Cell Phone Tracking for Dynamic Public Safety Deployment

Based on research, most children will likely have a smart phone by age ten.  Assuming that most people carry their personal phone with them most of the time, this information can be instructive for the purposes of public safety deployment relating to need, surge capacity and deployment of fire, police, emergency medical services (EMS), and lifeguard posting.

The protection of the public is the prime mission of a public safety organization. Therefore, the location of people and the environment in which they live are the focus of the efforts to protect the greater public to the best of its collective ability, with reasonableness and with mindfulness to individual liberty. Recently, advancements in technology and the widespread use of cell phones have proven valuable in the understanding of the daily movement of people. If public safety providers can utilize this technology for the intelligent deployment of limited resources, then greater efficiencies could be realized.

Cellular phone technology is so named because each individual cell phone is linked to the greater system by a series of cellular towers that transmit the data between each other to the destination. These cellular phones are in constant communication with a tower using electromagnetic wavelengths.

Cellular phone providers are tasked with setting up a cellular network to provide coverage for their customers across the country and across the world. Cell phone towers in wide open areas can provide service for up to a 25-mile radius around the tower. However, in congested, dense cities with tall buildings, this requires a large number of cell phone towers that often only cover several city blocks. Large buildings, built from solid materials, unintentionally block cell phone signals, leaving the customer without service. Cell phone providers, therefore, try to cover every block and every direction, to provide smooth cellular coverage to their customers.

Each cell phone tower has a precise location, with latitude and longitude coordinates. A cell phone provider will be able to provide the location of cell phone towers. On top of this, each cell phone tower is comprised of usually three sectors, pointing in different directions, to form a triangle that covers 360 degrees. When a cellular phone connects to a particular cellular tower, the records indicate which sector the cell phone pinged. In other words, if your cell phone pinged off the northeast tower sector, the records will indicate that you were generally in a northeast direction from that cell tower, which narrows down your exact location.

As you move around, and use your phone for various purposes, your movements are creating a record of the usage and your cell phone location. This is captured in what is referred to as a “Call Detail Record” and would be received from the service provider in response to a proper legal subpoena. When your phone attaches and reattaches to different cell towers as you move, it becomes possible to see in which direction your phone is traveling.

In order to more closely pinpoint your location, it is important to understand that a cell tower providing voice and text message service does not also provide data usage. So, if you are receiving text messages throughout your day, and also opening and closing a web browser or a mapping application, you are connected during those times to two different cell towers. Specifically, you are connected to two different sectors on two distinct cell towers. Where those coverage areas overlap, a reasonably good understanding of the city block where you are standing is known.

When you are attempting to use your phone, but there is a lack of signal strength, or you are blocked by a building, your phone remains aware of the closest available cellular tower for the purpose you need service (data or voice/text). The phone will continue to attempt to connect to the closest cell phone tower. The only time your movements and location are not being tracked is when your phone is completely turned off.

Realize that our phones are always operationally on and are constantly using data service to receive our emails, text messages, and calls. Often, we are opening and closing various applications that require data usage. This means that cell phone users are frequently connected to two different cell phone towers. Based on the sectors we connect to, and where those coverage areas overlap, the cell phone company, or a party who has served a subpoena for your call detail records can pinpoint your location closely. This is particularly true in a dense city location, where there are many, low-range cellular towers that cover only a couple of city blocks.

In the middle of a long drive through open and flat terrain, the cell phone towers cover much longer areas, and it is more difficult to pinpoint your location exactly. The call detail record would be able to track, generally, the direction of your travel, and what town you stop in. But, in the city, all of the constantly pinging cell phone towers keep close track of our movements and where we are at any given time.

For the purposes of the dynamic deployment of lifeguard personnel, using anonymized cell phone location data can be utilized in the intelligent understanding of when (time of day) and where (lifeguard tower) to deploy lifeguard rescue personnel. The mobile deployment of water rescue personnel in a patrol vehicle is done during periods of low numbers of beach visitors and few people in the open water, or when posted at a tower when beach occupancy rates dictate more water watchers in a stationary location (tower) to observe and pre-empt trouble.

