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Integrating body-worn cameras and technology into critical incident response


July 25, 2021
By Monique Rollin and Vishal Dhir
Axon body-worn camera. Credit: Axon Technologies

Technological innovations are changing the public safety landscape. From drones and body-worn cameras (BWCs) to GPS monitoring systems and automated licence plate readers, advancements in law enforcement technology are making it possible for organizations to enhance public safety like never before. But like any technology, it’s only useful if the operator knows how to use it, can maximize its potential and public safety organizations understand its implications.

Every new system or network intended to improve policing can also bring financial challenges, organizational transformation and public scrutiny to agencies that may not be prepared for them. Forward thinking leadership that embraces the migration to technology-driven incident management is essential to meeting the challenges and opportunities facing public safety professions.

As technology becomes more integrated and sophisticated, having the capability to provide a coordinated and effective response to high-risk critical incidents becomes increasingly essential. Cultural shifts by police and public safety leaders embracing new technologies combined with advanced tactical response skills will provide teams with the available equipment, training and preparedness they need to respond to public safety threats.

Regardless of size or resource capacity, it is essential to arm first responders with the tools crucial to the effective response, planning and supervision of operations in a crisis. Technology is now available to allow real-time situational awareness for Dispatch, Incident Commanders, Tactical Command, Frontline Supervisors and Crisis Negotiator Units to get a more complete picture of evolving situations using a series of devices anywhere; when getting information to the right people at the right time is critical. Applications exist that address significant information gaps using a network of intelligent, connected devices that will directly impact critical incident response, improve officer safety, enhance community safety, improve efficiency and provide an effective resolution to major incidents.

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At a time when BWCs are being introduced to Public Safety Agencies throughout Canada, it is incumbent upon public safety and police leaders to embrace not just the technology but the steps that come with data-driven response, like smart weapons, live cameras in the air and, in vehicles, licence plate recognition providing near instant feedback, integrated dispatch systems, geo-mapping officer positions and intelligence gathering from the general public, uploaded in real-time through an online portal or from individuals via a direct link. Officers are also armed with smartphones that can gather evidence, live stream and communicate with other systems impacting time delays.

Critical incidents are not stand-alone events that are resolved when the safety risk changes or a subject is in custody. Large scale major investigations are ongoing in tandem with critical incidents and investigators now have the ability to access and share important evidence as a situation unfolds. Responders in the field can also use this technology to share data and evidence in real time.

There are specific principles of action to consider during critical incidents where the response must.

  1. Control the situation as quickly and safely as possible;
  2. Deploy well-trained and highly skilled incident teams;
  3. Achieve effective internal and external communication;
  4. Build situational awareness with superior information sharing systems;
  5. Use a strong, well-rehearsed decision-making process for responders;
  6. Create clear team structures with defined roles and responsibilities;
  7. Advance effective leadership with cross-trained leaders in cross-functional teams;
  8. Share and preserve evidence and maintain records;
  9. Ensure learning processes are in place: lessons learned, debriefs and improvement practices.

We must also consider what tools are best suited for an incident response that could be multi-jurisdictional or require joint incident command across all public safety organizations. There are four unique high-risk incident categories considered in Critical Incident Response: critical incidents, high level search for high-risk missing persons, public order events and major emergencies.

Advancements in law enforcement technology are making it possible for organizations to enhance public safety like never before.

When we consider the risks attached to vulnerable missing persons calls for service, we know that time is paramount and an information dissemination plan must be operational as soon as possible. Technologies exist to engage the public quickly. Search planners are also challenged by accurately determining the areas that had been searched. For example, current data collection doesn’t indicate how well an area has been searched—it just identifies search locations. The use of technologies that communicate with each other like BWCs, GPS mapping, airborne drones with thermal technology, fleet cameras enabled with Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) when searching for a vehicle, all share the real data for a more accurate response. In addition, responders conducting missing person investigations must remain mindful of the possibility that the case may escalate into a major crime investigation; all investigative measures employed and all statements taken must be carefully recorded. Integrated devices allow evidence to be captured. The preservation of evidence is a crucial consideration at the earliest stages.

Consider a situation with a high-risk for loss of life requiring tactical response and intervention including incidents requiring containment, perimeter control, evacuations, an armed barricade, hostage taking, weapons incidents and active suicides. With integrated technologies, a tactical commander (in a Command Post) can view live mapping of their teams without using the radio to communicate and has an accurate picture of member perimeter locations and up to date movements including the ability to livestream from BWCs at observation points. Drones can simultaneously stream data to the command post and skilled teams (i.e. Arrest Team, Entry Team, Sniper/Observers, Explosive Forced Entry, Hostage Rescue) can receive accurate and up-to-date information directly on their smart devices to assist them in their action plans.

Supervisors and dispatchers can redeploy perimeter officers more effectively during fast paced location changes during a canine track without relying on radio communications or lack of location data.

Crisis negotiators gather information, begin a subject assessment as soon as possible and determine a risk and lethality assessment. BWC footage and intelligence about the subject including officer involvement prior to arrival, communications with dispatch, with members of the public and real-time social media access is invaluable. Negotiators can access live streaming to assess the behaviour and communication of armed suspects, hostages or barricaded subjects to help determine appropriate strategies during crisis negotiations. They can confer with mental health professionals in near real-time, allowing experts access to ongoing negotiations, subject communication and interactions to assist with a forensic opinion, expertise and professional assistance.

Credit: Axon Technologies

BWCs and integrated device technology allow for patrol officers to communicate with off-site crisis negotiators, mobile crisis officers or mental health/crisis professionals for crisis de-escalation consultation and negotiation advice on high-risk calls for service involving subjects suffering a mental health crisis.

Public order events, whether planned or unplanned, can escalate to circumstances where the response that is required to maintain public order is likely to exceed the capability of the normal response and are considered a high-risk to officer and public safety. There is a clear need for integrated technology in the planning stages for all known events for consideration of safety plans, evacuation, strategic deployment, interoperability concerns like multi-jurisdictional response teams and Public Order Units who require integrated communication and real-time intelligence during the event. A drone in the air and live streaming from responders on the ground will assist command with deployment of resources as the situation changes.

In response to public safety emergencies caused natural disasters, a health risk, an accident or an act, whether intentional or otherwise, we know that real-time information is key to effective emergency response and triaging resources. Technology that allows responders on scene to stream, upload and share real-time data about the situation drives the emergency management response. Challenges of multi-jurisdictional response and interoperability test incident commanders in understanding the real-time scope of the incident with regard to public safety. BWCs, access to camera feeds from the location, integrated smart devices providing data from first responders will all support Command in the development of strategies and tactics, and the ordering and deployment of resources.

While many organizations are equipped with tools that are capable of resolving critical incidents, there is a growing need to address and mitigate the risks associated with interoperability, time delays and communications concerns. As technology becomes more integrated and sophisticated, having the capability to provide a coordinated and effective response to public safety threats relies on the first responders, specialized teams, quick and safe response using the best tools and enhancing their ability to work cohesively towards risk mitigation and resolution.


Monique Rollin is a retired inspector for the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service. She holds an executive position with OWLE and serves as vice president/director of training for Canadian Critical Incident Inc.

Vishal Dhir is the managing director, Canada & Latin America, of Axon.