A team of first responders arrives at the scene of a catastrophe — with limited communications or connectivity, how can they help survivors or even know where to look? At the recent Operation Convergent Response (OCR) event, Verizon brought together emergency responders and tech innovators to demonstrate the difference technology could make in a disaster scenario.
I got the lowdown on OCR from the guys behind the event —Verizon’s Shawn Hakl, VP of Product and New Business Innovation and Jeff Schweitzer, Head of Network and Security Innovation Programs.
Welcome Shawn and Jeff. Can you tell us a bit more about the event — what was your aim? Who was involved?
Shawn: We brought together around 200 first responders, public safety officers, and state and local officials with technology providers and businesses for the event. We simulated real-life disaster scenarios — from hurricanes and floods to buildings collapsing and terror attacks — to see how multiple organizations could come together as a coordinated response and how the latest technology innovations could help them respond faster and more effectively.
Jeff: We created the most realistic test that we could. Our participants went in with no idea of what to expect. We wanted an accurate reflection of how response services would work together and use the technology.
Shawn: We were able create a space in which the community of first responders could innovate together, surrounded by a showcase of some really exciting new technology that they might not have otherwise seen in the context of their core missions. For example, in one of the scenarios, we had a robotic device designed by a creative start up provider that acted as a casualty detection platform. It can autonomously roll through a city looking for survivors, tell doctors on the other side of the world where they are, and use GPS to guide first responders to extract the survivors.
Shawn, you mentioned you had businesses at the event — what role do they play in emergency response?
Shawn: Many municipalities and businesses today have security cameras — getting access to provide unique intelligence when responding to an event or putting together the pieces afterwards. It can give first responders a much better picture of what they’re about to face or what happened. And it’s not just video footage they can share to help out. Some businesses are already sharing this info with agencies. They operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and are constantly deploying data connections for commerce transactions. Monitoring when these connections go down can tell responders a lot about the scale of an incident.
Jeff: Imagine if every business provided emergency response units with timely access to that kind of information. If a hurricane struck a coastal city, instead of going in blind, first responders could have access to a library of video footage from local businesses’ security cameras. Businesses can become a real multiplier in this environment — just think about the difference it could make if you could see the eye of the storm before heading into it.
Shawn: Accessing that data relies on having connectivity available. And, of course, connectivity is also vital to keeping communications open between first responders. OCR really highlighted just how important secure communication is in tackling emergencies, and how new innovations can help. A breakdown in communications can be the difference between life and death in these scenarios.
If a city is hit by a hurricane or flooding, regular communication channels are likely to go down. What kinds of innovation were on show to get them back on line?
Shawn: At OCR, we deployed a number of innovative solutions that can be used to tackle this challenge — from a truck-mounted LTE tower to cell sites in backpacks. In addition to our Cell on Wheels (COW) solution, one very popular innovation was the LTE balloon we deployed. We tethered an air balloon to fly around 100 feet above us and provide an instant 4G LTE network for responders’ voice and data communication.
Jeff: With our tech keeping communications up, response services were able to share real-time data about what was happening on the ground. This was vital to success in every single emergency scenario.
Shawn: It’s not just about having open communication channels though — they also need to be secure. Just think how helpful it would be to terrorists if they could listen in on emergency responders’ conversations or see what they could see.
Yes, that could compromise an entire operation. So, how can that data be kept secure?
Jeff: We demonstrated that particularly well in one of our scenarios, where we simulated a VIP convoy being attacked by terrorists. The VIPs were taken hostage in a nearby building. We used a drone and dropped a bouncy ball that let us capture high-resolution, real-time imagery on the roof of the building — we didn’t want this footage falling into the wrong hands. While our first response crews were looking to tackle the situation, we had a group of hackers trying to compromise their communications. We were able to keep those all-important communications between first responders secure using Verizon’s software-defined perimeter (SDP).
Wow, can you tell us a little about how SDP works?
Shawn: Essentially, SDP forms a network from scratch at a specific point in time. It takes whatever assets we have out there — whether Wi-Fi, Li-Fi or LTE, for example — creates a zero-trust environment and wraps it all in a strong security layer. Because the network exists at a particular point in time, even if an attacker manages to find it once, it won’t be there the next time they look. Imagine SDP as a one-way mirror — when cybercriminals knock to enter, or even just stand outside and attempt to look in, we’ll be looking straight at them.
Thanks Shawn, that was a great explanation. It sounds like there was a lot of impressive and innovative technology showcased at the event. Did anything stand out as particularly exciting or effective?
Jeff: I couldn’t single out one particular piece of technology. What was really impressive was how we were able to integrate so many different technologies and give first responders the means to collaborate effectively. It was great to see them all working together, augmented by technology.
Shawn: I absolutely agree, Jeff. I think it’s also really important to make the point that this was never intended as a one-time event to show off some cool technology. We wanted to help facilitate a more involved, more connected community of first responders and technology providers. I think the event really helped to move that forward and hopefully the community will now build on it so we can help make emergency response even safer and more successful in the future.
Thank you both for your time, that was really insightful. For a glimpse of what went on at Operation Convergent Response, take a look at this video.
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