B-APCO 2016: Bringing data to the dispatcher
Written by: Laurence Doe | Published:

Which trends and user needs are driving innovation in public safety control rooms? Laurence Doe tours the B-APCO Show’s exhibition hall to find out

Mike Isherwood, sales and marketing director at APD, speaking at the B-APCO Show on the future of control rooms

Meeting the needs of today’s control room operators and dispatchers is a little like serving porridge to Goldilocks. While such a chef has to make sure the porridge is neither too hot nor too cold, so the manufacturers of control room equipment have to strike a balance between serving the dispatcher with as much useful information as possible and making sure that it doesn’t slow down their decision-making.

This balancing act is becoming more and more relevant, as we are living through huge changes in the way data is delivered to the people making life or death decisions and the amount of information that can be supplied to them. This is because of two key factors: the rise of the Internet of Things and the growing use of body-worn video. Part of this is tied up in the idea of the smart city: one in which sensors continually feed back data on traffic flows, incidents and dozens of other metrics to make their inhabitants’ lives easier, healthier and safer.

To make this dream a reality public safety organisations have to adopt new practices, while their suppliers need to design controller and dispatcher systems capable of delivering all of these streams of information in a single, intuitive interface.

For such technology to be successful it must prevent confusion during critical communication situations. “We’re talking, in smart cities, about sharing data around the whole city from different providers,” says Peter Prater, Frequentis key account manager, B-APCO executive committee member, and chair of the TCCA’s (TETRA + Critical Communications Association) Critical Control Room Group. He adds that there is still “a hell of a lot of work” to be done around the sharing of back office data and ensuring that systems allow for one-time entry of information to feed multiple back-end systems.

“It would be nice for a police force to just be able to use its back-office data for its own requirements before it starts sharing it with other organisations,” adds Prater. “The integration platforms are out there now, they are sufficiently mature and have been used for many other sectors such as banking.”

Frequentis recently won a contract to upgrade the Metropolitan Police Service’s control rooms across London to enable it to manage Emergency Services Network (ESN) calls from the start of the national transition in mid-2017.

Paul Ralph, CD business systems and contingency co-ordinator for business systems and quality unit communications department at Sussex Police, says that until the police force gets to see a live demonstration of the ESN it will be “very difficult to judge what the differences will be” between the control room systems the force has now and what may come.

“From a control room perspective, our current IC [integrated control] system suppliers, like most of the IC [manufacturers] on the market, are saying that they will be compliant with the ESN. In which case we will probably be using the same front-end technology in the control room we are using now to manage the radio,” explains Ralph. “I don’t see any changes in the way we log calls at the moment, only in the fact that young people prefer to make contact by SMS and data streams from their smartphone rather than calling in. We, like most forces, are slowly picking up on that and [adapting to] the newer technology.”

“Smartphones are what the public are using to contact [the emergency services],” says Frequentis’ Prater. “So we have to react to the potential they offer within our control rooms. If you can’t do that you’re definitely going to be left behind very quickly.”

Prater is excited by the “great application” of voice-to-text technology, adding that he sees lots of reasons to use it not only for voice-to-text to the control room but also for information coming back to field personnel. “The guy on the beat might have an awful lot going on around him when he’s trying to deal with a criminal or a fire, and the spoken word is there and then it’s gone,” says Prater. “Whereas if it’s translated in a dual way you have a lasting record.”

Tait’s CTO, Ross Spearman, and its MD EMEA, Juddson Cain, say that one method for reducing the amount of control room data that has to be manually inputted is the use of voice-to-text with simple data relays to simplify the sending of status updates or the checking of number plates.

Tait has built its own application for Unify Voice (an interoperable communication system), which in contrast to cloud-based services like Google Voice or Siri performs all its processes on the device. It turns voice into text and “sends a small message back into the radio link,” says Spearman.

“So if I say ‘run this number plate’ that should be sent back as a text message to a computer at headquarters that can then run the plate and reply. You shouldn’t need a dispatcher in-between to type details into a computer.”

“Once you narrow the vocabulary – street names of London or common workflow commands that public safety uses – it becomes quite simple and the universe of possible options the algorithm can choose starts to shrink, and it becomes very accurate,” explains Cain. He adds that the most important aspect in these type of developments is understanding end users’ requirements.

“We can develop lots of technology but if you don’t know what the end user requires then you’re just not going to get it quite right,” adds Cain.

However, judging by Ralph’s comments the suppliers of voice-to-text systems have a lot of work to do before end users have enough confidence in the technology. “At the moment I probably wouldn’t even consider [using them] because in my experience automated text-to- speech systems are not that brilliant; they make too many mistakes,” he says. “The problem is that people with accents talk differently and the machine misinterprets what has been said.”

Mike Isherwood, sales and marketing director of control room manufacturer APD, says that the capability is there to deliver video through IP streams to the control room, but it’s a case of body-worn video connectivity catching up. He’s confident that this will eventually happen through the ESN.

“[Fire services] are interested in being able to take video remotely from a fire engine so that someone in the control room could stand back and see the scene and be able to advise,” comments Isherwood. He mentions that the police have raised concerns with APD regarding the streaming of video to control rooms during violent incidents, as doing so might disturb the dispatcher or operator. However, Ralph believes that staff would be able to handle this as they are already used to hearing sometimes harrowing verbal descriptions and the mental imagery they evoke.

“I see CCTV and what comes back from the officer. I think that the officer will have control of what comes back and it will only be evidential,” Ralph adds.

Nick Oliver, strategy and marketing manager, JSS products and solutions at Capita, says that streaming of video from the control room to the device and back again “is fantastic”, but is concerned by the amount of data that would be generated, the challenge that creates when trying to store, index and reference it, along with the important issue of evidential integrity.

“When it comes to court and the defence solicitor says that it’s been tampered with you’ve got to go all the way back to the acquisition device and prove that it hasn’t been,” explains Oliver. “Once you’ve got it you’ve got to manage it properly.”

Ralph says Sussex police doesn’t currently have the storage on-site for a video streaming solution but it could be accommodated by different means.

“It may be that the force decides to outsource the storage,” explains Ralph. “Sussex [police force] hasn’t gone that way yet but there’s nothing to say that in the future, with such volumes of data and particularly with CCTV data, that it isn’t stored elsewhere.”

Sharing back-office data, voice-to-text systems, and video streaming aren’t the only technologies that may change the way control rooms operate. “We [APD] were also talking to [fire brigades] about something else we can do, which is integrate telephony into the radio so that conferencing can happen. So you could have a command unit on the telephone speaking to a group of radios,” says APD’s Isherwood.

Going forward, Prater says that critical control room users need help from manufacturers “to keep things fresh and evolving”. He lists the areas that will present challenges as handling multi-channel caller contact and telemetry sources of information such as RFID and sensors.

“It’s going to increasingly affect how a control room does its business,” says Prater. “An organisation that lets its technology and operations stagnate will be left behind in these fast changing days, and the public will quickly lose confidence in an emergency service if that happens. That’s not good for anyone.”

The control rooms of the future will need to handle data in a way that allows for easy sharing between public safety organisations and their partners in a way that doesn’t compromise the data’s evidential integrity, while taking full advantage of body-worn video and the connectivity provided by the ESN. Dispatchers and first responders may also have their lives made easier by speech to text technology. But what about putting it all together?

As Prater says: “Information is clearly the king, there’s so much of it about and we’ve got to analyse, assess and predict with it. If we can do that we’re really onto a winner.”

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