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:



  1. Well written article, Moin! I just think that the cognitive etnography observation should be combined with some sort of SME interview, preferably shortly after the observation of the drill, perhaps?

  2. Excellent point Nadya. Indeed, a Subject Matter Interview should be contiguous to -- and performed after -- the cognitive ethnography. This certainly benefits from the recency of the experience and, thus, is not affected by memory decay.

    Another technique is to do a variant: video ethnography. In a video ethnography, the subject performing the activity is video taped and then it is replayed with the subject and he explains post hoc what was going on in his mind, why he was doing, what he was doing. This, too, enriches the understanding and helps innovate and design systems and technology that enhances performances, reduces cognitive workload, minimizes error, among other positive outcomes.

  3. Moin,

    Thanks for sharing your expert insights into the human factors requirements and concerns as they pertain to new technologies for First Responders and Emergency Managers. I’ve recently talked with individuals from Terrago Technologies and Kutta Technologies, who have developed and continue to design great technologies for use by Emergency Responders. I’ve also been looking for an opportunity to help introduce their technologies into training events at Guardian Centers, the training facility in Perry, GA that we have discussed in the past.

    One of TerraGo’s technology solutions that merges multiple streams of data into a coherent geospatial display is the Dynamic Mapbook Composer (DMC). The objective of the DMC concept was to provide a single machine that contains all necessary information, ensures that it is constantly refreshed, functions in both on-line and off-line environments and delivers maps in a simple, easy to use format for users who are not mapping professionals. On 10 Oct 2012, a fully functional DMC system was delivered to DHS for deployment to the US Secret Service. DMC is just one of the many location intelligence, geospatial collaboration and field data collection solutions developed by Terrago.

    Kutta’s technology solutions include Situational Awareness-Virtual Environment (SAVE), which generates 2D and 3D building floor plans and allows users to quickly edit building models and add specific geo-spatial and non-geospatial elements. It also allows incident commanders to track First Responders in a 3D environment.

    Both TerraGo and Kutta have offices in Atlanta and MERC is eager to continue to dialog with them for the purposes you’ve outlined in your paper.

    In addition to key individuals from TerraGo, Kutta, and Guardian Centers, I also been discussing this topic with Ed Irwin, who you’ve talked with in the past. Ed leads MERC’s Ergonomics Program and Mercer University’s Bio-Mechanics Lab. I’ve also discussed this Dr. Will Reed, MERC’s new Biomedical Engineer.

    I look forward to continued discussions with you.