by Sarah Putt

Secret to leading NZ emergency services rollout? Don’t talk tech

Sep 02, 2020
IT Leadership

The Next Generation Critical Communications (NGCC) effort seeks to modernise how four agencies gather information and communicate during a range of emergencies.

gettyimages 92252281 emergency sign
Credit: Getty Images / Pablo Hart

How do you approach a multi-year communications upgrade of the nation’s emergency services that involves four separate agencies, four government ministers, and an independent governance board? The answer, according to Chris Goldsmith, is that you don’t ‘talk tech’.

Goldsmith is the lead entity director for Next Generation Critical Communications (NGCC), which is overseeing the replacement of critical communications for fire, police and ambulance services in New Zealand. “We begin with understanding the business problem and the business objectives and what the outcomes are. None of that has anything to do with technology. Technology is but an enabler, that comes once we have got very, very clear about what it is that we are trying to achieve and what success looks like,” he says.

Why emergency service communications needs upgrading

Front line responders currently rely on walkie-talkie-type capability, although police do have some access to applications which enable them to access information when they are at an incident. This technology is 30 years old, and emergency services today need access to modern communications such as video data, message, telemetry, push to talk and normal voice services, Goldsmith says.

He cites the example of a multiple-car accident. Today, the fire service will turn up with the jaws of life to cut people out of vehicles (and if it’s an electric vehicle they will need to know its schematics so they don’t get electrocuted), ambulance crews will attend to the injured and police will control traffic and gather information about the accident. Meanwhile their activities will be supported by despatchers and coordinators working offsite, who have access to only a small amount of real-time data to inform their decision making.

“Where this [new communications] capability helps is it will mean that we will be able to have access to our knowledge bases around all the vehicle schematics for Fire. We’ll have all the latest medical databases online, as well as access to clinical data repositories, for the injured people, plus being able to send that information electronically to different key people, like in the hospitals. And for police, you’ve got all the case management around what the situation was, what the cause was, if there is any prosecution needed subsequently.”

How will the new comms upgrade be deployed?

The total funding for the programme is commercially sensitive, but some of it has been made public. “To initiate the programme on behalf of Emergency Services, $15 million (appropriated in the 2019 budget) was invested. An investment of $47.8 million, across four years, was allocated in the government’s 2020 budget for procurement to commence,” a spokesperson says.

Goldsmith says the programme’s business case is for ten years, but the bulk of the delivery is in the first five years. He describes the deployment as being carried out in “small but meaningful steps”, with privacy and security fundamental to the programme. “We’d love to be to send all of our clinical information to hospitals, but we’ve got to have hospitals ready to receive that information. The first step in the process is getting our ambulance service the capability to transmit. Then later on, when the hospitals are ready to take that sort of information, we can work with them to provide that in a digital format,” he says.

“Privacy is part of the DNA of emergency services, … so whilst we can upgrade communications, that doesn’t necessary mean that we’ve then got the ability to transmit information willy-nilly everywhere. What it enables us to do is to then start the conversation around privacy and build applications that provide the measures to deliver a private secure information transfer that’s appropriate and which meets all the compliance requirements of the health and privacy commissioners.”

How to future-proof the communications deployment

Goldsmith says the way to ensure the upgrade doesn’t become obsolete in a few years’ time is to eschew the capital-investment, owner-operator model and adopt instead an operating model where solutions are bought off the shelf. “Buying services which are as standardised and generic as possible helps you in terms of keeping the bulk of your capability on the global roadmap for upgrades,” he says.

“If we go off that roadmap and we start going down the path of the highly bespoke, then we’ve got to fund any change around that. The essence of this investment is to stay as much as possible in the domain of commercial services. What’s been encouraging over the last five years is that a lot of those commercial services now have standardised features and functionality to support the capability that emergency services need.”

Underpinning this approach is an active governance board and operational teams that are clear about their collective, as well as their unique, requirements. “It’s not a bunch of techos sitting in a backroom going, ‘Oh this is what they need’. Techos have their place to play in the world but not in terms of determining the business requirements and what ultimately the services are that get purchased. You’ve got to have been wearing to uniform and have done your time, in that conversation,” he says.

The NGCC board is chaired by Rob Fyfe, who has experience in business, technology and telecommunications roles including as a former CEO of Air New Zealand. The board also includes TJ Kennedy, a former president of FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority) in the United States, where he was responsible for implementing a US$40 billion nationwide broadband network used by 1.5 million first responders today. (Goldsmith cites FirstNet, along with deployments in Finland and South Korea, as being examples of the type of emergency services communications that New Zealand can look too.)

While experienced in leading complex technology projects with multiple stakeholders in the health and private sectors, Goldsmith notes a feature of this programme is that operational leaders in emergency services are extremely focussed because of the critical nature of the work. “People don’t muck around on this one.”

He has taken on the project because he likes doing “big audacious goals, things that are scary to a lot of people, things that are highly risky, because I enjoy managing risk. What attracted me was being able to lead an exercise in modernising our New Zealand capability and see some really great benefits for New Zealanders in all walks of life. Emergency services is not about race, creed, anything like that. It’s about people, human beings with a need and I saw it as a profound calling to be part of that.”