Converging at the crisis scene
Most emergency workers still have to struggle with old, incompatible analog radio gear just to talk to one another in the field — so the prospect of using a rich mix of digital multimedia applications should have them drooling.
That time isn't so far off. Personal digital assistants and other handheld computers can now run such applications. Meanwhile, wireless networks able to deliver real-time data, video and voice to first responders are being developed, and early versions are even being deployed. Given widespread interest, it's clear that multimedia will be a big part of the first responder's tool bag, though the exact form and function the systems will take are unknown.
It's easy to imagine boiled-down versions of the applications people now use on desktop PCs, but the first responder's universe has completely different needs and requirements, and the emerging applications undoubtedly will reflect this, particularly from a usability standpoint.
"People in the field who are in the middle of some kind of task don't want to have to rip out a PDA or other type of mobile device and start pecking away on it with a stylus," said Ramesh Rao, director of the San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Cal-(IT)2. "You also can't stream a lot of video to people in the field."
On the other hand, first responders do use speech a lot, so that's a natural interface to exploit, he said. Future multimedia systems will therefore likely include ways to convert some kinds of data into a spoken format that can then be "pushed" out to the emergency worker, Rao said.
Likewise, visual forms of data can be broken down into easily recognized objects, using on-screen icons instead of actual images, he said.
Cal-(IT)2 is a partnership between the University of California campuses at San Diego and Irvine and was formed several years ago specifically to study mobile multimedia.
Given that just knowing where people and other resources are at a given time is a big concern for emergency coordinators. Geographic information systems (GIS) and other location-aware applications are obvious candidates for the first wave of mobile digital systems.
They are also a perfect example of the differences between office-bound users and first responders.
"One of the things we have found with our suite of [mobile] solutions is that in a desktop environment, we are usually talking to people about GIS who are GIS [specialists], but people in the field usually know nothing about GIS," said Mike Baker, senior consultant for Intergraph Mapping and Geospatial Solutions. "So one of the challenges has been to let go of our GIS biases and create field-oriented solutions that don't involve knowing anything about map projections, scales and so on."
An early discovery about PDA use in the field was how often people lost the accompanying stylus, Baker said. That pointed to the need for finger-sized buttons and menus for the interface, as well as extensive use of features such as drop-down menus.
Intergraph uses PDAs with its IntelliWhere application suite that also have speakers and microphones, enabling users to add voice notes to onscreen reports, he said. They can also use a plug-in digital camera to take photographs that can be added to reports.
The differences between office and field work also dictate how applications are designed for the two environments, said Ojas Rege, senior director for AvantGo Mobile Solutions, a division of Sybase Inc. subsidiary iAnywhere Solutions Inc.
"In the office, you can take the time to sit down with a laptop to do your tasks and you have a lot of control over the workflow," he said. "That's not so in the field, where tasks take anywhere from 30 seconds to one minute max, so users want navigation on their mobile device that is much faster" than on their laptop.
That mandates features such as drop-down lists of preconfigured functions, checkboxes and lists of frequently used items, Rege said. Also useful are HTML and other ways of presenting information visually, along with the broad application of color.
But despite the current hype, he warned, it's unlikely that high-speed data connections will soon be widely available nationwide, and that also will dictate how data is packaged and delivered to first responders. Connections capable of 1 megabit/sec rates, needed to transfer large datasets or full-motion video, are "a long way away," Rege said.
"And even in areas where high-speed wireless will be available, the service will be expensive, so organizations will need to take the most cost-effective approach to managing data," he said. "The 90 percent of data that doesn't change often, such as street maps, will have to be stored on the mobile device itself."
A Good Start
As one would expect, early mobile applications focus on more limited capabilities, though they are nevertheless crucial in laying the groundwork to later support more sophisticated features.
For example, Ohio's Norwich Township Fire Department uses AvantGo technology in a system developed by integrator Clayton IDS Inc. to automate basic tasks performed by medical personnel.
The mobile system cuts the time paramedics take to write and file incident reports from hours or even days to just minutes. That enables them to handle many more incidents at a time, said Vince Papa, the department's EMS coordinator.
"If there were to be a major incident, one paramedic could maybe have as many as 20 patient reports on a single handheld," Papa said. "It reduces the need for paper documents and the risk of the loss of data. It also gives administrators real-time access to data for further analysis, without them having to wait another day or two for the information to come through the mail system."
The mobile devices the paramedics use "have drop-down menus for around 90 percent" of the data fields, such as street names, that they use for their reports, said Kyle Phillips, president of Clayton IDS. Certain fields can also be mandated, providing a far more thorough documentation of patients and incidents than the paper-based system delivered.
The portable computer that the department's program uses is Itronix Corp.'s fex21 handheld PC, which runs Microsoft Corp.'s Windows CE operating system.
When wireless communication is added to future system versions, Phillips said, EMS and fire crews in the field could receive real-time diagrams of sites and buildings they are sent to, with plans showing the number of sprinklers in the building and available hose pressure.
An evolving use of multimedia applications springs from a set of priorities that crystallized following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, Arlington, Va., and Pennsylvania.
Previously, planning for emergency communications provisions centered around critical applications, such as links that the Federal Emergency Management Agency might set up among a disaster site and distant command centers. After Sept. 11, given what had happened at the World Trade Center, the focus shifted toward providing communications within buildings for first
"We understood then that localization and tracking of people and resources was a very important part of how these kinds of events would be handled," said Nader Moayeri, manager of the Wireless Communications Technologies Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Outdoors, [Global Positioning System technology] could be used for this, but GPS doesn't work indoors."
A possible solution is a technology that NIST is developing. It would enable first responders to set up a wireless ad hoc network anywhere, without needing an existing network infrastructure (see "MANET and the art of communication," Page S4). The network would use PDAs equipped with wireless local-area network cards, and transmission routes would be set up automatically among the PDAs, which would transfer messages to the intended targets.
The network could theoretically handle any combination of voice, text, video and sensor data.
One result of the protocols used to establish this network is that each device knows the location of all the others, and that allows for valuable role-based and location-based services, according to Moayeri.
"Firefighters on one floor of a building could find out exactly where a fire captain is on another floor," he said.
Other organizations seek to use mobile multimedia systems as a kind of first strike alert network. Members of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department, for example, hope to set up a system to automatically alert police to suspicious activity using video cameras installed at traffic lights, government buildings, banks and other places.
Current video technology typically requires a person to sit in front of a bank of monitors, watching the images for unusual activities. In comparison, the new system would use sophisticated software to pick out suspicious patterns in the video images. It can then send an alert, and perhaps actual video, to a remote command center or to an officer's PDA so that a decision whether to investigate further can be made.
"It works as a force multiplier," said Chris Hinshaw, assistant manager of the department's wireless services division.
Rao believes much of these developments, at least in their early form, are "imminent" but that the most successful systems will follow the rules of simplicity and bare necessity. Unlike with desktop users, who sometimes seem to have a large tolerance for overblown features in applications, first responders "have very little patience for gimmicks that don't service them," he said. l
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.