Wearable technology

Published:  04 April, 2018

The rapid development of data-driven technologies has the potential to transform the emergency services' critical decision making and improve both safety and operational performance, write Ian Greatbatch and Iain Houseman.

In a workplace environment where both regulation and risk are unavoidable, organisations need tools and processes in place to make sense of the landscape. Fortunately, the technology exists that allows us to quantify and understand risk and inform our decision making. Advances in technology – some in place today, some just around the corner, some in operation in other sectors – already allow organisations, managers, and staff to be better informed and to work in safer ways. Ultimately, that should the aim of all of us – to create a safe and productive workplace. 

Society, in general, has an expectation that technology should be easy, accessible, affordable, and fit for purpose. The fact that anyone can code an app for any computing platform, across all devices, has democratised computing technology to an extent. That democratisation most would agree, is a force for good. But it does create some issues for managers.

For example, if I know that it is feasible to create an app to make my job safer or easier, then it is a reasonable expectation on my part for my employers to put it in place. The obvious risk for managers here is that they have to both stay on top of technological advances in order to understand their potential, but also to manage those expectations. For example, a piece of software may well be technologically feasible, but what if it brings costs of implementation or purchase that are not themselves reasonable?

This problem is nothing new, and it is not limited to the emergency services, although there has always been a close relationship between technology and safety within the sector.

This article will look at data-driven technology – some of the possibilities of which we have outlined in earlier articles – with an eye on safety and compliance within our sector. Emerging data technology that can assimilate data feeds from tens of thousands of sources, then benchmark this in real time, relating it to historical trends, lessons learnt and tactical considerations represents a step change in critical decision-making in dynamic incident management.

Current demands on commanders and managers

Currently, the spans of control for managers and commanders can quickly be overwhelmed by the volume, speed, and complexity of the information presented to them, often while the resources to achieve the objectives are getting into place or being identified and requested.

We can reduce this burden, to some extent, by collating simultaneous information feeds from resources at any incident/event and by factoring in other key information that will have an impact. Other information may include weather, the functionality of resources available, staff skills or experience and performance, task completion, and external pressures such as the press or wider strategic aims.

The emergency services are, in some sense, in an information arms race with the media and public, in that information typically moves faster through social media and broadcast/Internet media than it does through our systems. That said, as difficult (or irritating) as this may be, it does mean that lessons are there to be learned from the way that these systems operate.

We can learn a lesson from social media in the way it handles information relating to a task or event. You may have been prompted by a social media account to do something based on an anniversary – maybe you have been friends with someone for a certain length of time, for example. Although more complex, that sort of analysis of historical data can be used on the fireground. We could present a view of live data (concerning the environment and resources attending an incident) but also view historic decisions, actions and results that are relevant.

We can present commanders and managers with options based on a real-time but sophisticated interpretation of the live data within the context of the historical data. This represents a system in which tactical options for decision makers are presented in a way that could reduce the complexity of the working environment and allow us to make better decisions. Bringing us back to our overriding purpose, this makes incidents safer for responders.

There are some technological hurdles to overcome in order to achieve this. It relies on resilient and super-fast networking and processing as well as mobile display and input, and a great deal of work to incorporate the tactical considerations into the process. Obviously, it serves no one well to have a system that makes nonsensical, inappropriate, or dangerous suggestions to the commander. Much of the technology already exists within-sector, but in an inappropriate form –  for example as a static desktop application as opposed to something mobile.

The good news is that these technological burdens have all been overcome in other specialist applications, so the challenge here is really to develop and integrate existing technologies and to apply them to our profession, rather than to develop an entirely new set of technologies. We would also assume that advances in augmented reality/virtual reality displays, data manipulation processing, AI and decision-support software will play a key role in making this possible.

Technological hurdles aside, we will also need to consider data safety and address issues of personal information sharing. This is particularly so in light of the forthcoming introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation in the EU in May. That said, our goal should be to look beyond those challenges to see where technology, appropriately used, shared and managed, can make significant improvements to the safety and management of organisations, as well as providing more integrated ways of working in a challenging working environment.

Creating the data to develop solutions

Creating data from personnel in an emergency or dynamic problem-solving environment is key to understanding the performance of individuals, teams, and the wider organisation, set against the environmental factors within which they operate. Many systems have been conceptualised that take multiple, large datasets and analyse them. However, they typically only consider data gathered at an incident or related to a narrow band of themes.

