Intelligent Solutions for Civil Protection and Safety
Interview with Dr. Stephan Heuer, CEO of VOMATEC Innovations GmbH and co-developer of RescueWave.18 Nov 2019
Is there a personal dimension to your work with the rescue, fire, civil protection and emergency management sectors?
Ever since my undergraduate days I’ve been interested in how mobile sensors and integrated information systems can be used to support health-related processes, and in my research work I first encountered applications in the rescue and emergency management sectors. In these sectors, technology promises obvious benefits but needs to be able to cope with some pretty extreme conditions – and that’s a challenge that has always fascinated and motivated me.
How did your company come to be involved in this area?
VOMATEC was founded more than 20 years ago, with the aim of creating specialized, intelligent software solutions for civil protection and safety. At the time there was a big gap in that area. Our goal is to improve the safety of the general population and the emergency services and to help protect life and assets by streamlining emergency service work processes. With our RescueWave system we are world leaders in the digitalization and automation of processes for complex incident scenes.
Our aim is to enable responders and their commanders to gain a rapid overview of MCIs – that’s mass-casualty incidents – so that they can accurately triage the injured and initiate appropriate treatment responses without losing precious time.
What role do digital technologies currently play in mass-casualty responses?
Today, the emergency medical response to mass-casualty incidents already uses quite a variety of digital technologies. These range from portable pulse oximeters to mobile CPR technologies and, of course, digital mobile radio. The rescue, emergency management and fire services are also changing certain processes and workflows over to digital systems. Alerting systems are a case in point.
But there are still a number of analogue systems in use, such as patient triage cards, handwritten notes, VHF radio and paper-based situation maps. These systems are quickly pushed to the limits of their capabilities. Digital technologies, on the other hand, enable responders to take command of mass casualty situations much more rapidly and with more reliable information.
What, in your view, is the potential for digitalization in this area? And what sort of timeframe are we talking about?
For mass-casualty situations, digitalization has the potential to deliver greater effectiveness and efficiency and more reliable decision-making in incident communications and response management. The technological possibilities in terms of collecting, processing and disseminating information are improving all the time. But of course, these technologies need to be translated into practicable incident-scene workflows and technologies, because only then will digitalization actually add value to the tasks and processes undertaken by firefighters and rescue and emergency management professionals on the ground.
What sorts of improvements do digital technologies have the potential to bring to incident situations?
Our MCI solution RescueWave is an example of how digital technology can make complex tasks and processes more manageable. It speeds up and streamlines first-aid delivery and transport organization and enables more efficient use of available resources. This makes it easier to free up personnel for urgent tasks, some of which are actually core tasks. So process digitalization is a major support to responders and their commanders in MCI situations and, ultimately, reduces the time to hospital and saves lives.
In the words of one ER doctor who has been using RescueWave for several years: “It was about time that an area as critical as medical emergency management caught up and started benefiting from digitalization.”
What specific tasks do these sorts of digital solutions take on?
Digital systems like RescueWave can help responders and their commanders to rapidly resolve key emergency-management arising in mass-casualty incidents. How many victims are there, and where are they located? Which triage categories do the victims fall into, and which victims should be treated first? How can we make our incident briefings more focused and timely and collect and compile information in a more targeted way? The usual analogue systems – such as patient triage cards, hand-written notes, VHF radio and paper-based situation maps – have limitations that quickly create bottlenecks for first responders and their commanders, robbing them of the ability to gain an accurate overview of the incident situation and costing them precious time when it comes to gathering the information they need to make critical decisions.
Technologies like RescueWave, on the other hand, enable fire, emergency-management, rescue and other first-responder services to take command of MCI situations much more rapidly and on the basis of much more reliable information. These technologies support and facilitate effective response management and provide seamless handovers between on-site incident management, hospital admission and in-hospital medical care.
Are there any areas that you think will need to remain analogue or manual?
While digital systems can boost efficiency and effectiveness, they do have their limits, particularly in fast changing situations that call for rapid re-assessments and hence a high level of expertise and experience. Situation assessments in mass-casualty scenarios will remain the preserve of senior commanders, for example. In these types of situations, digital systems will not be making decisions themselves; rather, they will be supporting and enabling data-driven decisions by human experts.
Life-saving decisions on things like triaging, what first-aid measures to apply and what hospitals to send victims to will continue to be made by human experts, particularly where judgment calls need to be made on the basis of uncertain or even contradictory information. Moreover, some hospital processes are still not digitalized. We are currently in talks with various actors with a view to creating interfaces between incident-site emergency-management systems and other systems – interfaces that support automated access to data on treatment capacity, data transmission to other systems, and communication with control centers and crisis management groups. Looking ahead, our aim is to keep double data entry – and the inefficiencies and risks associated with it – to an absolute minimum. But until then, we can continue to use things like printed reports as “analogue data transfer media”.
How exactly does RescueWave work at incident sites?
RescueWave replaces conventional systems with a process support system that has been specifically designed for mass-casualty situations. So instead of handing out triage cards, responders hand out intelligent triage devices – Rescue.Nodes – to all the victims. As soon as these devices are switched on, the victims are automatically registered in the system and their GPS location is relayed wirelessly to the response command software. Once the devices are distributed, all personnel with access to the command system can thus see at a glance how many victims and casualties there are and whereabouts at the scene they are located – even if they move or are moved. At the scene, the head paramedic or ER doctor can quickly enter each victim’s triage category using their device. This information is then immediately transmitted to the Rescue.App, giving incident commanders an instant overview of the scene and any changes. In this way, victims can be assigned to rescue resources and hospitals with just a few simple clicks.
