On 1 June 2021, the BMWi-funded project SPELL was launched (BMWi=German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs). The project acronym stands for “Semantic Platform for Intelligent Decision-Making and Mission Support in Control Centers and Situation Rooms” (in German: “Semantische Plattform zur intelligenten Entscheidungs- und Einsatzunterstützung in Leitstellen und Lagezentren”). As the name suggests, the project aims to apply Artificial Intelligence to control centers and situation rooms in order to support these in coordination missions and thus take an important step toward the digital transformation in emergency and disaster management. Other goals include the further development of applications designed to ensure that the population and various stakeholders are provided with general warnings, measures, and situation information, and to enable emergency communication via live audio, live video, or live chat.
In the project SPELL, the powerful consortium consisting of the German Center for Artificial Intelligence as consortium leader, the DRK-Landesverband Rheinland-Pfalz e.V., Empolis Information Management GmbH, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft e.V. with its institutes Fraunhofer IESE and Fraunhofer Fokus, ISE Informatikgesellschaft für Software-Entwicklung mbH, LiveReader GmbH, BASF SE, Corevas GmbH & Co. KG, Advancis Software & Services GmbH, Apheris AI GmbH, the Technical University of Darmstadt, the VfS Verband für Sicherheitstechnik as well as other associated organizations, is working hand in hand to jointly achieve the best possible results.
In the first part of our blog series on the project SPELL, we first want to explain the background of the project and show why it is absolutely essential to pursue the aforementioned challenging objectives in the sense of a “future prepared for crises”. In the following sections, readers will therefore find an introduction to the complex activities of control center teams. In the subsequent articles of our mini-series, we will then systematically address specific aspects and the concrete benefits of the objectives pursued in this project, and show how Artificial Intelligence for control centers and situation rooms can be usefully deployed in emergency and/or disaster situations.
Control centers – an integral part of emergency response
In emergency and disaster situations, they are the first line of response: the control centers of fire departments, emergency medical services (EMS), and the police. The control center landscape in Germany varies greatly. For example, while there are separate control centers for EMS, fire departments, and the police, the last 15-20 years have seen an increasing number of mergers into so-called “Integrated Control Centers (ICC)”, which usually combine the fire department and EMS. More rarely, control centers are found that have integrated not only the fire department and EMS, but also the police under one roof. In the latter case, the “blue light jargon” also refers to these as so-called “multicolored control centers”.
From early childhood, we are taught the two numbers 112 for fire and rescue services and 110 for the police emergency call. However, control centers of authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks are not only responsible for accepting requests for help, but also for coordinating the resulting operations, and therefore act as hubs for processing and passing on a wide variety of information.
Control centers as complex information hubs
Operations that need to be coordinated by control centers may result not only from calls, but may also be triggered “technically”. The smoke detectors of public buildings are among the better-known examples in this respect. Similarly, the removal of a public automated external defibrillator (AED) intended for use by laypersons for resuscitation purposes can be automatically reported to the emergency control center. Very specific data, e.g., from the seismographic monitoring of roads or diverse weather data, can also be bundled here. Further technical developments, such as automated emergency call systems in vehicles, so-called eCall systems (1), or transmission of the cell phone location data of emergency callers (2), provide important information and opportunities on the one hand, but also require an appropriate IT infrastructure and the competencies of the control center team on the other hand.
Did you know…
… that when an emergency call is made, the location data of the emergency caller can be automatically transmitted to the emergency control center, depending on the cell pone and its operating system?
… that modern emergency call systems in vehicles can directly call the emergency number (112) if a traffic accident has occurred and the vehicle occupants are no longer able to do so themselves?
Control centers are not only information hubs for emergency calls and mission-specific data, but also a command and control facility that in turn sends information to the mission resources (e.g., ambulance or fire truck) and emergency response forces, and continuously cross-checks and updates this information. The example of the Kaiserslautern Integrated Control Center quickly makes clear how comprehensive these tasks are that must be mastered by the team: “Every day, the Kaiserslautern Integrated Control Center (ICC) alerts, leads, and supports approx. 270 missions. In the process, rescue resources from 217 fire department units (473 vehicles), 14 EMS stations (68 vehicles), 134 disaster control units (incl. SEG, PSNV, first responders) are coordinated and directed.” (4). In the meantime, a rescue helicopter has also been stationed in the catchment area of the Kaiserslautern ICC.
