Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on May 1, 2018.

Key Data, Crucial Seconds

How research is informing the response to active shooters and other types of hostile events

In the public safety professions, we often work on issues where seconds matter, where real-time fire protection and emergency response decisions can determine who lives and who dies. That is especially true during active shooter and other hostile events, a topic I’m sure will be on everyone’s mind as we gather for this year’s NFPA Conference & Expo at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

To make these life-saving decisions, it is imperative that we find a way to enable meaningful, relevant, credible, secure, and sustainable real-time data exchange among responders and agencies during active shooter events. Doing so, however, is particularly complex compared to traditional emergencies like a building fire or a vehicle crash. We are just now starting to ask where the knowledge gaps are, which gaps need to be filled first, and how can we realistically find the needed answers.

As researchers, we are anxious to help. The Fire Protection Research Foundation is working on a one-year project, led by the University of California–Irvine, to study how responders can receive real-time data from sensors located in the environment, such as those on buildings, equipment, and on responders themselves. The project hopes to develop the technological framework necessary for this data transfer to occur, giving responders the best possible information to make critical decisions. The project is slated for completion by the end of this year.

Many hurdles need to be overcome to achieve this. The most obvious is the technical challenge of collecting, processing, and transmitting targeted information as events unfold, which takes precious time and becomes complicated when the data is rapidly changing. There are legal, regulatory, cultural, workplace, and marketplace data- exchange issues, too, as well as longstanding privacy laws.

Other issues include how to get disparate responder agencies the right information—in the way they need it and when they need it—while taking care not to overload them, which could be confusing and hinder performance. The task becomes even more complex when you consider that key agencies such as fire, EMS, and law enforcement have roles and objectives that sometimes overlap. Law enforcement mitigates the threat and works the crime scene, while EMS and fire implement triage with victim rescue. The difficulty of simultaneously carrying out these functions is exacerbated during the chaos of active shooter incidents and other hostile events.

NFPA’s new Data and Analytics group is an important resource for these real-time data exchange efforts as we shift our focus from straightforward events, such as vehicle crashes, to complex emergencies like active shooter situations. For computer and data scientists, the challenges include identifying the data elements, capturing changing data, prioritizing data flow, establishing data translation frameworks and protocols, clarifying sensors and tolerances, and delivering the data for targeted decision making. Solutions to any of these challenges would prove immensely valuable to responders and could be folded into NFPA 3000™ (PS), Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, which was released as a provisional standard May 1.

We are obviously at an important moment as we struggle with the increasing frequency of these mass-casualty hostile events, which have made a stunning impact on the public consciousness. The lives of emergency responders and the victims they are assisting are on the line. When seconds make the difference between life and death, we need to give our responders the best possible chance to succeed.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.