By now, most public safety stakeholders — even those who haven’t benefited much from the technology’s emergence themselves — are familiar with the core benefits of cloud technology. A sort of catch-all concept for a number of interconnected standards, infrastructural points, and technological iterations, the high-level perks are clear to anyone who has labored under out-of-date systems in dire need of a better alternative.
Among the primary benefits:
Quick access to documents, regardless of what terminal the data is accessed from.
Greater employee efficiency.
Easier intra- and interdepartmental information sharing, particularly between mobile- and office-based assets.
Less time spent on “human overhead” or “bloat,” otherwise known as the waste of billable time, because of inefficient processes.
Massive long-term financial savings.
While critical, these benefits are only a few of the advantages a responder agency can realize when upgrading to a cloud-based system. Generally, the longer a safety agency has gone without a major technology infrastructure upgrade, the more positives it can expect from a move to cloud-centered tools and technology. No list could fully cover the potential changes, given the customized nature of many cloud-based solutions and the unique problems faced by individual agencies across fields like corrections, law enforcement, firefighting, and emergency medical services. But these secondary benefits are important enough to bear mentioning, and compelling enough to make a case for the technology on their own.
Consider all the forms that “support” can take in the technology world — from person-to-person advice to direct visits from vendors to a company’s ability to update hardware and software products years after release. It may come as a surprise to learn that cloud technology can help agencies that struggle with all forms of the term.
To that end, it may be best to offer a blow-by-blow analysis of the technology’s strengths, relative to the needs of responder agencies:
One back to pat: Fewer points of contact mean fewer points of confusion. Thus, the idea of a single “back to pat” when things go right or “throat to choke” when things go wrong — both terms borne from the telecommunications industry — can save time and stress when the alternative is calling one provider, only to be told that another system is actually the culprit.
Simpler resolution: The outcome of having that single back to pat? Faster resolution of the issues that do arise, a benefit that can be massive when mission-dependent systems suffer a work-halting bug, outage, or similar issue. For example, a company with an integrated training management system (TMS) need not worry about whether an issue is related to local hardware or offsite technology when all their content is distributed from the vendor’s own proprietary hardware. A company still serving outdated modules from an outdated server bank, meanwhile, may go through weeks or months of trial and error before isolating the source of a problem, let alone the measures needed to fix it.
Less reliance on legacy hardware: A mechanic ambles out of his garage and tells the harried vacationers in the waiting room the part they require is on back order, and that it will be two weeks before he can so much as turn a wrench. This classic film trope may seem like an exaggeration, but it plays out in public safety IT spheres quite frequently. The problem is that manufacturers tend to drop support and go out of business at a surprising rate, leaving those who didn’t upgrade an old system with no recourse when problems arise. Instead of spending exorbitant second-market costs for hardware, cloud-based alternatives put the burden of updates on the provider. Agencies shopping for cloud-based solutions will find that well-regarded Software-as-a-Service options include ongoing support and regular updates.
Naturally, certain considerations fall within the broad parameters of these three subheads. An agency partnering on a systems purchase and ongoing support contract via a trusted vendor will likely have a far easier time achieving quick and satisfactory technical resolution than one that struggles to figure out where blame for an issue lies. Likewise, those that opt for the full “private cloud” setup — by which content is delivered via agency-owned hardware instead of vendor-provided — may find easier resolutions for problems expressly attributable to the vendor’s products, then struggle to replace or repair components on their locally owned servers and related hardware.
It is also important to note common criticisms of cloud technology. The biggest is that it turns so-called “one-time” expenses, such as servers or on-premise software licenses, into monthly expenditures. To be sure, this is a valid point. However, considering the rather substantial one-time costs of these purchases, the cost of ongoing local maintenance and support, and the highly inflated costs an agency can incur when attempting to source outdated hardware or software repair, it is also worth considering that a “one-time” expense is often anything but. Similarly, public safety agencies are subject to government budgets, and government financial sources are generally adept at figuring out what a given upgrade will cost over time. The government’s massive effort to implement cloud technologies at the federal, state, and local levels is reflective of the medium’s long-term savings.
More time on the cutting edge
Cloud technology helps a government entity stay on the cutting edge longer than it might with a homegrown technological infrastructure. This comes from two high-level schools of thought:
Less reliance on future upgrades: Government offices are naturally unlikely to upgrade ostensibly “working” technology with tools that do more if the current tools handle the task for which they are intended. With the relatively high average age of government employees, there’s some chance the person who cut the check for the last budget remembers the expense and can’t justify another major purchase.
“Kicking the can”: A cloud upgrade generally means putting the responsibility for future improvements and upgrades onto the vendor — a far cry from the days of old, where every iteration of a software product needed a new license, potentially new hardware, etc.
The cloud’s advantage in this instance tends to be twofold as well. First, agencies no longer worry about annual or biennial purchases (or, by inverse, suffering along with outdated software tools), since most vendors in the competitive software market make ongoing upgrades a standard part of their monthly service charges. Second, their need to procure cutting-edge hardware or something close to it is reduced with every workload handled on the vending company’s end. The somewhat inaccurate but conceptually sound comparison to a “streaming” entertainment service is often cited. This example applies every bit as well here, with the vendor doing much of the heavy lifting and pushing data to the buying organization’s computers, which by definition take on less load.
Closely linked to both previous sections is the idea that a good company listens and tailors its product to its customers. In context of the cloud, this further means that the product of their innovation hits “shelves” — and current customers’ computers — faster than ever.
Of all the supposed secondary benefits cloud provides, this is perhaps the one with the most direct application to public safety agencies. Despite the ongoing perception that the wheels of change are slow in government, the combined force of legislation, changing societal demands, outcomes of litigation, and numerous other factors can leave an agency in any public safety field blindsided and stressed by the need for sudden, rapid change. Consider a hypothetical agency that must substantially alter its computer-based recordkeeping practices after holes in the previous system allowed a convicted offender to be hired. It is easy to imagine a variety of similar situations that may push the agency’s hand.
To the same end, best practices are quick to develop in the responder sphere, and while technology to support a given change may sound attractive, the cost to implement such a change may ultimately prove too costly. Putting that responsibility on the vendor, who is equipped to add features and release them quickly, makes it easier to keep up with state-of-the-art industry practices. The optimal choice would be a Software-as-a-Service subscription that incorporates improvements into regular releases and shares these updates with customers at no additional cost. This has become standard practice with some vendors.
In these situations and numerous others, a cloud-based system can be a major boon for any agency wanting or needing quick change. In the first example, the organization may help initiate a solution by reaching out to the vendor directly and asking them to support integration with an existing software product essential to safe, ongoing operation. In the second, stakeholders may be pleased to find word of a best practice has reached the vendor, and tools to support it have come out in their most recent update, which is delivered directly to customers via the cloud.
The core needs behind these circumstances are all but universal to agencies across the public safety sphere. Responder agencies reflect perhaps the single best collection of use cases for improvement via the cloud; if your organization hasn’t yet evaluated the potential benefits, it may be time to review your current technology services and compare them to the improvements a relatively simple cloud-based upgrade could bring.