Sunday, May 4, 2014

Situational Awareness 2.0; Technology Made Affordable

Decision making in high stress environments is strongly intuitive – but does not have to be so. We may make poor, even senseless decisions, while clearly seeing events around us escalating towards inevitable disaster. Inspired by Dr. Rich Gasaway’s notions on emergency management, I gathered some of my ideas on how currently available technologies can be utilized to improve situational awareness.

Dr. Gasaway has more than 30 years of experience as a fire service professional, including 22 years as a chief officer and incident commander. He is an acclaimed speaker and instructor focusing on tactical situational awareness and how we can improve our capabilities to form better operational pictures i.e. situational awareness in high stress situations by training and by understanding how our brains process information. As a seasoned fire service professional as well as a scholar in neuroscience of decision making, Dr. Gasaway quite aptly claims; “decision making in high stress environments is more a neuroscience topic than a leadership topic”.

We observe our environment mainly visually and form our perception i.e. an idea of what’s currently going on around us based on what we see. Resulting understanding or awareness of current situation is used to make decisions on how we should react on what we are seeing. Pretty obvious so far. However, when we are observing events taking place not in our immediate vicinity, challenge of forming situational awareness is more difficult. In most of cases we then are relying on our ears. This may typically be the case in, for example command centers. I have personally witnessed a staged exercise where three fire departments, police department and military co-operated in clearing a chemical train accident. The exercise included fire and leak suppression, evacuation of civilians within the fall-out zone, paramedic operations etc. etc. I was surprised to see the amount of information efficiently collected, organized and disseminated. All done with radio-based communication only. Amazing. The incident commanders of fire departments have my highest respect.

While talking with some fire chiefs I have realized that the mass of data they are handling and organizing almost on daily bases is close to overwhelming, to me at least. Given this challenge I was surprised to learn that more visual and self-explanatory command systems are not utilized, even though enabling technologies have been available for a very long time. Quick explanation followed; the systems are out of your average fire department’s reach in terms of purchase and operation costs. This can’t be right!? Especially when currently available web and mobile technologies allow various different ways to provide content rich and visually powerful situational data.

Google’s as well as HERE’s map and navigation services already provide excellent content to support situational awareness in terms of locations and how to get there. However, visualization of a comprehensive situational picture requires combining diverse data from variety of sources. A vast amount of data is already available; public organizations such as traffic, road, transportation, water, law enforcement and other authorities are actively opening their databases to be integrated and utilized by other public organizations and private companies, such as software developers. Smartphones, which actually are mobile computers on perpetual on-line mode have become everyman’s tool for searching and disseminating information in real-time. They also provide your location; imperative information when forming operational picture. From these building blocks is created, for example Obshare, a comprehensive and cost effective service providing highly usable collaboration and situational awareness service to organizations.

Technology not only enables the development of new situational awareness solutions, but also creates new business and revenue models for companies providing the solutions. Therefore, purchasing collaborative on-line multi-user systems shouldn’t anymore mean enduring the pain of lengthy investment budget process. Such systems are available as web- and mobile-based services which typically do not require massive initial investment. The obvious prediction is that the market of situational awareness systems will go through dramatic change within next couple of years. A change truly beneficial to organizations in need of such systems. Or what would you say if you could purchase a full-fledged situational awareness system incorporating virtually any data source, for annual cost a fraction of your department’s annual fuel cost?

Dr. Rich Gasaway’s website:

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