There is actually the opportunity to carry out much more sophisticated analysis than that, if we start to think of a career (or even pre-career) as a continuum of data-gathering opportunities, all contributing to making that individual safer and more effective. Biometric data, data on decisions, and data on environmental exposures – all collected through wearable technology (smart PPE) – can all be combined into a complex picture, that in turn forms part of a bigger picture presented to the commander in the field. They also combine to give an organisation a richer image of an individual’s overall health, beyond annual check-ups, meaning that occurrences of non-fireground deaths can be reduced, if not entirely avoided.

Over time, the big data gathered from workplaces across different industry sectors can form the basis of trend analysis and benchmark for future optimisation of organisational, team, and individual performance. With a strong consistent data pool, a mature picture of the organisations’ strengths and weaknesses can be developed to deliver support to managers and individuals creating a growing strength in the overall team.

This can be extended to a point where it is understood that types of personal physique, intellectual or behavioural traits can be identified as an option to present to the manager/commander leading the task. For example, this could apply where a team are consistently strong at a task because they have a physical advantage – they are large or small, they are fitter or stronger – based on biometric and historical performance data from training and incidents.

The use of wearable technology is the next big step to making this achievable and is now linked to a commercial market that is exploding and creating cost-effective solutions to achieve organisational, team, and individual objectives.

The evolution of wearables

The market for wearable technology has been around since the advent of the pocket watch, but it has recently entered into a new dimension with the popularity of fitness trackers and smartwatches.

The wearables market is estimated to be worth US$28 billion per year globally. It consists of: ‘several categories of personal devices, all of which are worn or attached to the body. The categories include smartwatches, fitness trackers, smart glasses, body sensors, wearable cameras, location trackers, gesture devices, and smart clothing. These devices serve a wide range of purposes from healthcare to lifelogging, to safety notifications’ (Hanuska et al, 2016).

A smallish subsection of that market consists of smart clothing, yet we see smart clothing – or rather smart PPE – as one of the crucial building blocks for our information revolution. Smart clothing builds on the personal fitness market by incorporating an array of sensors, built into tunics, helmets, leggings, boots or gloves, that does not distract or hinder the wearer. This array will constantly record and share information across a whole spectrum of factors – from biometric data on the wearer through to environmental data such as contaminants.

If this PPE is always worn – in exercises, training, and routine jobs – the data combines and collates to inform commanders in major incidents. It takes a lifetime of learning to the incident ground, incorporating previous learning into the formation of activity options, helping commanders and managers to deliver results that are based on best practice in real time.

Why is this important?

In one sense, we can’t afford not to get involved. There are a number of converging technologies and drivers that mean that as the overarching technology becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, it becomes so overwhelmingly cost-effective than to not have it in place is reckless in the extreme. In other words, the benefits that this approach brings mean that any organisation not using it will be so uncompetitive in comparison to its rivals that it will soon be obsolete. 

In another linked sense, we may find that our hand is forced. We have seen with other technological advances over the years that once established, these can quickly become a basic right. For example, it may well be cheaper to handwrite letters than to fund an administrative employee’s laptop, but no one today really expects that they would not have access to modern-day computing. Once the technology becomes established, especially when it concerns safety, there is an understandable expectation that it will be in place. Imagine, for example, a fire service that did not use BA, or modern fire helmets – how could they seriously maintain that they genuinely took their employees’ safety seriously?

Once we implement this kind of joined-up, networked, ubiquitous, sensor-laden PPE we can create a workplace where employees and employers can measure health and wellbeing at all times. Monitoring everything during training and operations will allow us to close the gap between the two. We can make training match the biometric signature of operations and equally, by training in a more realistic manner, we could bring down the stress of operations. This can only make us all, and the public, safer.

References

Hanuska, A;  Chandramohan, B; Bellamy, L; Burke, P; Ramanathan, R and Balakrishnan, V. 2016. Smart Clothing Market Analysis. UC Berkely Sutarja Center for Entrepreneurship & technology - http://scet.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/Smart-Clothing-Market-Analysis-Report.pdl

Iain Houseman

Iain Houseman is currently the head of regulatory fire safety protection and prevention for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in the UK. He has held roles in the local authority trading company as a contract and business development manager, head of training, cross-service support, and operations resources manager creating new systems and processes to support change in the modern fire service. Houseman is currently completing a Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice.

Ian Greatbatch

Dr Ian Greatbatch, FRGS, MEPS, FHEA, is a firefighter for Surrey Fire and Rescue Service in the UK, a freelance researcher, and formerly an associate professor at Kingston University, London. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Portsmouth. He specialises in operational research into search and rescue, fire and rescue, and the application of geographical information and data management to those disciplines.

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