Can smart cities save lives?


IoT, Smart City, AI

In 1935 a fire broke out at a doctor’s surgery in London that changed the delivery of healthcare in the UK forever.

As a result of the fire, 5 people lost their lives, but their deaths resulted in the government taking action to set up a committee to look at how telephone operators could identify emergency calls.

The committee proposed that there should be a standard easy-to-remember nationwide number to alert the emergency services, first considering 707, which corresponded to the letters SOS on the telephone dial, and 333, but finally settling on 999 as the most practical number.

This phone number is now the oldest emergency services number in the world, handling a staggering 560,0000 calls a week.

But with emergency services more stretched than ever before, stacked calls, a lack of resources and delays in response times are putting more lives at risk. Consequently, emergency response is rightfully high on the agenda for forward-thinking cities looking to implement smart initiatives.

Smart cities present a huge opportunity to address present inefficiencies in the emergency services. New digitally enabled channels could present citizens with new ways to contact emergency services. Rather than being limited to voice calls, several global cities are already trialling the improvement of 999 calls (or the equivalent) with the capacity to accept text, images, and location data, enabling services to receive enhanced insight and information on an incident more quickly than what is currently possible.

That is only the beginning of the potential catalyst for innovation and efficiency gains that smart infrastructure could represent for emergency services. The rapid advance of IoT technology could mean that in the not-so-distant future, emergency call centres, CCTV cameras, and data in the cloud will all be connected and mutually communicating in real time. To put this into perspective, it could allow police services to quickly respond to a reported crime and identify witnesses or suspected perpetrators with footage from the scene.

But that’s not all. Smart traffic management systems could offer even greater efficiencies. In the near future, emergency vehicles could have their driving routes optimised using Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS) which adjust the ways traffic lights are phased, aiming to minimise red light delays. This works by tracking nearby traffic and pedestrians to skip or reduce red light phases. GPS systems would also pick the most convenient route for emergency vehicles, setting speed limits and general traffic management to the utmost convenience and significantly reducing journey times. In the unfortunate circumstance of an emergency, those saved seconds and minutes could save lives.

In some instances, weather-related disasters prevent emergency response teams from reaching certain locations. This obstruction reduces the ability to track damage, notify the public with up-to-date information, and respond in a timely manner. However, if IoT devices were present in these areas, they would be able to more easily broadcast signals and communicate critical data such as temperature, water quality, or smoke. Armed with this data, the government could make more informed decisions on how to deploy resources during a disaster situation.

Artificial intelligence is also helping to predict, evaluate, and simulate incidents to improve response times and streamline resource dispatch processes.

In Los Angeles and San Francisco, a platform has been deployed which uses artificial intelligence through analytical disaster assessment and calculated damage estimates. It works by assigning a unique, verified digital fingerprint to every element in a city, modelling the entire system, and monitoring the impact of each disaster and climate change on a location. This allows analysts to predict the damage when different disasters hit, accomplishing 85% accuracy within 15 minutes on a city block-level basis.

A report from McKinsey has estimated that smart city solutions could accelerate emergency response times by 20-35% and reduce fatalities by 8-10% as a result. This means a city with an already low response time of 8 minutes could shave off almost two minutes while a city with an average response time of 50 minutes could reduce that by more than 17 minutes.

Figures as compelling as these only add to the growing body of evidence that smart cities are not only vital to the development of our cities but are also needed urgently.

In other blogs we’ve covered how smart cities can help to ease congestion, feedback information on pollution and noise levels and streamline waste disposal, but the ability to save lives has to be one of the most compelling use cases so far. It’s now down to our local authorities and government bodies to help facilitate the changes our emergency services are now so desperate for.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the early days of our emergency services, check out some of these bonkers facts!

  • Initially, each 999 call triggered flashing red lights and hooters to alert exchange operators to give priority to the emergency call, but the hooters were so loud that the operators pushed a tennis ball into the horn to reduce the volume.
  • The new 999 service which was initially only covered London, handled more than 1,000 calls in its first week – less than 0.2% of the number taken in the same period today.
  • Due to the 2nd world war, it took 41 years to roll out 999 coverage to the entire UK
  • The first computerised call was recorded in 1984 – a report of a stray dog barking.

Posted by Helen Thomas