Every second counts: why integrating technologies is key to effective emergency response

UK FOI data shows diversity in emergency response communications improves reliability and resilience


Emergency and disaster response teams are the undisputed heroes when a crisis occurs – and equipping them with the most effective and reliable communications links available is not only a pre-requisite for a timely and successful operation, it’s also critical to ensuring the safety of the teams on the ground.

Viasat has been at the forefront of helping prevent, respond to, and overcome emergencies and disasters. High-speed satellite communications are an increasingly essential asset – helping teams respond with speed and agility to the ever-changing conditions on the ground. Emergency services must coordinate response in real time and have up-to-date situational awareness, particularly in remote areas or when terrestrial communications have all been destroyed by the disaster at hand. They want the image they have of the situation to be as detailed and close-range as possible. And they want assurance that their entire communication network, from data right down to voice, will continue operating so that responders are never cut off from one another.

Viasat communications solutions have helped deliver critical surveillance information to provide greater visibility in assessing and fighting potentially devastating wildfires in Australia, the US and Europe and have enabled ambulance services across the UK to share video and images of patients before arriving at the hospital for more immediate and effective treatment.

Preventing blackout
Our high-capacity satellite services have proven even more crucial when a disaster or other event has severed critical infrastructure, cutting off communication entirely. This doesn’t need to be the result of direct damage – the volume of calls and messages in the wake of a major event can easily be enough to overload communication networks. Similarly, authorities that anticipate a major event, such as a storm or volcanic eruption, want to ensure teams monitoring the area have guaranteed, uncontested connectivity at all times, with prioritized communication links to support rescue operations. When such events can disrupt or destroy existing terrestrial coverage, or occur in signal blackspots, authorities need assurance that they still have a way to reach the affected area and stay connected to teams on the ground.

Unfortunately, the number of man-made and natural disasters are increasing worldwide. The United Nations Office of for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) reported the number of major recorded disasters rose to 7,348 between 2000-2019, a near 75 percent increase from the twenty years prior (1980-1999). On top of that, global economic losses increased by more 80 percent to $2.97 trillion between 2000-2019. Looking ahead, another UNDRR analysis projects the number of disasters per year could reach 560 by 2030 – a 40 percent increase from 2015.

Viasat’s services have proven invaluable to nations at all stages of disaster preparation and response. In the Philippines, we helped authorities monitor, prepare for, and react to the eruption of Mount Mayon. And in the wake of disasters, we have helped affected communities recover communications and keep in touch with their loved ones and the wider world, whether in partnership with Télécoms Sans Frontières or directly. This work isn’t limited to any one location – our services have seen use from the Indonesian highlands to the heart of New York.

We’ve established that communications are at the heart of emergency response. But what do good communications look like?

Best of breed
Successful communication comes down to three factors: speed, capacity, and resilience. The rationale behind the first two is clear. Speed supports clearer, faster communication and better coordination, and adding capacity opens the door to more data-intensive applications that can greatly improve responses.

For instance, clear and reliable voice communication is critical. But when combined with real-time video – both from teams on the ground and from airborne surveillance – it allows emergency teams to plan and coordinate their response more effectively, focusing on where they can help most and avoiding situations that could place response teams in danger.

Similarly, live updates of data such as weather conditions, temperature, and the exact status of teams – from their supplies to the amount of fuel in their vehicles – all help direct response resources to where it will help most, and mitigates against undue risk at ground zero

However, this type of capability needs resilience to succeed. If one high-speed service fails, teams that don’t have access to other avenues of connectivity will find themselves cut off from vital information. Worse, they may even be cut off from all forms of communication, causing a complete information blackout. At the very least, emergency services need always-on voice communications; but the more that can be done to always ensure high-speed and high-capacity communications, the more effective the outcome will be.

At Viasat we know satellite connectivity is often the best way to give teams the speed and capacity they need in any location and any situation. And we do everything to ensure our services are as resilient and flexible as possible, with the capability to direct service where it’s needed most. However, we recognize that no single solution can guarantee 100% availability – and for emergency services this is essential. As a result, services should ensure multiple high-speed channels are available to give the greatest chances that, in the event of a disaster, one or more will remain online, and that the risk of a complete blackout is as close to zero as possible.

UK emergency services analysis shows threefold increase in resilience
Following an analysis of a recent series of Freedom of Information requests to UK emergency services, those services that employed an orchestrated selection of communications services reported far less risk of connectivity outage. Covering 67 police, fire and rescue, and ambulance services, the FOI data shows that there are a mix of communication technologies in place across the blue light services – with satellite broadband, radio, and 2, 3, 4 and 5G cellphone services all represented.

It’s clear from the findings that services with a combination of satellite broadband, radio, and cellphone services in place had far more reliable and resilient communications. Only 15% of these organizations reported that they had suffered one or more communications outages in the last five years – compared to 48% of those that were relying on only two technologies. Similarly, those services with a broad mix had fewer incidents in total – with, on average, one incident every 43 days, compared to one every ten.

A more than threefold increase in resilience represents a critical risk mitigation for emergency services teams. The question for the 60% that do not yet have a broad mix in place, and other organizations that want to similarly improve their resilience, is – how to do it?

Taking steps to build resilience
The first step is budgeting for investment. Currently, 28% of UK emergency services have a budget for new communications technologies over the next five years – investing on average £1.3 million ($1.6 million USD). However, the exact investment will depend on the organization and its needs.

When planning investment, there isn’t a single “magic bullet” technology or approach that will fix every single issue. A fully redundant combination of orchestrated communication technologies is key to maximising resilience. And in an era of budget constraints, organisations need to ensure that they are making the most of their investment. Whilst building resilience is an operational necessity, future-proofing any technology upgrades is also critical in order to ensure that the adoption of new communications solutions will also support any future applications that will allow teams to operate more effectively.

Finally, each technology that forms part of the network needs to be as individually resilient as possible. Ruggedized and/or easily replaceable devices and physical infrastructure, and failover options so that a single fault doesn’t disable the entire channel are a critical part of this. Equally, cyber security has become a key consideration for critical infrastructure and will need to be built into every facet of the network. Hostile actors, from nation states to seemingly random individuals, will take any opportunity to disrupt such infrastructure – either as an end or as part of a ransom campaign. When the infrastructure serves such a vital function, protecting against this is essential.

A high-speed, high-bandwidth, high-resilience communication network is an essential element of emergency and disaster response. Emergency services need to be confident they can both provide “on the move” services and information to aid their immediate response, and act regardless of any communication blackspots or disruptions to existing coverage. The best way to cover all bases is to embrace optionality with a fully redundant, highly secure communications approach that blends complimentary services to provide the best available connection for emergency responders.