Is The World Ready For Consumer Mobile Technology In Emergency Services?

If you spot your local boys in blue chatting on a smart phone don’t worry - they're probably not just chatting with their spouses. It turns out that giving emergency services access to consumer-style mobile devices like tablets and smart phones is a shift many government agencies are making to boost cost-effectiveness and improve responsiveness. 

The future of emergency services is headed in a very mobile and digital direction, even the fed is starting to notice. The Department of Homeland Security asked a team of futurists from the agency’s Science and Technology Directorate to brainstorm future technological needs of emergency workers and first responders. The prognosticators came up with a ton of scenarios where existing technologies could help police, firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians do their jobs. Most of them were super-technical, like cops using Google Glasses to scope out suspects from a distance, but the overall message was clear: Accessibility and interconnectivity is key in making emergency services work faster and more efficiently. 

The Mobile Future Is Now

Making these changes seems daunting and expensive, but it’s already happening in significant ways. For example, the Chatham-Kent police force in Ontario, Canada, is participating in a pilot project using a Blackberry Playbook (remember, it's Canada)  to control squad cars. The tablet is used to record evidence and look up information at crime scenes and can connected with smartphones, PCs and on-board printers through Bluetooth. It even controls the siren and lights of the vehicle. Microsoft has displayed a similar application through its Modularis prototype that runs on Windows 8. 

Paramedics at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minnesota use the SafetyPad tablet to file reports previously done on paper. The tablet serves as a one stop spot for information on current emergencies by displaying location information from 911 operators. It also keeps track of patient vitals and provides key questions for the EMTs to get the best treatment options for the situation. The hospital receives messages from the tablet to better prepare for the patient’s arrival in the Emergency Room.  All of this data is stored in a database that can be accessed at any hospital and is also used for charting medical trends and billing purposes. 

Mobile Helps Them Help You 

So how does all of this benefit the average citizen? Mostly by saving precious time. Instead of a cop having to go back to the station to look up information, she can access it on site and spend more time in communities and on the streets. (It might also make it easier and faster for the Highway Patrol to write you a ticket, sorry.)

For EMTs and hospitals, saving time could mean more lives saved. Time travelled from the scene of an accident to the hospital is vital for collecting information, and there are big advantages in disseminating it that information on the fly. Wait times at the ER could potentially be shorter because the information staff needs is already available, not hanging out on a sheet of paper in a clipboard. 

Money Is Always An Issue

Cost-effectiveness is also an issue, of course, though it’s conveniently left pretty vague in reports. The DHS told the Science and Technology Directorate  think tank that it should forget about the fiscal constraints of our current economy and imagine a “a 'blue sky' scenario, where anything might be possible." The study released by Blackberry about the Chatham project mentions only that the Playbook system is a “cost-effective method of putting information in the officer’s hands.”Still, relying on relatively inexpensive consumer technology should sae money, and industry after industry have already learned that going mobile means less paper, fewer expensive man-hours and overall greater efficiency.

Still, with all that's on the line, expect emergency services organizations to be cautious about embracing consumer mobile technology before it has fully proven its value and reliability. 

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