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The benefits of cloud-based technology for 911 command centers

A cloud computing platform can hasten a PSAP’s compliance to NG911 and its required regimen of IP-based infrastructure

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By Randall D. Larson

During the management of any major incident, immediate access to real-time intelligence from the field is key to a successful response. Cloud-based technology helps streamline massive amounts of data coming into a command center during a major event, enabling the immediate analysis of actionable data to inform command decisions. This article reviews several benefits cloud-based technology offers for public safety command centers.

What is cloud computing?

The advent of cloud computing, also known as cloud-based technology, has led to many changes in both personal and business computing and is affecting public safety operations as well. “Cloud computing” refers to storing and accessing data and programs over the internet instead of a computer or server’s hard drive.

“The cloud is just a metaphor for the internet,” wrote Eric Griffith in an article for PC Magazine. “It goes back to the days of flowcharts and presentations that would represent the gigantic server-farm infrastructure of the internet as nothing but a puffy, white cumulus cloud, accepting connections and doling out information as it floats.”

An associated term, “cloud storage,” refers to just the storage of data – where “data is stored on remote servers accessed from the internet, or “cloud,” and maintained, operated, and managed by a cloud storage service provider. The larger picture, involving operative applications and the integration of various resources of data accessible by users, has benefits far beyond just the storage and retrieval of information.

Cloud security concerns

A concern that first responder and public safety communications centers may have is how secure those cloud providers are, how costs are defined to access storage and applications, and how susceptible they are to equipment crashes. This latter has been a very real concern for public cloud providers, however, numerous companies specializing in public safety technology have been offering and maintaining cloud-based 911 solutions since earlier this decade.

There are currently many technology providers – long-time trusted makers of CAD and 911 telephony systems – that now specialize in or offer public safety cloud services. These providers maintain security of the system in the cloud, as well as redundancy of infrastructure and maintenance of the computer systems and its components.

Benefits of cloud-based storage

Facing the rising costs of customer-premise equipment (CPE), which requires ongoing maintenance by providers, cash-strapped PSAPs are looking to the benefits of cloud-based systems that avoid roomfuls of telephony and information networks on site. Some are also discovering the benefits of integrating collateral systems – such as mapping systems, gunshot detection systems and other enhancements as needed into a dispatch center’s computerized dispatch computers – through the benefit of cloud technology. Installing an array of diverse supporting technology, each requiring its own server and monitor, can be made simpler by networking the systems together via the cloud.

Significantly, a cloud computing platform can hasten a PSAP’s compliance to NG911 and its required regimen of IP-based infrastructure. Some solutions combine cloud computing, wireless and wireline technologies into a seamless network while a virtual private network (VPN) connects telecommunicators with the cloud’s service provider. Through networking, the cloud can also place significant data at the fingertips of 911 dispatchers as networked information systems linked to their workstations enhance situational awareness and decision-making as they process emergency calls.

Why move to the cloud?

Reasons for moving to the cloud can vary.

The state of Kansas, for example, moved its E911 operations to the cloud because frequent tornadoes placed on-premise servers at high risk.

The public safety call center for Durham, North Carolina, moved its Emergency Communications Center (ECC) operations to the cloud early in 2013, to be ready to launch IP-based NG9-1-1 services as they became available. When Durham made its cloud connection, the equipment housed in the center’s backroom was replaced by a variety of secure connections linking the PSAP with the ESInet of their 9-1-1 service provider, resulting in very little change in the PSAP operations floor – a notable difference from physically upgrading the center’s computer systems and workstations.

It will likely not be too long before emergency operations centers and other public safety command centers begin to make their own move into the cloud. In 2018, for example, the Richmond (California) Police Department converted not only its CAD system but also its records-management system into the cloud, allowing access and sharing of crime data in real-time. Perhaps mobile command centers (MCCs) in the field may benefit from cloud connectivity in the near future as well. Some MCC providers have already suggested this option.

Technology marches on, and the interest is there. One cloud services company reported last November that it has deployed its cloud-based solution in more than 1,000 public safety and first responder organizations across the US.

While the initial outlay expenditure of upgrading PSAP hardware can usually be avoided by switching to a cloud service provider, the cloud service itself has its own expense in the long run. The service and its administration have to be paid for, which can be a comparable cost. However, in the midst of the mandate for PSAPs to accommodate NG9-1-1 and the variety of technology and equipment that will be required to do so – as well as the need for public safety organizations to stay abreast of continuing technological development – doing so will be a necessary expense for PSAPs in any case. Thus, recognizing the benefits of moving an agency’s technology to the cloud could well be a consideration worth evaluating.

About the author

Randall D. Larson retired after 20 years in public safety communications, serving as a shift supervisor, trainer and field communications supervisor for the San Jose (Calif.) Fire Department. Larson was also the editor of 9-1-1 Magazine from 1995 to 2009 and its online version from 2009 to 2018. He currently resides among the northern California Redwoods writing in a number of fields of interest.