The app provides statistics and overviews that are constantly updated in real-time, so that at any given point in time, incident commanders can tell exactly how many victims there are and where they sit in the triage matrix, and can track victims as they are transported to hospitals.
That also has advantages in terms of communication during incident responses and post-response follow-up, right?
Yes. The system can be used to calculate key metrics that would otherwise not be possible during MCI responses. Metrics on things like the following: At what point did the system have a complete overview of all casualties, and how long did that take? When was the last patient triaged? When was the last patient transported for treatment? When was the triage process concluded? When were all the red-categorized casualties transported? When was first aid administered?
With these metrics, the people in charge of the response have access to valid data right from the very outset – data that serve them well when it comes to crisis management meetings, press statements and keeping families, politicians and the general public informed. In other words, as well as improving the quality of incident management and treatment, RescueWave helps to create a more positive perception of the response to the emergency in the eyes of the general population.
What sort of feedback have you had from users?
Experienced ER doctors always stress the vital importance of the time factor in these sorts of critical situations. In emergency medicine, time can be the difference between life and death, between full recovery and lasting disability. That being the case, passing on incident information manually – by radio or telephone, for example – and then manually collating it to arrive at an overview of the incident scene simply takes too long.
I recall one ER doctor who said that RescueWave had revolutionized emergency-management processes and was an enormous support to him and first responders. He said the system enabled first responders to accomplish the highly challenging core tasks of stabilizing and assigning patients to appropriate hospitals in a differentiated and resource-efficient manner using the available rescue equipment and vehicles. The head of a district authority told us that RescueWave was reshaping the way emergency management operates in his district.
He said it was now possible to operate in a more rapid and coordinated manner and save lives, particularly in incidents involving large numbers of casualties. He said the digitalized system was a key milestone in his drive to implement innovative, state-of-the-art technology in the local rescue service. In other feedback, a professional fire brigade reported plans to digitalize its existing firefighting and rescue processes and functions as part of an overall move to “administration 4.0” technology.
How did you develop RescueWave? Who were your emergency-sector partners?
As software developers in the civil protection and safety space, we became involved in safety research very early in our history. Over the years, we’ve researched solutions for the challenges of the future in a whole range of contexts, including on behalf of the state government of Rhineland-Palatinate, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the EU. In the course of various exercises and maneuvers, we saw that MCI responses were still very much paper-based – and that there were no alternative solutions available. So we hit upon the idea of researching the options for developing a solution of our own. In the course of this project, we determined that there was market potential, and so we began our development work. The system development phase involved people from multiple disciplines – information technologists, engineers, users, scientists and experts from the rescue and emergency-management sectors.
For the implementation phase, we embarked upon a partnership, a strong partnership, with two key players. And so, together with antwortING Beratende Ingenieure PartGmbB and ITK Engineering GmbH, we developed RescueWave to the point where it was ready for market release. Since then, the solution has been tested and evaluated multiple times in various different scenarios by fire brigades, rescue services, the police and emergency-management specialists. It is thanks to this participative approach that we have succeeded in developing a solution that is extremely fit for purpose and which effortlessly integrates into existing tried and proven processes.
What’s next for your company on the technology front?
We would like to get to a point where all incident-response processes are digitalized, so that conventional paper-based processes and the double-data-entry risks and inefficiencies that go with them are eliminated. Our roadmap for that includes things like interfaces with other systems so as to support access to data on the status of resources and available treatment capacity and enable integration with control centers and crisis management groups.
For industrial users, integration with our own ARIGON PLUS safety management system is also an option, as this would provide seamless response coordination between the emergency control center and the situation on site at the factory. Of course, we also have plenty of other exciting things in our integration pipeline, but talking about them at this early stage would spoil the fun.
What are the key markets for your products and solutions right now? And where do you see potential in the future?
Our key target markets are forward-thinking districts, municipalities, rescue organizations and fire brigades that want to take real steps towards digitalization. RescueWave is also a valuable Industry 4.0 technology for industrial companies with high hazard profiles, such as operators of large-scale production facilities in the chemicals, pharmaceuticals or steel industries. We also have plans to go international.
Initially that will involve leveraging our base in Germany to develop markets Europe-wide. But we see even greater potential beyond Europe, given that paper-based triaging is common practice worldwide.
Digital systems tend to be complex and require some explaining. What will you be bringing along to INTERSCHUTZ to help make your solution accessible to visitors?
Well, in our case that’s easy because our Rescue.Node electronic triaging device is a handheld unit and is very easy to use. It represents a whole new category of equipment in emergency management, and our visitors will be able to try it out at our stand. RescueWave is designed to support entire MCI process flows, from start to finish. We will be demonstrating the complete system, including all the hardware, at our stand.
There will be various monitors and tablets set up – just like in a real incident – so that visitors will be able to track the situation in real-time and receive instant updates whenever it changes, such as when a victim’s physical location or triage category changes. Visitors will basically be able to step into the shoes of the scene medical and organizational commanders and coordinate the response.
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