How to maintain continuity of communications in event of an emergency with unified communications
In the classic western gunfight, it’s the first to the draw that wins. A parallel in the modern conflict environment shaped by the effects of terrorism and asymmetric warfare is the first to communicate accurately wins.
While the visible tools of the trade of security and military forces are weapons, vehicles, physical protection, it is communications and the ability to share information and knowledge which provide decision-makers with the accurate data upon which to make operational choices. And it is decisions that count in an emergency of any kind. The decision on how to deploy resources, conduct counter-operations and regather control from an unwarned situation is critical to operational response and recovery.
Avoid absence of critical information in the field
Many historical examples demonstrate the problem of communications failure leading to compromised decision-making. Any lessons learned report is likely to contain reference to the absence of information – often it will focus on communications system that were ineffective or overwhelmed.
In a crisis situation, communications are a bottleneck, obstructing a coherent responder plan as different agencies scrabble for information. Does the complete suite of tools to enable a full-spectrum timely response exist? The need for a multi-agency approach is understood, but collaboration between communications hardware can create operational friction as agencies expend effort in establishing situation understanding and coordinating a response.
However, the days of mashing different agencies’ hardware together to establish a resilient communications response may be drawing to a close.
Unified communications (UC) using a single communications platform presents the opportunity for CIOs of organizations to create collaborative and resilient communication environments. UC is not necessarily a single product, but a set of products that provides a consistent unified user interface and experience across multiple devices and media types.
Transitioning communications dependency into unified platforms offers resilience enhancements to emergency preparedness.
10 reasons unified communications should be on the defense CIO’s mind
- UC can remove reliance upon conventional communications structures. Any communications device possessing access protocols can be used to produce timely information. This allows tactical innovation with the focus shifting to receipt of information not deployment of a communications network.
- A UC platform can accept and dispatch information between multiple sources. This integration of services will expand knowledge of a tactical situation. It will provide verification and allow all-source analysis of information.
- UC can collaborate across command nodes using intuitive command nodes. Operators are able to seamlessly switch between voice, video and media sources, assemble voice conferences between first responders across agencies and more strategic decision-makers, reducing information lag and accelerating the decision-action cycle.
- The availability of multiple sources creates useful redundancy compensating for equipment non-availability or incorrect deployment. A system that relies on innovative communications rather than regulated response presents opportunity for rapid seamless response.
- The inclusion of newer capabilities into handling an emergency such as presence information allows the rapid availability of resource information. This is important. The ability of a decision-maker to understand the response data and capability of an emergency resource provides greater operational redundancy, a ‘real-time’ map of capability. Exploiting ‘personnel productivity’ ensures that task allocation is balanced, geographic deployment is optimized and communications maintain continuity through the overlap of systems.
- The immediacy of communication and span of user inclusion allows errors to be identified more rapidly preventing time lost as incorrect facts or assessments are acted upon. Operational data can be checked, verified and shared through a wider range of systems without loss of the operational picture.
- Combining voice, graphics and data provides a different order of knowledge at every level of response. At the tactical level, operators will have intuitive wider contextualization of a situation improving their decision-making. In reverse, the quality of information transmitted to an emergency operations center will have clarity and quality.
- An ability to coordinate both synchronous and asynchronous data through an intuitive command node console allows information to be prioritized avoiding the natural inclination to respond to the last message received. Operators can selectively use contextual and routine information to maintain knowledge of the operational landscape without compromising the need to transmit urgent information priorities.
- Key to successful communications continuity will be the role of emergency response operators. Richer, deeper information from multiple information sources will make emergency operations room procedures more critical.
- Knowing what to transmit immediately and what can be processed through routine information sharing is a skill. Console operator staff training will need to reflect understanding not just of critical information requirements, but also of how to innovate information flow across an expanded suite of communication systems, some of them ad hoc. The CIO needs to ensure that operator training results in decision-makers not information processors.
The CIO and operational commander’s critical role
The CIO, alongside operational commanders, plays a vital role in creating the conditions for success. The task is greater than establishing technical architecture and requires systems of systems thinking. For example, technical design should consider ad hoc approaches and communications as the normative approach, not simply as back up for when a more fixed or planned architecture fails.
Command node operators at their consoles should take advantage of the intuitive user experience that UC technology offers to adopt improved business process and behavior. For example, how to process and distribute the information they have, to build and maintain complete contextual understanding. No need to ask a responder where they are, presence information will do that, instead the business process shifts to telling first responders what they need to know from elsewhere within the emergency. UC offers the opportunity for information “push” as opposed to information “pull” which has traditionally characterized emergency response situations.
Responsibility for unifying human element response and device communications in a common operational context and experience rests with an organization’s CIO.
Developing rich and deep communications capability developed will deliver the continuity of information and knowledge upon which emergency and resilience plans depend