Control centers in everyday operation and in the event of a disaster
However, the tasks of control centers do not only consist of accepting emergency calls and issuing alerts, but also include the comprehensive coordination of all those involved in missions. This includes coordinating the emergency response forces and leaders of the different local authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks, providing supplies and information to other decision-makers, as well as bringing together the official forces with a wide variety of third parties, such as care services, hospitals, road maintenance departments, etc. Throughout all this, it is important for them to have a permanent overview of the current resources in the catchment area. This quickly becomes clear in the example of an emergency control center: Real-time information is needed, for example, on which treatment capacities the hospitals have at the relevant time. The failure of a CT scanner or an overloaded emergency room can thus be taken into account and the ambulances and other emergency vehicles can be routed strategically. After all, it would be disastrous if it turned out only after the arrival of an ambulance that a critically ill patient cannot be treated optimally because a specific device is not available and the patient would then have to be driven or flown to another hospital. In Rhineland-Palatinate, for example, this real-time check of available hospital treatment capacities is carried out electronically with the so-called Central Statewide Treatment Capacity Indicator, ZLB for short. The web-based application (which incidentally was developed by Fraunhofer IESE) enables supraregional collaboration and provides a comprehensive resources overview of the treatment and care capacities of the hospitals (3). Using the example of the Covid-19 pandemic and the so-called cloverleaf system, the need for systematic coordination also became clear. Together with specialized emergency physicians, the distribution of the patients in the regions was coordinated. We invite you to also read our other blog post, where we present the ZLB as our “dispatch tool in emergency medicine”.
The work of control center teams is characterized by complexity, which often arises from unclear situations (emergencies/hazardous situations) that have to be managed under time pressure in a technically demanding environment.
In decision-making processes, a large amount of different information must be taken into account by both the control center and the emergency response forces on site. The systematic and efficient networking of all emergency response forces and other stakeholders is therefore essential.
While the control center teams already operate in a demanding environment in day-to-day operations – if one can speak of day-to-day operations at all in view of the complex and varied tasks – extraordinary situations often mean additional special requirements. In the case of so-called “major disasters”, such as flood disasters or terrorist attacks, the control centers are responsible for initially alerting the appropriate resources and later for closely coordinating with other command and control facilities, such as on-site situation rooms, that deal with the local management of the event. One of the challenges is that the control center dispatchers are not in the field, but need as accurate a picture as possible of the situation on the ground in order to adequately manage an individual mission, such as responding to a medical emergency.
However, control centers are not exclusively found in authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks, but also where complex building systems, traffic systems, or industrial processes have to be monitored and controlled. Information from contact points, electronic locking or security systems, intrusion detection and access systems, or measuring stations monitoring certain parameters in the air, for example, arrives in real time. In an emergency, close electronic networking with the control centers run by authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks is useful to enable forwarding of data in a time-effective manner.
Did you know…
… that according to the police laws of the German federal states, there is a so-called “police responsibility in case of urgency”? This means that if, for example, the emergency medical service cannot be on the scene in time due to peak load, the police have to take action on their own responsibility . Of course, this only makes sense if the deployment of the police as “advance responders” promises a time advantage. In order to be able to estimate this, very rapid coordination between the emergency medical service and the police is required.
This networking is, of course, also desirable among the authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks, e.g., if a joint operation has to be carried out by emergency services, fire department, and police. Such networking is also important in the context of the police’s responsibility in case of urgency.
The work in control centers and their great responsibility
The examples given above show how important closely networked structures are in emergency and disaster situations. In addition, it becomes obvious how comprehensive the tasks of the teams from authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks are, what broad competencies the team members must possess, and how little room there is for mistakes. However, it is not only these teams that need to be mentioned here, but also other groups of professionals, such as plant safety experts (e.g., at large chemical factories) and other professionals who make emergency response possible. By the way, these teams have one thing in common: They undoubtedly bear great responsibility for their own team, for third parties, and for the environment, and their decisions are usually irreversible, meaning that wrong decisions cannot be rectified .
Control center staff are to be understood as high-responsibility teams, both teams from authorities and organizations in charge of public safety and security tasks and others. They bear a particularly high level of responsibility for the team itself, other third parties, and the environment, and the decisions they make are usually irreversible.
This makes it clear how complex the field of control center teams and emergency response forces on site is. In line with the motto “Always there”, these people are a central pillar of public services. In order to enable effective and efficient collaboration and the management of complex situations, it is crucial that information is available. However, nothing is gained by the mere presence of complex amounts of information, because the information must be processed by people and integrated into the sometimes time-critical decision-making process. This applies to emergency response forces and control center teams as well as to the population, which must be warned at an early stage and also kept closely informed as the situation progresses.
Artificial Intelligence for control centers and situation rooms as a new opportunity in disaster management
In the project SPELL, the applications to be developed on the basis of Artificial Intelligence for control centers and situation rooms, but also for the civilian population come into play. With these, we want to simplify the collection, processing, and networking of information as well as the initiation of measures in emergency and disaster situations.
We look forward to reporting more in the next articles of our mini-series.
Do you want to learn more on the topic of “Artificial Intelligence for control centers” and on our project SPELL?
Then we recommend you to take a look at our other blog posts on the project SPELL:
- Part 2: Artificial Intelligence for control centers and situation rooms – human factors and principles of decision-making support in the project SPELL (German version, English version is about to follow)
- Part 3 (link to follow after publication)
If you have any questions and/or suggestions, please also feel free to contact our colleague and contact person for “Digital Healthcare”, Christian Elsenbast.
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- Hagemann V. High Responsibility Teamarbeit in Hochrisikobereichen – Verantwortung mit Risiko. In: Hackstein A, Hagemann V, Kaufmann F von, Regener H, Hrsg. Handbuch Simulation. Edewecht: SK-Verlag; 2016.