One of the biggest challenges facing public safety agencies during crisis response is mission continuity. Departments worth their salt have risk-assessed, scenario-tested and table-topped their way to developing tactics, techniques and procedures to meet every eventuality.
Taking an all-hazards approach and developing plans can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. Applications contained in cloud-based systems can assist departments, both large and small, in their preparations. Cloud systems are software and services that run on the internet, instead of on a local computer or hard drive. Cloud services are accessible via a web browser and provide many advantages for incident planning.
Having the cloud as an integral part of crisis planning also allows equipment, infrastructure and technology to integrate with communication capabilities.
Understanding the promises and potential pitfalls of the cloud will make it easier to decide whether this solution works for your agency.
The first concern most police officials have with cloud storage is one of security. Law enforcement data is sensitive, and it’s comforting to know that your data resides on servers you can actually see and know are secure. Even so, the level of security you can support is likely far inferior to that in engineered data warehouses.
Data stores maintained by major providers like Amazon and Google are small fortresses, with very limited personnel access. They are often located near hydroelectric dams or other power generation facilities, so as to place as little infrastructure as possible between the server farms and the electricity they run on. The sites are chosen for seismic stability and resistance to flooding and other natural disasters.
If the cloud storage provider has taken all these measures to keep your data physically safe, you don’t have to. A local fire, flood, or other disaster has no effect on the security of your data.
You also have no need for concern about running out of file storage space. Cloud storage providers maintain considerably more capacity than they actually use at any given time, and if you suddenly acquire a need for more space, it is allocated with a phone call or email. The excess space allocation isn’t something you have to buy permanently. Once the need for that excess data is gone, you can re-adjust your allocation to something less costly.
Loss of landline access to your ISP in a disaster should have minimal impact on your operations, so long as you have a wireless solution in place. Cell towers can be taken out in a disaster, as with any other utility, but service providers can often bring in temporary, mobile cell sites to tide you over until full service is restored. Services like FirstNet provide priority access to public safety entities, so that your traffic gets to cut the line over that of private citizens.
Another means to ensure your ability to continue operations under disaster conditions is to make limited or provisional use of individual employee devices in an emergency. Many smartphones can serve as access points for other devices nearby. Employees are likely to subscribe to multiple service providers, and the chances of all of them going down at once is small. There is a security risk in using personal devices for official voice and data communications, and this measure should be kept to minimum. However, your operations should be able to function at a basic level so long as field personnel can communicate with one another and with the command center.
Command center considerations
If your command center is compromised or inoperable, using a cellular network for voice and data may remove the need for a local base station. Just as corporate call centers are often located in far-flung locations, you may be able to temporarily establish a communications center at a location unaffected by your local problems. Ideally, you will have made cooperative arrangements with communication centers at alternate sites, so that your staff can relocate and continue operations with your people on the ground in your area. If your data resides in the cloud, the physical location of the people using it is irrelevant.
A force multiplier
When developing crisis response plans, it is likely that many hands and eyes will need to interact with the documents; and cloud-based systems allow for a group approach to editing from more than one location. The ability to interact live with documents cuts down preparation time. If the crisis itself affects the department directly, then cloud-based work product held off-site becomes an essential part of the continuity of operations plan as well.
Officers in the field can access resources on mobile devices, and those at provisional operations centers can collaborate and update records in real time. Between instant message services and direct communication applications such as Skype, personnel can communicate securely and share files even if radio systems are down or people are too widely separated to reach repeater towers.
Big business is relying increasingly on cloud storage, because it’s cheaper, faster and more efficient to have that resource managed by people who specialize in it. These arguments are equally valid for cloud storage of public safety data, especially as part of an agency’s crisis response plan.