Mobile emergency response still hampered by low bandwidth and fragmented networks

Sep 14, 2013

Mobile technology is driving the modernization of disaster relief and public safety response.  And, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution, the rapid expansion of mobile devices and mobile driven data has already begun to save lives and alleviate suffering in disaster-struck communities.

But, the report also says issues with infrastructure could prevent this technology from reaching its full potential.

“Mobile communications will be very important for the future of disaster relief as well as emergency communications. It’s really becoming the primary means by which people communicate during emergencies, and what we really need to focus on is ensuring the connectivity and the inter-operability of those types of systems,” says Darrel West, director of technology innovation at the Brookings Institution.

West says mobile devices present a practical, cost effective, and reliable platform for early warning systems and emergency responder communications.

But, while cell towers are much easier to restore than landlines after storms or natural disasters, West says there is a need to invest in infrastructure.

“We need broadband networks that have adequate band width, and that also have reliable sources of electrical power. Because in many emergencies the first thing that goes out is electricity and so therefore if your grid is based on that or if cell towers don’t have backup generators that can become a major problem,” he said.

West says mobile systems also need to become more integrated. He says networks remain fragmented, meaning not all mobile devices can talk to each other and share data.

However, despite these challenges, a range of new smartphone applications are already being created. And, they’re aimed at enabling emergency services to process information from the general public.

Chris Russo has been a firefighter in Chicago for more than 30 years, and is the founder of Elerts Corporation, a company that develops apps for emergency responders working in the world of smartphones.

“With these devices you have your GPS, your mapping, your two-way communication platforms, pictures, and video,” says Russo. “And what we can do with these devices is we can move everything from an emergency notification, to an evacuation map, to maybe a weather alert, there’s all sorts of information that we can share on these smart devices with the general public.”

Russo says keeping up with the pace of technology can be a challenge and there’ll always be a learning curve. But, he says even simple applications are already yielding dramatic results for emergency teams working in public safety.

“Everything from a child being found in 30 minutes, a missing child, to people on the most wanted list being caught on trains. So we’re seeing great results on that simple platform.”

Russo acknowledges there are still engrained cultures in the emergency services that need to be addressed before mobile technologies take the place of more traditional communications.

“Keeping up with the pace of technology and really using it to its full capacity is always going to be a challenge unless you have people who are familiar with it, understand it, are willing to exercise it, share it, train on it. Like anything we do in the emergency services, there’s always pushback at first until they realize the ease of use. But overall I don’t see it as a monetary problem, I see it as a cultural issue quite honestly. But that’s changing,” he says.