First Responders and Technology: Changing Culture to Adapt to Changing Times: CATA's VP of Research Kevin Wennekes in Front Line Magazine Feature Article (advance draft)
August 30, 2012

A fundamental culture shift is starting to take place among Canada’s First Responders (FRs) – our police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel – as they seek to adapt to and adopt the technology tools and applications that impact on their operational effectiveness, personal health and safety, and ultimately their ability to serve the communities they are sworn to protect. 

Unlike even only a decade ago, where the most common form of technology a responder might readily identify with were their push-to-talk radios, today almost every responder has an abundance of diverse technology based tools and applications to support them. 

In a study currently underway, The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) is working with the Emergency Responder Testing and Evaluation Establishment (ERTEE – formerly the Canadian Police Research Centre), the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada, and over a dozen FRs from across the Country to conduct a national technology capability assessment. This study has identified over 100 different technologies that FRs use in the line of duty. 

While many of the technologies identified in areas such as Administration (payroll, scheduling, fleet management, etc.) and Personal Protection (body armour, respiration protection, less-than-lethal tools) were considered important, the longest list and those providing the greatest challenges in adoption, governance, and acquisition are those related to their information management (IM) and information and communication technologies (ICT) needs. 

There can be no doubt that IM and ICT is changing the way FRs operate at every level within their organizations: changing not only through tangibly realized efficiencies in operations but intrinsically impacting on how they communicate and interact amongst themselves and the public they serve.

 Long ago are the days where only the privileged few were provided with advanced technology in the form of pagers, PDAs, desktop PCs, or cell phones. Now, almost every member of the Force own smartphones and/or tablets for personal use and many are bringing them to work and deploying them in the field. 

Far from making the job easier, these developments have caused serious concerns regarding the appropriateness of the use of these devices in the workplace and the potential impact to privacy, security and accountability. Today’s young constable will be as likely to text message pertinent information to a citizen (one who is just as amenable to receiving information this way) versus sending a form letter through snail mail. Yet how does one track/record this from a chain of evidence or procedural point of view? If the smartphone is needed for evidence, what are the ramifications on the otherwise non-related personal information stored on the device? Many Forces are faced with the need to develop strict guidelines limiting their use and this is one of the drivers spurring the coming technological revolution among the responder community. 

While not entirely split upon generational lines, there is an obvious change in comfort levels and acceptance of use in areas such as social media, tweeting, texting, instant messaging, and expectation of online access/processes that is commensurate to the service member’s age: younger officers are likely to be much more frustrated at the lack of adoption than their senior counterparts. 

Further fueling the coming cultural change are public expectations regarding accessibility and ‘live, real-time’ communications with the FRs that serve them. With the “CSI effect”, recent explosive growth of smartphone usage and an App-for-that mentality, combined with the prevalent use of social media platforms, citizens hold high expectations that immediate conversations can take place and real-time information in a crises be relayed to them using an array of communication devices and platforms with which to do so. Certainly, many citizens might be surprised to learn that in some parts of Canada, fire, police and EMS personnel in the same city cannot speak to one another on-scene unless they swap radios first!

At a recent Economics of Policing conference, there was a growing realization among all Responders that unlike in the past, closing one’s eyes and waiting for a return to status quo is simply not going to work in weathering the global economic realities of today. The days of expanding budgets and ad-hoc purchasing and acquisition are gone. 

There is an understanding that procurement and implementation of technology has to become more strategic as responders seek to become even more capable at adopting technology as a core capability. Furthermore, there is a growing realization that there is a current loss of economy of scale that can be otherwise realized through more disciplined, multi-agency procurement approaches and which could be supported by a national body responsible for establishing standards, best-practices and potentially certification of technology solutions that have been proven to meet operational requirements. 

Responders are also recognizing the need to break down the silos – to move from a ‘need to know’ to a ‘need to share’ mindset. This goes beyond the need to speak more openly with one another and other supporting agencies, but with the vendor community as well. 

