We've all seen pictures and videos taken on smartphones in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster or terrorist attack - they are on social media within minutes. The EU-funded ATHENA project has developed an innovative way for emergency services to exploit this, using social media and dedicated applications for two-way communication with the public.
Emergency services have always relied on phone calls to learn about a crisis situation. In the event of a large disaster, sifting through this information is particularly time-consuming and labour-intensive. The Brussels terrorist attacks in 2016 demonstrate how communication is changing. Reports of injuries, deaths and the status of the situation first appeared on social media before information from emergency calls reached police on the ground, says ATHENA project manager Jessica Gibson.
Many emergency services organisations have started using social media as a tool to market their activities and foster public trust. But they have not yet begun to use them as a reporting and intelligence tool in a crisis. The ATHENA project has taken the use of social media to the next level to enable police, ambulance services and the fire brigade to collaborate with the public during disaster events, reports Gibson.
The ATHENA project was initially proposed to help emergency services cope with terrorist attacks, she explains. In the Mumbai terrorist attacks, gunmen were roaming in the area. Civilians had no way to contact the police because systems were down. People fled danger only to run into another attack. That type of scenario could be avoided using the prototype technology developed during the ATHENA project.
The ATHENA app a lifesaver for civilians
The ATHENA prototypes are an interactive mobile app and a command and control centre intelligence dashboard (CCC-ID) that harnesses information from the app and social media, supported by the ATHENA logic cloud. The prototype could be market-ready for use by authorities after further testing and development.
If members of the public have the mobile app on their smartphones, they can easily communicate with emergency services, by submitting information and attachments such as photos, videos and audio files. Once submitted, users can see the progress of their submissions. If an individual submits information about a roadblock, the app notifies the sender as police receive and read their submission.
Another excellent feature of the app is that it can send help requests during an emergency, says Gibson. If a smartphone user doesnt have any 3G or Internet connection, ATHENA will bounce the information off the nearest user with a connection using a mesh technique. This feature of ATHENA means that we will cope better in an emergency situation because mobile phone networks are often overloaded and some of them may even stop functioning, she explains.
Civilians can use the app to communicate with police without being asked questions and this can improve police intelligence, adds Gibson. In addition to using the app to deal with terrorist attacks, local authorities could use it on a daily basis for reports about traffic incidents, antisocial behaviour and extreme weather conditions, including flooding.
New technology speeding up help in a crisis
Emergency services personnel can look at the dashboard to gain accurate and detailed information about an emergency situation. This dashboard represents a real step forward in dealing with a crisis because the technology takes information from hundreds of civilians at once, explains Gibson. The police and fire personnel can even use the tool to interact with a particular member of the public if they need to ask for more information.
Not only can emergency services personnel get information from people submitting reports via the app, but they can also access information posted on Twitter and pinpoint the location of individuals. The dashboard extracts hashtag-based information from Twitter and quickly aggregates the information. This enables dashboard users to search for Tweets about a crisis or an event. The logic cloud also has a powerful tracking component that can help search and rescue services locate individuals who have consented to using the tools location services.
The dashboard enables state-of-the art tactical responses. For example, a commander can draw a danger zone around an area and pinpoint the epicentre of a crisis. In a few clicks, the commander can send a message to any ATHENA app users within that zone. He or she can send a message to Tier 1 app users, such as first responders, to evacuate civilians, and then follow up with a different message to Tier 2 users, such as civilians.
The ATHENA logic cloud incorporates expert advice into the crisis dashboard, enabling emergency services personnel to obtain reports produced by the ATHENA mobile app, explains Gibson. Thanks to the logic cloud, experts can easily and quickly exchange information remotely; they can read ATHENA app reports and submit information and reports to the dashboard.
We also tested the technology in simulated emergency situations and developed best practice guidelines to help first responders use the ATHENA technology appropriately, says Gibson. During those exercises, the technology increased situational awareness for police, fire and medical first responders. With better intelligence and information directly from citizens on the ground, emergency services personnel can make better decisions faster, deploying resources more efficiently and effectively, emphasises Gibson.