Look how far we’ve come
Nearly 50 years ago the Post Master General (PMG) proposed the concept of a single telephone number to call for emergency help in Australia. Before then calling for emergency assistance meant dialling the number of your nearest emergency service, which caused havoc for those travelling or without the knack for remembering numbers – these were the days before mobiles and Google.
Half a decade on, dialling Triple Zero is something we take for granted (so much so that the number receives time-wasting requests for pizza and taxis and this dependence on telecommunications services extends to the Emergency Service Organisations themselves.
Recently Telstra released a white paper that outlined the challenges faced by our emergency services organisations (ESOs). The white paper also explores how our ESOs, such as police, fire, armed forces and ambulance services, could potentially use technology to help them cope with the challenges of the future.
A review of recent headlines in Australian newspapers shows the extent of the pressures our ESOs tackle day in and day out – and these aren’t going to abate with global climate change, terrorism, an ageing population, urban settlement and officer safety all putting increasing pressure on limited resources.
And there’s another challenge that our ESOs face – that is the mixed bag of communication platforms they use to communicate with each other, and in some cases, within the one organisation.
Right now Australia’s emergency service organisations use a range of different technologies such as mobile phones, two-way radios on various spectrums and wireless broadband to communicate with each other.
This current haywire of communication systems means our ESOs lack the co-ordination needed to provide a rapid and synchronised response – especially in large-scale disasters.
This is not a criticism. The communications systems our ESOs use have done a great job for years – decades in some cases – and work on a local level. It’s just that the public safety challenges we now face are more likely to be on a state-wide or nation-wide level.
Put simply our ESOs need 21st century communications to respond to the 21st century challenges they face.
One option Telstra put forward this week at the APCO (Emergency Services and Public Safety) annual conference in Melbourne was the need for a single, network-centric communications architecture for emergency management in Australia.
“A single, network-centric communications architecture” sounds a mouthful – but in reality it is the same concept that the PMG had back in 1961 when it suggested a single telephone number to call for emergency help in Australia.
We’re not suggesting that the technologies our ESOs now rely on are redundant – quite the opposite. We’re suggesting that they can be converged onto a homogenous network.
The glue that would make this happen is Internet Protocol (or IP). These IP networks would allow voice, including the disparate network technologies of UHF/VHF radio, to converge with video and data.
Converged, network-centric communications have the potential to offer seamless connection across diverse technology platforms and devices, promoting new ways to gather and share information.
In turn, this will foster a clearer and more timely assessment of incidents, as well as more effective command, control and co-ordination across our ESOs.
Of course this sort of technology shift won’t happen overnight – change of this nature and scale takes time, much like the introduction of triple zero back nearly 50 years ago. While the concept of Triple Zero dates back to 1961, it took another eight before it became a national reality. Similarly we don’t expect a single, network-centric communication system to be in place for several years to come.
Today calling Triple Zero in times of an emergency is second nature for Australians and it is an example of how foresight and simplicity can make a real and long term difference.
The time is right for us to talk about the changing needs of our ESOs and to explore the technology architecture needed to help our ESOs deliver the service that the Australian community has come to expect.
For more detail on what this architecture may look like download the white paper where I explore the topic some more.