During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic throughout the world, technology has helped us to stay connected with each other; with our friends, family and colleagues. It has also kept many businesses operational through these extremely challenging and turbulent times.
From the onset of lockdown, one of the most critical demands of technology was - and continues to be - helping those on the frontline to work more safely, as they continue to protect and keep the public safe with new challenges arising from the pandemic. From government contact tracing apps helping to contain and stop the spread of the virus, to police body worn cameras helping ensure public safety through accountability and safe social distancing - the need for innovative technologies to support public safety both during and after the pandemic is evident.
As the UK moves into the next phase of its response to the pandemic, with a gradual relaxation of many lockdown measures planned, the demands of technology from frontline personnel will continue to evolve to meet these changing measures. What is clear, is that similar to how tools such as video conferencing have defined a ‘new normal’ for office workers, technology must also shape a new future for public safety technology too.
Staying at home
Across the UK since the onset of the lockdown, people have been urged to work from home wherever possible. But while staying at home and remote working quickly became normality for the many, the needs of the few who remain outside, those on the frontline throughout this pandemic, are far away from ‘business-as-usual’. Fortunately, technology has enabled many of our frontline, key workers to manage their critical daily tasks while respecting social distancing requirements keeping both themselves and the public safe.
Emergency services organisations have used a combination of enhanced radio communication, software and video tools to continue to work safely in the field. Some of these tools now offer an important added layer safety which goes beyond the current pandemic. For example, ambulance workers can minimise the risk of infection by using specialist audio accessories with features such as bone-conduction. This enhanced hands-free capability ensures that those wearing masks or other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can clearly hear who they are communicating with.
Meanwhile, some police officers have trialled innovative mobile applications as the pressures have continued to evolve for policing. Pronto, a digital mobile platform used by half of the police forces up and down the UK now hosts a new app that allows officers to take witness statements remotely, removing the need for unnecessary close-contact that breaks the 2 metre social distancing rules. Body worn video cameras have also increased the accountability and transparency of interactions, improving trust and safety for both the officer and the public.
But having fewer people out on the streets also means fewer eyes that would otherwise deter criminal activity. This is where more sophisticated CCTV solutions come into play. When integrated with responsibly developed Artificial Intelligence (AI), these technologies can aid split-second decisions that police officers and other security personnel have to make. Decisions made by being able to quickly detect unusual movements of people in a public space or spot perimeter breaches around critical public infrastructure.
This is only a slice of the potential AI pie. On the more proactive side, it is being used to sift through masses of data including video to model potential interventions. Think of those officers who work in the control room having the ability to deploy their colleagues faster and more effectively, with an AI that alerts them to the first sign of trouble, responding more quickly and safely to critical situations. At a time of rapid change and increasing uncertainty, these capabilities become incredibly important for understanding risk. Predicting how yesterday’s seemingly low-level risk could quickly become tomorrow’s biggest threat.
Protecting the NHS
Across the globe, temporary medical facilities have been constructed in record time to meet the increased demand for medical services, which required essential collaborative working between a wide range of organisations. In the UK, protecting the NHS has meant building temporary facilities such as the Nightingale Hospital in London. This facility was constructed in just nine days with space for 4,000 beds. This vast ‘pop-up' development operation required a secure communication system allowing healthcare professionals, police, government and military to work efficiently together. Even though the expected strain on health services in most markets didn’t come, those new facilities are still on standby in case of a potential second spike in COVID-19 cases to ensure the fastest treatment possible.
Smart applications must now be developed or adapted to support this need for greater collaborative working. They allow workers to connect in a contact-free manner regardless of whether they are using smartphones, two-way radios and other devices.
Security is also an important factor here and will set a precedent for how we respond to ancillary risks that emerge from these crises. As we have seen, hospitals are already at increased threat of a surge in ransomware and other cyber-attacks. For many temporary medical facilities, it will be just as important to mitigate the risk of critical communication being lost when it is most needed.
It is clear that rapidly scalable capacity such as this will be paramount in a future where threats such as COVID-19 can re-surface or spike quickly. It also means what previously took three years to implement must increasingly be done in three weeks or less, showing that the pace of digital transformation across the private and public sector has dramatically changed.
Through these unprecedented times, the decisions made today will inevitably have a significant impact on the future. Policies designed to protect lives must be matched with life-saving innovation.
Equally, at a time where resources are being stretched, so is public trust. Technologies must meet this challenge by demonstrating the highest standards of usability, transparency, agility and security. This next level for critical communications will not only prove important in this crisis but for the new normal in public safety.
Fergus Mayne, country manager, UK and Ireland at Motorola Solutions