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."