Public safety alerting: a new era
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason explores the integral role played by the BAPCO accreditation scheme in the development of emergency services ‘alerting’ apps

Many UK emergency services are currently rolling out smart devices to the front line, something which has prompted much discussion – not least in the pages of Land Mobile – about how to get the best use from 4G-enabled apps.

Just as pertinent, however, are the opportunities afforded by LTE technology to help people get in contact with safety-critical agencies in the first place. This too is an area where organisations are just starting to scratch the surface of what’s possible, and where demand is only likely to increase as ever-more sophisticated devices become available to the public.

Integral to the hoped-for proliferation of innovative ways to contact the emergency services is a UK-based app accreditation scheme, run by the British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (BAPCO). Steered by the organisation’s vice president Andy Rooke, it has developed a series of protocols relating to so-called ‘alerting’ apps existing in the 999/112 space.

Rooke gives an overview of the current landscape, as well as the work being carried out by the group. “We’re essentially the gatekeeper for the UK when it comes to the evolution of this area of public safety technology,” he says.

“There are plenty of experts in the field who are fantastic sources of information – the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), for example – but no-one else in Europe is able to become involved in the process of development and then the accreditation of the app.

“Our criteria are very simple – is this idea going to save lives, and is it going to work? We come to understand this first of all through an elevator pitch from the developer, then a more detailed presentation to the committee.”

Once the committee has given the green light, it pairs the developer with a public safety partner agency, which will guide it towards full deployment. This is necessary, according to Rooke, because “nine times out of 10, no matter how good the idea is, the developer won’t have a clue [about] what the business of the emergency services entails, or what information will benefit response”.

Then there’s a report from BT, followed by more testing to make sure that alerts and data are reaching the company’s telematics position as they should. The process ends with formal sign-off by the scheme.

So have there ever been examples of apps which have not passed muster in terms of their usefulness? “We have seen those, certainly,” says Rooke. “It’s not that they’re bad ideas, just that they wouldn’t necessarily be workable from a public safety point of view.”

New methods of contact
The app accreditation process has already been central in helping to bring through a variety of innovative solutions, including the likes of RealRider, which automatically sends out the location of potentially injured motorcyclists in the event of a crash.

It does this, according to the manufacturer, by communicating the last known location of the rider (along with their medical details) to the nearest ambulance control room. The app itself works by monitoring GPS and accelerometers in the user’s phone.

As a by-product of its core functions, meanwhile, the solution has the ability to monitor the route which is taken by the rider, logging – according to the manufacturer – “every wrong turn that turns out right”. This not only has a theoretical benefit from a road safety point of view, but also enables the biking community to communicate with each other more easily.

To quote the manufacturer again: “Hit record and make sure you can find the best roads you’ve ridden, again and again and again. Share your top rides, photos and videos with our community of bikers [and] discover 1,000s of inspirational routes, while planning for places to rest and refuel.”

The committee is currently involved in another hugely interesting concept, meanwhile, in the form of TapSOS, which enables vulnerable people to contact the emergency services without having to speak on the phone.

Making connections
Discussing the rationale behind the app, TapSOS founder and CEO Becca Hume says: “The solution is basically intended for use by anyone who isn’t able to ring the emergency services.

“That could be because of a physical issue such as being deaf or hard of hearing, or because the person is in a difficult situation where they don’t feel that it’s safe to speak. For instance, it’s becoming increasingly the case during terror attacks – such as the recent one on Borough Market – that those involved need to hide and remain silent.”

She continues: “In terms of using the app, the first stage is to create a profile, which stores the user’s name, address, medical history and so on – information that can then only be accessed in an emergency. We want the first-responder to have as much detail as possible before they arrive on the scene, so they can tailor their response accordingly.

“In the event of an incident, the interface will ask which service the user requires in exactly the same way as if they were ringing 999, and then take them through a series of questions. From start to finish, they are able to provide call-handlers with much more information than they’d be able to under normal circumstances. The GPS function will automatically be able to identify where they are.”

According to Hume, the idea for TapSOS arose after working with a deaf colleague during one of her first jobs at Marks & Spencer, something which led her to study sign language.

The emergency services were subsequently brought into her thinking following the experience of a deaf friend of hers who became aware that a car had been set alight outside her house in the middle of the night. With the flames quickly spreading to her garden fence, the friend was only able to contact the fire and rescue service via a non-hearing-impaired neighbour, who spoke on the phone on her behalf.

“I’ve been involved with the deaf community since I was 19,” says Hume. “When you’re learning sign language you have to practice, and the easiest way to do that is to go to deaf clubs. You end up building some quite profound relationships with people, and really come to understand their frustrations.

“As part of the current stage of testing for the app, we’ve made a connection with a national association for special schools who we’re hoping to work with going forward. They have 300 schools on their list of clients, which gives us more opportunity to start a pilot group to help refine the technology.”

TapSOS came to the attention of BAPCO at the organisation’s 2015 Autumn Event in Newcastle, which Hume had attended on the advice of the CTO of the aforementioned RealRider, Dave Sharp. Having been accepted onto the scheme, it is currently sitting with its host agency Devon and Cornwall Police.

Speaking of the benefits of involving the force in the developmental process, Hume says: “We needed an emergency services perspective to make sure we knew what would be useful to them, and also that it would fit with their back-end systems, protocols and so on.

“We’re currently channelling TapSOS through EISEC (Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls), which is BT’s data exchange system allowing the call-handler to retrieve information automatically. That will allow it to work across the UK.”

Into the future
It’s clear that profound change is taking place in the sphere of initial public contact with the emergency services. According to Rooke, however, the increase in primarily text-based alerting apps is only the beginning, with BT itself currently undergoing a shift in how it handles 999 calls.

“There’s already a change in procedure in the works because of eCall, which will fundamentally mean an increase in telematics call-handlers,” he says. “The big change, however, will come in or around 2021 with the projected move to Next Generation 999, which will conceivably involve the use of things like video to contact control rooms.”

He continues: “The key area for BAPCO with regard to this is that the 999 system has to be able to deal with every piece of, often very rich, data in a seamless manner. That means validating and decoding it the moment it arrives, prior to it being routed to the appropriate emergency services.

“The ability to share information between agencies is also a priority, something which isn’t possible at the moment because they all have different systems. Our current mostly server-based infrastructure is insufficient in my view, and we should consider moving to the cloud across the board.”

Digital revolution
UK emergency services are in the midst of nothing less than a digital revolution, beginning with the current widespread roll-out of smart devices to those on the front line. This in turn will herald the arrival of the Emergency Services Network, the new nationwide, entirely LTE-enabled system, pencilled in to replace Airwave at some point around 2020.

To fully exploit this new technology, those on the ground will require a variety of applications, added to the likes of Airwave’s Pronto suite, which is already helping police officers spend more time out of the station. Regarding ‘situational awareness,’ arguably the most interesting current solution is Capita’s 999Eye, which enables video taken on a smartphone to be relayed back to the control room via a single-use URL.

As well as apps for the emergency services themselves, the opportunity to provide increasingly elegant and user-friendly alerting solutions aimed at the public should not be missed. If developed and managed intelligently, these have the potential to deliver a hitherto undreamed-of level of pertinent information to those tasked with protecting life and property.


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