Traditionally, and very likely still the case for many responders today, meeting one-on-one with a vendor is considered taboo and generally speaking could be perceived as cavorting with the enemy! Understandably, given FRs positions of public trust, any possible appearance of impropriety in the procurement process must be allayed; however the culture of avoidance that has heretofore been the SOP in speaking with vendors is also changing. 

In fact, FRs are realizing that by not speaking with vendors, they are offering a disservice not only to the company seeking to support them through an innovative solution, but to themselves as well due to the fact that they then limit their own understanding on the full range of technology options available to them and miss out on the potential private-public partnerships that could otherwise develop. In many cases, vendors would welcome FRs collaboration in the co-development of new products or to explain precisely what they need rather than guessing that the product under development will hit the mark.   

Towards helping create a setting where open dialogue among vendors and responders can take place, CATA has partnered with the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) in creating the First Responder Vendor Outreach Forum. Now in its fifth year, the annual two-day Forum uniquely combines plenary sessions with a “Dragon’s Den” approach that effectively provides a neutral meeting ground for FRs to openly reveal their technology opportunities and challenges, while providing a vehicle for the most innovative solutions to be shared among a core group of FR ‘investors’ using a boardroom presentation format. These Forums have been cited by many senior FRs as changing their views on the benefits of speaking with Industry and have helped spark part of the cultural change taking place today. 

With an eye to the future, and adding to the urgency for change, is the looming acquisition of the 10 MHz of 700 MHz spectrum recently provided to Canada’s public safety community for the development of a national broadband public safety network. Described as the single largest national undertaking since the development of the national rail system, this undertaking will allow the FRs themselves to own the communications landscape on which to build their mission critical data (and potentially one day voice) communication needs to the exact specifications they require.

Working alongside partners at Public Safety Canada’s Interoperability Development Office, Defence Research and Development Canada, Defence R&D Canada – Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS), CITIG, ERTEE, the three Chiefs Associations, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and many others, CATA has been helping to define the national entity required to own this spectrum, set national interoperability standards, and define the technology architecture required to achieve a truly national system-of-systems network offering seamless, dedicated LTE broadband capability. This august body has also been working diligently towards building the case for why yet another 10 MHz of spectrum is still required and will present their arguments in the pending round of Industry Canada consultations relating to this spectrum and planned auction. 

Canadian FRs are moving to proactively address technology opportunities and challenges rather than waiting for them to be thrust upon them. For example, instead of waiting for the full acquisition of the spectrum to begin testing and experimenting on what an LTE network can potentially provide, a First Responder LTE testbed is currently being developed in Ottawa under the stewardship of CATA subsidiary the Networked Vehicle Association. This testbed is a true private-public partnership involving investment and sweat equity from a long list of government, FRs, academic and private sector organizations and allows for the early development and testing of dynamic new technologies such as real-time video streaming to vehicles, interoperability testing, traffic clearing solutions, and many wireless applications still under consideration. 

The promise of tomorrow’s technology is driving the needed changes in culture today. Unlike any other time in their shared past, fire, police and EMS are working alongside one another and openly discussing their common technology challenges, the importance of interoperability standards, shared procurement, and presenting a common front in meetings with other key public safety stakeholders, politicians, and industry leaders, and assuming championship roles in moving the technology yardstick forward within their respective fields. 

Revolution can be simply described as the struggle between the past and the future. For today’s FRs, the challenge is to avoid struggling as they have in the past by operating in silos and engendering a continued mistrust of private sector collaboration. Instead, FRs should seek to embrace the concepts of achieving a truly interoperable future through the development of shared national strategies that support local delivery needs, and strive to encourage the continued adoption of technology using shared procurement and deployment techniques while aggressively seeking out new partners in business and academia to help advance their technology needs for the future.   


Kevin Wennekes, VP Research
Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance 

About CATA

Canada’s largest and oldest non-profit technology association, CATA is recognized as the voice of advanced technology industries in Canada and is a long-standing champion of the public safety and security technology community.