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The 99% of the time that public infrastructure does work

When I explain people about what I’m working on, better information for first responders, the conversation quite often drifts into the direction of infrastructure resilience. Telling that I intend to use open data sources, externally hosted API’s, public 3G and internet backbones amazes people. The amount of what-if scenario’s explained to me are endless. And yes, these concerns are very valid. If for example an airplane would crash in the middle of my service area there is more than a fair chance that all public communication networks will be overloaded. But how big is the chance of that actually happening? So I’ll be fair about the fact that there are a few days in the city of Amsterdam where at least mobile communication systems suffer. These are the few hours around new year celebration and 30th of April on Queens-day. So two days a year there is a chance that the system I propose might not work.

Now let me ask you the following five questions:

  • Is all of the above a good reason to not try and use public infrastructure?
  • Are these two the only days that our first responders are in real danger due to the lack of information? Or does that threat exist during every incident?
  • Is it therefor fair to deprive them from free, valid, and usable information 363 days a year just because the other two days the system MIGHT not work?
  • Specific to the Dutch situation: did recent history tell us that a private infrastructure is as resilient as it claims to be?
  • Is it viable to build a proprietary complex system to base all our digital communication upon hindering innovation and agile development and spending serious amounts of public money?

My guess is that you can tick of 5 ‘No’ s for the above questions
But current practice is that we have specific information systems for large scale crisis situations, or incidents at very specific sites. None of them are used on a regular basis by most fire fighters, and when needed they often do not contain the guidance and information which the actual situation requires, the black swan! The end result is that first responders are not common to use such systems, and when needed they overlook them completely because it’s not in their standard action pattern.

The reality I face in my regular everyday shift in the city centre of Amsterdam is that more information is publicly available then we actually can think of as a fire department. Several times this has led to situations that, on hind sight, could be tackled differently, but we simply did not had the means to query the additional information. During these relative small scale incidents I would argue that we have put our colleagues at a bigger risk then strictly necessary, but only if we would have had the means to address the incident differently. The main thing about these incidents is that none of them made large scale news, no excessive amount of tweets, no overload on cell phone networks etc. A system based on standard available infrastructure would have worked without problems in these ‘standard’ situations.
So just because we can’t guarantee these systems to work in exceptional situations, we do not deploy them at all!

Why not build up automated deployment plans and information resources based on open data sources using standard wide spread technology which is cheap to deploy. First responders will start to learn and leverage the benefits of systems like this and embed it in their standard action patterns. This will result in a better adoption of modern technologies in our day to day operations as well as in large scale crisis. Being confronted with new and previously unknown information will enlarge the insight in the complexity of some simple but potentially dangerous situations. And yes there is always a risk that in a certain very specific situation the whole, or part of the, infrastructure might not work. The fact that first responders know about the potentially available sources of information might actually influence their own resilience just by thinking about potential hazards which these systems might have shown. Even in the case the systems are not available.

First responders are no robots who will be commanded and controlled by smart devices. They are autonomously thinking beings, which in an agile nature deploy skills and tools available at the time when they need it. When smart information systems are not available they will come up with other tools and skills to do their work safely. But please don’t take away the enormous wealth of information in 99% of my alarms, just because it might not work on the 1% of extreme conditions I might ever face!