What Emergency Services Workers Can Teach Businesses About Collaboration

Emergency services workers are used to organising team communication and making rapid decisions. What lessons can they teach other businesses as we all struggle to get people to learn how to run a group video conferencing session effectively?

Picture: Getty Images/Paul Kane

I was reflecting on this issue last week during the APCO Australasia conference in Melbourne, which concentrates entirely on public safety and emergency services issues. We're all aware of the basic communications infrastructure used by emergency workers -- the ability to make 000 calls. Yet the separate radio networks used for those workers to communicate with each other remain very much a niche market, even in a world where every single one of us is walking around with a mobile phone.

The obvious scenario where emergency workers have practical experience that other businesses could learn from is group calls. Messages are regularly broadcast via voice to groups dealing with bushfires or floods, but no-one ever wonders whose turn it is to speak.

"The nature of public safety is to be able to communicate with a group of people, not individuals," Tom Guthrie, global vice president of smart public safety solutions at Motorola Solutions, told a media briefing during the conference. "A lot of times you talk in mobile teams."

That said, Guthrie identifies a key difference in the approaches used. "Within public safety, there is more of a command and control structure," he said. "In business, we do a conference call and by nature we're all kind of peers.

"In public safety, there are control situations where someone in command can lay out the tasks. You're in groupings and teams and you want to make sure they're situationally aware."

That one-person-at-a-time approach has multiple benefits. It ensures that limited shared spectrum isn't wasted, and it cuts down on excess noise in environments that are often noisy to begin with.

The lesson here? In a group meeting, someone clearly needs to be in charge. Make sure the agenda includes opportunities to contribute -- but don't encourage too much broad discussion outside those slots.

"It's not necessarily all applicable to enterprise," Guthrie notes. Public safety often relies on a "push to talk" model where you hold down a button whenever you need to talk. A typical business conference often adopts a "reverse push to talk" model, where you mute your own microphone until you decide you want to interrupt.

"It's often assumed that public safety is a lot like a business," Guthrie said. "But they're not at all like typical information workers. They're task-assigned, and they want their hands to be free.

Big data and analytics also require a slightly different approach. As Guthrie explains, the big question is this: "How do I sort through and determine what is truly intelligence from that mass of big data, and how do I get that to an individual who is in the field?"

An added complication is working out which data can be sensibly shared with the public, both for the immediate purposes of incident management and because of the broader principle that data generated through the use of public funds should not be restricted.

Evolve is a regular column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Melbourne as a guest of Motorola Solutions.


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