Consider that available anonymized cellular phone location data technology can reliably be used to determine how many people visited the beaches, and the locations from where they came on any given day of the year. Additionally, using this data, managers can more precisely predict how temperature, holidays, weekends, school activities, economic environments and political influences affect the incidence of beach visitation, water rescues, preemptive actions, etcetera. Previous attempts to understand visitor counts were not scientific, and probably not as accurate as needed to achieve the desired efficiencies.

Utilizing anonymized cellular phone location data, and potentially leveraging artificial intelligence, the authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) can move from the anecdotal to a reliable predictive operation. This is likely to have multiple levels of benefit in the administrative and operational domain, something that senior managers can use to more precisely devote limited tax resources. Less total staffing hours can lead to reduced personnel staffing dollars, less exposure to ultraviolet sun exposure for the employees, lower workers compensation claims, and most importantly, a potentially greater save rate for water rescue victims.

For the fire service, the situation is both static and dynamic. Fire protection, by nature, involves maintaining a capability to suppress fire in the developed and undeveloped environment based on a reasonable standard as determined by the AHJ. Understanding how fire may threaten life in a specific AHJ environment is instructive on where (distribution) and how many (concentration) of statically deployed (fire station) resources are staffed over the geographical landscape. Travel time is the uncontrollable metric in the total response time (TRT) three-part standard of call processing time, turnout time, travel time. Remember that while many calls for service may originate from the local fire station, the fire company is available nearly 24/7/365 and when the alarm is sounded all assigned units are obligated to respond without delay. So, travel time from the fire station matters and operationally indicate that the location of the facility should be in the middle of the initial service area, or first due. Cellular location data in this metric may not provide as much assistance beyond long range planning for the location of future fixed facilities like a fire station.

For the dynamic location of EMS companies, the anonymized cellular phone location data could be exceptionally valuable for the efficient deployment of ambulances and paramedic units. During a normally functioning economy, most people move during daylight hours toward their employment site in the morning (0600-0900) and back to their home at night (1600-1900). The traffic patterns of vehicles, subway systems and other modes of transportation reflect the dramatic movement of people during the normal workday. By analyzing these figures, EMS managers can forward deploy prehospital care resources to a location that will provide optimal travel time access to a patient. This could include staging an ambulance near a freeway on-ramp in the morning and late afternoon hours, and near any event that could expect large gatherings of people for commercial events and a civic rally.

Police protection is a much more complicated component in the discussion of dynamic deployment of resources. Because of the myriad of differing state and federal laws involving law enforcement access to anonymized cellular phone location data, it is important to limit data to that which does not involve personally identifiable information. Law enforcement is a closely scrutinized service that involves significant regulation and oversight by local, state and federal authorities. Much of the business of police work involves observation, response, intervention and investigation. The ability to enhance the efficiency and performance of law enforcement officers by police managers may include the use of anonymized cellular phone location data for the deployment of patrol, foot beat and special assignment personnel.

The deployment of law enforcement resources and personnel is dynamic, as deployed police officers are usually on patrol in a marked/unmarked vehicle or on foot/horseback. By understanding what motivates non-residents to travel into a community, the police managers can utilize the information provided in the anonymized cellular phone location data for predictive solutions to crime suppression, traffic control and management challenges.



Public Safety Officer Response Best Practices in The Age of COVID-19

Due to the highly contagious nature and potentially deadly outcome of exposure to COVID-19, and the need for first responders to adequately serve the public, modifications to the standard emergency response practices need to be designed and implemented by those charged with public protection. The purpose of a streamlined procedure is to ensure that all task and tactical operations achieve the intended benefits of a competent emergency response agency and provide adequate protection for the employees as well as those they serve.  

Because the public safety community has not experienced such a catastrophic event as the COVID-19 pandemic, a model of best practices does not currently exist on the numerous issues relating to the specifics of this disease including contagion, protection and prevention.  Further issues related to the management of labor contracts, treatment guidelines, and psychological issues outside of the normal business of daily emergency management serve to add to the complexity of a workable solution.  

For the purposes of this article I refer to first responders as those whose employment is designated as a safety member by the State of California. Specifically, I will speak to peace officers, police officers, firefighters and ocean lifeguards. These employees constitute the lion’s share of those public safety members who respond to emergencies for service via 911 call or other notification avenue. Privately employed security, emergency medical service (EMS) or other initial emergency responder may benefit from this information as well.  

