Infrastructure issues impede emergency response apps progress

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August 20, 2013

Mobile technology is driving the modernization of disaster and public safety responses. But a recent report from the Brookings Institution says issues with infrastructure are preventing the technology from reaching its full potential.

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

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…

“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.”

West says mobile systems also need to become more integrated. Networks remain fragmented he says, meaning not all mobile devices can talk to each other.

Despite these challenges, a range of new smart-phone apps are already being created 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. The company develops apps for emergency responders.

“With these devices you have your GPS, your mapping, your two-way communication platforms, pictures, video. 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 to 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 involved 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.”

Chris 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.