Apps for emergency responders

Published:  22 July, 2013

Apps for public safety are growing at an impressive rate – which is why APCO International (Association of Public Safety Communications Officials) decided to launch a dedicated online application community. Jose Sanchez de Muniain spoke with Jeff Cohen, APCO's Chief Counsel for Law and Policy, and Mark Reddish, Government Relations Associate, to find out more about AppComm.

Back in 2011 a report by MarketsandMarkets (‘World Mobile Applications Market 2010 – 2015’) said that the total global mobile applications market was expected to be worth $25 billion by 2015. Yet in June this year another report by ABI Research suggested the mobile app market could be worth as much as $27 billion by the end of this year. With real sales outpacing predictions for the mobile app market it is obvious the time has come for the public safety environment to embrace this new world – or are at least stop pretending it doesn’t exist.

Acknowledging this unprecedented growth as well as the potential benefits for the public safety community world wide, in April this year APCO International launched AppComm. The community aims to provide a single, trusted online forum dedicated to public safety and emergency response apps for use by the general public, app developers, and first responders.

AppComm is easy to navigate and visitors can quickly search by category (fire, alerts, police, EMS); device (iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Windows) and price (paid/free). Each app is accompanied by a developer’s description as well a users' rating. Some apps are repositories of existing guidance – for example Emergency Response Guidebook is derived from the Dept of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook) – whilst others are more sophisticated communications tools (eg WAVE Mobile Communicator, which turns a smartphone into a multi-channel radio handset that sends and receives secure audio).

Not all apps are for first responders. Earthquake by American Red Cross notifies people when an earthquake occurs, and includes some useful features in helping prepare for an earthquake; find help; and let others know their safety status. EmergencyAUS enables the public to share comments and photos of emergency situations in real time to help keep others informed.

The third broad app category is made up of hybrid apps, which are aimed at consumers but housed as an enterprise-type system by public safety agencies, such as the See Something Send Something app. This is a tool for citizens that enables the reporting of suspicious activity (in relation to terrorism) to the appropriate agency.

Jeff Cohen emphasises that AppComm is very much at an early stage and as such is relying on crowd sourcing principles in order to evaluate suitable apps. What this means, essentially, is that public safety professionals and APCO members are encouraged to share their opinions about apps via the star rating system, as well as AppComm’s newest feature for sharing thoughts and opinions - Group Talk – which seeks front-line experiences.

Mark Reddish points out that in terms of web traffic and links to download pages, the most popular pages are the resources for first responders (as opposed to the general public), with a good balance between fire, police, EMS and call centre professionals.

As for usage of apps by entire departments (as opposed to individuals) for day-to-day operations, there is wide disparity in the USA – some do, some don’t. But the trend is upwards, as Jeff Cohen says, ‘Some apps require an agency to buy the solution for use at enterprise level and some are doing it. It varies but at the same time we recognise that as a younger generation enters the population they are much more familiar with these kinds of apps.’

Mark Reddish, who is a volunteer firefighter, agrees that apps are not pervasive yet. ‘Around 30% of my squad uses apps either for EMS or fire and rescue, some during every call. Others don’t use apps on the job at all.’

In parallel to its AppComm work – and bearing in mind this is virgin territory – APCO is internally determining the high-level factors that should be applied to apps for this sector. ‘APCO, as an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) certified Standards Developer has filed a project initiation notice announcing our intent to develop and publish a standard that will address the interface of apps designed to communicate directly with emergency communications centres. It is APCO’s goal to develop standards that will provide uniform access for apps that have the greatest impact on public safety and emergency response,’ explains Jeff Cohen.

The operational impact on emergency dispatch is one of the aspects that APCO’s standards work will address. Although APCO has up to now not heard of any horror stories involving – for instance – apps providing erroneous information to first responders during critical incidents, it is a risk that APCO is aware of, says Jeff Cohen. ‘We need to prevent that from happening, and that is why we are exploring some initial criteria that APCO can eventually share with FirstNet in terms of vetting apps.’

FirstNet is one of two important trends that are driving the thirst for apps in US public safety – the other is Next Generation 911 (NG911).

The NG911 Project aims to update the infrastructure in the US to enable the public to transmit text, images, video and data to call centres.

FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority) is the deployment of a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network, which will enable first responders to utilise apps as essential components of emergency response.

‘We are working closely with FirstNet right now because it is envisaged they will have something like an app store just for FirstNet. We want to complement what they do, using our site to establish this community and figure out what is important for public safety,’ says Jeff Cohen.

Interest from the public safety sector has been high and – interestingly – not just from the US. Mark Reddish points out that web traffic has been surprisingly global. At the launch of AppComm there were 65 apps and the number has nearly doubled in less than three months, with page views sitting at over 100,000.

This tallies in well with the message that AppComm is not just a solution for the US. At the launch of AppComm on the 23rd April 2013, APCO International President Terry Hall said, ‘APCO appreciates the support and continued partnership of the Global Alliance and looks forward to its participation in growing the AppComm community. By supporting AppComm, the Global Alliance opens the site up to first responders across the globe, providing valuable insight on apps that ultimately benefit public safety.’

To visit AppComm click here.

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