Beyond Technology

SESTraining, stress, environment—what do any of these have to do with effective communication? When lives are at risk and every second counts, potentially everything.

Communications technology is only part of the puzzle and these other factors can drastically influence the use of critical time and resources in an emergency or disaster.

Understanding the processes behind emergency responders’ thoughts, words and actions is an important step in improving safety and effectiveness of critical communication under pressure.

Volunteers for Australia’s New South Wales State Emergency Service (NSW SES) know all about critical communication.

The SES is an emergency and rescue service made up of approximately 10,000 volunteers, with 228 units throughout the state of New South Wales.

Flood, storm and tsunami operations are the Service’s major responsibilities, with volunteers responding to over 15,700 storm-related callouts during 2009–10.

With the ultimate aim of maintaining and strengthening the safety of its volunteers, and of the public and property it protects, the NSW SES needed to properly assess how volunteers used their radio equipment in the field.

More importantly, they needed to learn how they could further improve current radio communication practices. That’s where experts from Tait and the University of Canterbury’s New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour (NZILBB) came in.

SESTait Speech Processing Research Engineer Dr Alan Murray, Tait Design Engineer James Collett, and NZILBB researchers Prof Lucy Johnston and Dr Megan McAuliffe travelled to Sydney for a two-day assessment to work directly alongside NSW SES volunteers on location at the North Sydney SES headquarters.

The assessment was divided into three high-noise scenarios and one low-noise scenario.

High-noise scenarios were classified as “open air”, “enclosed” and “changeable” environments, and involved chainsaws, vehicle sirens and an SES flood-boat.

Each scenario required SES volunteers to transmit and receive voice messages, which were recorded so that voice and behavior could be analyzed later.

Different speaker microphones and a temple head-set were compared, using both an analog repeater channel and the New South Wales P25 digital trunked Government Radio Network.

Prof Lucy Johnston says it was important to look at the situations NSW SES volunteers typically find themselves in, noise and all.

“Looking at the types of real-life noisy situations that the volunteers would typically experience day-to-day was vital. To add to the complexity, we would interrupt their communications in an attempt to simulate the kinds of things that happen when they’re using a radio in an unpredictable and demanding situation. This was helpful in identifying good radio practice and effectiveness of communication under stress.”

After two days of monitoring, the research team commenced a review of the mountain of data captured, combined their observations and prepared a thorough assessment report for NSW SES, with recommendations for improvements based on their findings.


Pat Clague, Manager of Communications, NSW SES, says the Assessment Report provided by Tait and NZILBB helped the organization to clearly see where critical communications could be further improved.

“What we received as a result of the expert assessment was a very clear picture of how we can improve our current radio communications practices. The key finding for us was a need to develop greater consistency around our radio usage through the development of standardized training programs and practice scenarios, to help up-skill less-experienced radio users. We have recruited nearly 3,000 volunteers since the start of 2010, and within the organization there are many different levels of experience with a radio.”

“Ultimately”, says Dr Murray, “NSW SES recognizes that technology is only part of the solution when it comes to optimizing the way they communicate and work together”.

“Communicating effectively is about much more than just which equipment you use; it’s about taking a holistic approach to the interactions between chosen technology, the people that use it and their environments. When communication is looked at in this light, the potential benefits for users, public safety agencies and communities are significant.”

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