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Bridging the Analog-Digital Divide in Emergency Communications

athoc-analogOne of the interesting obstacles to effective emergency communications is the divide between newer digital equipment and older analog systems.

Guest post by Adrian Swarcburg, AtHoc Director of Alliances and Channel Sales, originally posted on the AtHoc blog.

Digital radios, dispatching equipment, laptops, tablets and smartphones carry definite advantages, since all rely on software for functionality. Message distribution, acknowledgment and follow-up can be directed easily from a central operations center. Integration is as simple as connecting systems to an open API or software-based integration modules, which is how AtHoc delivers its capabilities to market so quickly and effectively.

Digital emergency communications deliver another key benefit – a deep wealth of metadata. The digital domain greatly simplifies the collection of essential details, such as who was sent a message, how they responded, when they responded, where they were located, if they were moving or stationary – the possibilities are nearly endless. This data forms the basis of post-crisis evaluation efforts, in which emergency plans can be measured for where they need to be refined, and individual and group performance can be examined for staff development and behavioral improvement.

What happens, however, when an organization does not have digital equipment across the breadth of its emergency communications and response organization? This situation is far from rare. Older analog radios and other systems are usually fully paid-for, which is attractive to cost-sensitive organizations. In addition, older equipment usually has proven its reliability in the field. Emergency response personnel, understandably, want to be sure that they head into a crisis with kit that they know – from experience – is going to work under the broadest range of conditions.

At first, it might seem that an organization which relies on older analog technology might not be able to reap the benefits of emergency communications software, such as what we build at AtHoc. However, that limitation is no longer the case.

Older equipment often uses alphanumeric screens for information such as frequency or which radio is in touch with another. If the device contains a keypad to go with that screen, then it becomes possible to send requests to that radio, in which someone can key in a response. The corresponding keypad tone can provide the feedback that the emergency communications system needs to recognize that the message has been received, and that the response has been logged.

It is also possible to identify the location of a specific radio based on other equipment, such as a smartphone that an individual might be carrying, or by triangulating transmissions from a radio, by using multiple reception points. Or, custom equipment can be developed that connects directly to older equipment, creating an analog-digital interface that brings legacy equipment into a broader, more interconnected and interoperable world.

We’ve been working on this challenge at AtHoc, and will be announcing some interesting developments in the future. What’s old is about to become new again, and we will write again soon about these exciting possibilities for organizations seeking to integrate older equipment into their emergency communications frameworks.

About Vicki Walker