragh, J.H., Chen, D., Steinberg, G.M., Frelich, S.G. (1996). Visual search, anticipation, and reactive comparisons between highly-skilled and beginning tennis players. Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, 8(1), 9-26.

Stratton, G., Reilly, T., Richardson, D., Williams, A.M. (2004). Youth soccer: From science to performance. London: Routledge.

Suchman, L. (2007). Human-machine reconfigurations: Plans and situated actions (2nd Ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Teltscher, E. (2006). Keep your strokes, change your game. Tennis Magazine.

Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

About the author:

Moin Rahman is a Principal Scientist at HVHF Sciences, LLC. 

He specializes in:
"Designing systems and solutions for human interactions when stakes are high, moments are fleeting and actions are critical."