Technology for First Responders

Jun 15, 2012

It's More Than Gadgets and Gizmos
In the ‘non lab coat’ world of law enforcement, security and first responders, “technology” is a means to an end and not an end unto itself. That ‘end’, of course, is the successful performance of operational duties, which have enormous public safety ramifications as well as real risk to the men and women who perform them on our behalf.

Developing, or being aware of a technology that will address an operational issue, is not the same thing as seeing it deployed. This is so because first responders and law enforcement personnel function in an hyper-regulated and inter-jurisdictional world of bureaucracy, where change is frequently viewed with hostility as being an admission that things were not done perfectly previously. And we all know that can’t be the case.

This resistance to change in technology deployment is not an academic debate – it has real, and often tragic, consequences. It’s guys who make bail because we haven’t taken their DNA on a B&E (like we would with fingerprints), and they take off because they’re also responsible for a bunch of unsolved rapes where we have trace evidence that could have been matched. Under the current system, until they’re convicted of something and the court orders DNA, they’ll likely be on the street. Not using modern GPS-supported electronic monitoring on long term sex offenders (like Daniel Gratton, the sexual predator caught in Edmonton) means Correctional Services of Canada can lose track of them and only discover their whereabouts after they are charged with abducting and raping more innocent children.

Not deploying face-recognition biometrics at Canada’s borders (as promised back in 2006), means that police continue to have to re-arrest non-citizens who had previously been deported from Canada for past crimes when they commit new ones – and then try and ‘explain’ the justice ­system to victims who should never have been victimized.

Put it this way: when the system is so weak that returning drug dealer gangsters like Esrong Laing and David Wilson get dubbed the ‘Yo-Yo Bandits’ because they keep coming back (six times and counting), it’s time to deploy the technology that will prevent that from happening again.

Less high profile, but equally critical, is the need for sufficient public safety dedicated bandwith in the newly available 700 MHz spectrum and ensuring actual communications interoperability among all agencies. Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG), the Government of Canada has confirmed that 10 MHz will be allocated and is considering allocating an additional 10MHz – which is universally recommended.

In today’s reality of inter-agency operations, ensuring that everyone can actually talk to each other on a single radio system is no less critical – and that too is less a ­technology issue than one of political will and funding.

Time to upgrade interoperability beyond multiple radios? Rather than seeking new funding allocations to modernize communications systems for responders across Canada, why not collect the debts owing from people who have simply ignored the fines or cash forfeitures ordered by courts following convictions or breach of bail. The Ontario Association of Police Service Boards estimated the amount owing – in Ontario fines alone – to be approximately $1B. Add in the other provinces and fines owing to the feds, and by deploying existing and proven data base integration technologies, and a substantial “non tax” pool of funds becomes possible.

To be clear, I’d recommend these funds be restricted to statutorily-defined public safety purposes other than increased Legal Aid funding, but what’s wrong with using technology to collect debts owed by people who break the laws instead of raising taxes on people who obey them?

Defining success by addressing operational needs rather than academic theory is an approach to technology research, development and deployment that has been a long time coming, but now appears to have taken hold in Canada. Thanks to the efforts of groups like Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC), the Canadian Safety and Security Program (CSSP, formerly the Centre for Security Science), the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG), and the Canadian Association of Defense and Security Industries (CADSI), operationally defined outcomes are more relevant than ever.

CSSP recently partnered directly with law enforcement to fieldtest automated analytical marine radar surveillance technology including during the G-20 Summit. The need for such force-multiplying technology is clear to anyone that looks at a map of Canada, especially the Canada-U.S. border. Lessons learned here also apply to other scenarios like coastal applications and the Arctic, where the vast spaces involved create unique challenges. Using actual operationally defined requirements for these missions should also reduce the ‘toys for the boys’ syndrome which has been known to creep into technology acquisition practices from time to time.

There is room for real optimism that this concept of deploying technology to achieve public safety identified operational goals is taking hold. Recently passed Bill C-31, which reforms immigration screening, actually specifically authorizes taking biometrics, and Minister Kenney has made it clear that this will also mean properly matching them against a “bad guy lookout” database – to keep the “Yo-Yos” out of Canada.

Another significant development is the increased role taken by the safety and security industry in Canada to ensure they have an awareness of operational needs and that first responders and government have an informed awareness of exactly what’s available and ready for deployment. CADSI is leading this industry initiative, and its SecureTech Conference and technology trade show in Ottawa October 30-31 includes participation from key government decision makers responsible for this sector.

Equally encouraging is the proactive approach taken by organizations like CITIG which is serving as both a forum for front line first responder organizations and an advocate for targeted action. Their Annual Meeting is being held in Toronto, December 2-5 this year, and is sure to be a barometer of how interoperability issues are progressing.

Both of these events signal substantial progress which can’t come too soon given the public safety stakes involved. No technology required for that conclusion.

Former Crown Prosecutor in Alberta, Scott Newark is an Associate Editor at FrontLine Security.
© FrontLine Security 2012