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How the Internet of Things is impacting public safety

(Image credit: Image Credit: Melpomene / Shutterstock)

The interconnected devices and sensors that make up the Internet of Things is already making an impact on a number of different industries, from agriculture to transportation. The public safety sector is another area where the IoT could make a real difference, saving lives and even preventing future disasters.

Although it's often discussed as a future technology, the IoT is already here in the numerous devices we use to connect regularly to the Internet and to each other. This will be enhanced in the future as people themselves are able to transmit data as well, due to sensors placed in wearables, sewn into clothing, or even placed directly on the skin at some point. But how does this apply to the realm of public safety?

The constant transfer of data can be used to prime effect in an emergency situation, allowing public safety professionals or first responders to make the lightning-fast decisions that save lives. By using real-time data updates, responses can be better coordinated and processes improved. Here's a closer look at how this operates.

The evolving nature of public safety 

Technology is now a vital component of the public safety industry. Law enforcement officers, firefighters, disaster relief teams, and the military are all entities which use mobile apps, video streaming, and live GPS to coordinate their responses more efficiently.

Public safety agencies are at the same time always under pressure to cut costs and provide more streamlined, efficient operations. Technology is a way to do this, athough it requires some investment. Because the Internet of Things enables machine-to-machine communication, it allows operations to be put into action with minimal personnel.

Emergency response teams need to be able to access important data ideally before they arrive on the scene, while law enforcement must quickly assess a situation that can be both dangerous and fluid.

The first minutes or hours of a disaster situation can be crucial for survivors and first responders alike, but this is when the usual communications infrastructure is most likely to take a hit. The Internet of Things and its attendant technology provides interconnected data that's useful in a wide range of situations.

To save both money and lives, there's a strong need to collect data for analysis after a disaster or emergency event has already played out. Public safety agencies use the big data gained from connected devices to streamline their responses for next time, avoiding making mistakes twice and gaining a deeper understanding of how a particular situation tends to unfold. This emphasis on preventive measures is one of the most promising aspects of technology in the public safety field today.

Internet of Things applications 

The connected devices that make up the Internet of Things will have a number of real life applications to keep the public safe. Wearable cameras, body sensors, drones, and GPS trackers are just a few examples of the types of technologies that we already use in this industry.

First responders can then take action based on the most intelligent, accurate data gathered from these sources. Video analytics has come a long way in recent years, including facial recognition technology. Data can be easily moved over mobile devices, thanks to portable networks like the ‘network in a box’ developed by Nokia Networks to provide a backup connection in areas where the Internet may be down or in rural areas.

Field officers can quickly send real-time updates back to central command, so that decisions can be made quickly and efficiently. Connected drones are capable of accessing areas where first responders may not be able to reach, to provide video footage, weather reports, or audio of emergency situations ahead of the curve.

In an emergency situation, it's important for fleets of vehicles and all attending personnel to be managed in the most time-effective and efficient manner. The use of the Internet of Things allows commanders to coordinate this response, finding the swiftest routes to a location depending on traffic conditions.

Telematics data can be used to create maintenance schedules as needed, and live GPS helps responders better allocate their resources as a situation unfolds. Vehicles can be outfitted with sensors and cameras to upload data directly back into the network as they arrive on the scene, so that emergency responders know exactly what further actions must be taken. In the future, emergency vehicles will also be able to communicate directly with traffic lights and travel infrastructure to stop opposing traffic and arrive at the scene even faster.

Law Enforcement and Border Security 

The IoT enables federal agents to improve mission success rates, particularly in regions where there may be a lack of resources and personnel to begin with. Interconnected devices and sensors can fill in these gaps.

For example, border agents who are responding to a tripped sensor can gain additional information from night vision or video-equipped drones, in order to determine what they will be contending with when they arrive on the scene. With this additional data in hand, these agents can better perform their tasks and scale the mission up or down as needed.

Domestic law enforcement also benefits from being connected. Law enforcement officers can avoid the dangerous position of going into an ongoing situation blind, instead having access to real-time data gleaned from mobile apps, sensors, and video streams. Officers can conduct interviews at a distance, saving time and money.

In-car dashcam video is already used by a number of police departments, collecting evidence for trials and protecting citizens from police misconduct at the same time. The high speed connections required for the IoT ensures that this footage can be uploaded immediately. The current generation of body cameras has a few weaknesses to overcome, particularly if they're not yet connected to the Internet.

This means that they don't have the capability to generate live video streams or function with GPS. The next generation of connected devices will take functionality to the next level, with features such as automatic recording triggers, the ability to receive real-time alerts, voice recognition, and cloud data storage.

The bottom line

Naturally, the transfer and availability of large volumes of data could lead to security concerns, which is in itself a public safety interest. For the Internet of Things to work properly in an emergency situation, government organisations, individuals, first responders, and justice agencies alike may need access to this technology using open source platforms. Going forward, government policies must be put in place to foster this partnership between tech providers and public safety agencies.

The Internet of Things has already allowed a number of advances in the public safety sphere, from responsive apps to drone footage being used to mine data. It will only continue to improve efficiency as the technology moves forward.

Decision makers and first responders can be increasingly agile in quickly shifting situations, communicating and sharing information more effectively with real-time data and updates. Citizens can be more informed before disaster strikes, gaining access to the live tools they need to stay safe in an emergency.

Yet regulation is also needed to move this technology forward while still preserving privacy. As the IoT continues to grow, we'll see increasing opportunities for innovation in the public safety sphere.

About the author: Cole Mercer is an independent cloud computing consultant holding a BS in Computer Science from UCLA. He has a strong interest in the role that technology plays in emergency management due to his time working on the ground for the American Red Cross.

Image Credit: Melpomene / Shutterstock