The understanding and nature of Novel COVID-19 virus is developing rapidly on a daily basis. Each new understanding serves to challenge previously known information and can influence the belief of the public and first response personnel that officials charged with public safety are sufficiently able to meet the demand. The larger legal, economic, and policy issues will be determined over a spectrum of time but the procedures related to emergency response and protection of the public should be focused on all of the safety related components. This includes call taking at the public safety answering point (PSAP), resource assignment, and tactical operations when arriving at the scene as well as patient treatment and transport to a hospital or other care facility.

Time, Distance, Shielding 

The primary consideration of public safety operations is force protection. This is consistent with the need to have a functional force capable of performing their sworn duty to protect the public. It does not suggest that first responders will not enter into harm’s way to take a calculated risk to protect a victim from harm. There is a tenet in the hazardous materials response discipline that applies to virtually all aspects of emergency response management. Time, distance, and shielding speaks to the three components of protection to be employed when dealing with a substance, or situation of known/unknown nature that could pose a health hazard to the public or responders. 

The concept of time seeks to address the influence of time of exposure to activities that are, or could be, hazardous to human health. The more time a first responder is exposed to the hazard the greater the chances of harm to that rescuer.  

For firefighters the concept of time is intended to limit how long of an exposure to toxic hazardous chemical substances, or poisonous biological agents in the immediately dangerous to life & health (IDLH) environment. For a lifeguard it could include operating a water rescue in open water at night, subsurface activities, or high surf rescue operations. In law enforcement it may include a felony car stop, high risk felony search warrant, or domestic violence response for service.  

Distance refers to the distance between the hazard and the rescuer. A firefighter may increase the distance from a hazardous chemical fire liberating toxic smoke, or simply increase the distance from the radiant heat from a structure fire to limit injury. A lifeguard may modify open water rescue tactics away from the surf line and choose to place a victim into a rescue boat off-shore to avoid the challenge of dragging a victim through heavy surf.  A police officer, when faced with overwhelming human force may add distance between criminal subjects to buy time to consider alternative solutions.  

Shielding speaks to the personal protective equipment (PPE) used and provided by an employer for the purpose of protecting the wearer from the damaging effects of a specific insult. This can be as simple as a helmet to provide some form of protection to the head, gloves providing protecting to the hand(s), boots to protect the feet, etc… Firefighters wear structural protective coats and pants for thermal protection from fire, law enforcement officers don ballistic vests to provide protection from bullets projectiles, and knife attacks, and lifeguards use a personal flotation device (PFD) to help them stay afloat in open water. 

Whatever the discipline it is likely that all first responders will come into contact with people during the course and scope of their work. It is also believed that some degree of these people will be carriers of COVID-19, and some will be symptomatic and others asymptomatic. Because we believe this disease to be highly contagious significant procedures, behaviors, and policies will need to be trained, practiced, and enforced for the safety of the public and first responders. 

Recent information indicates that a significant number of people are silent carriers of COVID-19 and because of this all patients will need to be treated as a potential carrier. Further, awareness on how to disinfect the protein involved in the virus should be understood by all first responders so that efficient and effective measures are developed and learned properly by those who are expected to have public contact. Additionally, the life expectancy of the virus in all mediums that first responders are expected to operate should be known and understood so that the confidence of the health & safety of the force is well established. 

Standard behaviors when operating in a confined space should recognize that the COVID-19 virus can stay atomized in an unventilated environment for hours.  Because of this EMS care providers should take measures that would either minimize exposure time in that environment or remove the patient to a more controlled environment such as the outdoors or inside an ambulance where the air is constantly changed. 

The treatment of a patient often involves intimate contact that enhances the potential for human-to-human transmission. Because of this distance becomes impossible for the patient woman/man. However, other EMS care providers can support the person providing treatment and still maintain six feet of distance. The use of a single EMS care provider entering a home so that the entire pre-hospital medical crew is not potentially exposed may hold promise, but fails to account for the realities of where all emergency medical calls occur and a stair-step approach should be considered so as to ensure adequate scene safety for responders.  

Providing proper PPE, and the consistent use of adequate protective equipment on each EMS call will be necessary to prevent the transfer of the COVID-19 virus from a known, or unknown patient. This is the only shield that we currently have to prevent human-to-human transfer via personal contact. Because the protection of the force of first responders is paramount to the safety employee these measures are necessary in the near term until effective anti-viral, vaccines, and other solutions are developed for common use.