Administration and Leadership, Commentary, Exclusives

How IJIS Enables Technology in Public Safety: An Interview with Ashwini Jarral

Ashwini Jarral

You may not be familiar with the IJIS Institute. Founded in 2001 as the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute resulting from the U.S. Department of Justice’s interest in raising private sector participation in the advancement of national security initiatives, it has evolved beyond criminal justice to serve a variety of public sector domains, including homeland security, public safety and transportation. Its mission is to drive public sector technology innovation and empower information sharing to promote safer and healthier communities. IJIS Executive Director Ashwini Jarral has implemented interoperability programs and provided a wide range of organizations with professional technology consulting services for more than 15 years. He holds a B.S. in Decision Science and Management Information Systems from George Mason University and an M.S. in Management Information Systems from Strayer University.

In this interview, Jarral shares insights into the challenges faced by EMS and fire leaders, how to develop the next generation of leaders in public safety and health and human services by leveraging public sector technology, the importance of continuous education and how the role of leaders in emergency services is changing with a new generation of workers.

JEMS: What should EMS leaders know about IJIS and why should they care?

Jarral: We’re a very different nonprofit. Our mission is to bring technology to the public sector, to bring digital transformation to the public safety mission community who are utilizing technology on a daily basis. IJIS can help support a better understanding of emerging technology trends and show them – EMS and others – how to take advantage of technical innovations taking place in the marketplace.

Secondly, we show them how to bring that technology into their own environment so they can use it and be more productive. It’s about achieving operational efficiency without the technology becoming a burden on them. That’s where the EMS community can benefit from engaging with IJIS.

JEMS: What about IJIS’ experience in information sharing and interoperability?

Jarral: We also do a lot of work around information sharing and interoperability. That’s where our record stands out in justice and public safety, and to a certain extent in fire and EMS, too, because we deliberately look to include functional specifications for computer aided dispatch systems (CAD) that will be of benefit to EMS personnel as they respond to life-threatening emergencies.

IJIS helps companies gain better understanding and overcome information-sharing challenges by leveraging some of the standards that are out there. We were the organization that worked with The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) to write the first information exchange for 911 emergency calling. Now everybody agrees to industry-wide standards and uses them to share information and have their systems interoperate across public safety disciplines, which is of great interest to EMS professionals as they consider the best ways to appropriately gather and use information from their public safety peer groups.

JEMS: What brought you to the public safety industry?

Jarral: I came from the private sector where we have some of these same challenges. I was intrigued by public safety because some of the things we were trying to work on we’ve already solved in other industries. I wanted to bring my experience to explore this and help solve those challenges by leveraging emerging technology and enabling it for use in our daily lives.

JEMS: You brought a lot of expertise to IJIS in the realm of IT deployment and operations. What does your experience tell you about gaps in EMS and public safety? 

Jarral: We have a big disconnect when it comes to the public safety domain or even the EMS domain—a gap between what the operational needs are and what the technology needs are. In other sectors, they have figured out a framework to actually bridge that gap in operational needs, driving technology investment so you can bring in the technology that is going to help solve the operational challenges.

But what’s also required is an understanding of what policies, processes and staff training are needed. In public safety, we’re slowly getting there, but we’re not bridging that gap just yet. That’s something that we can bring from the private sector to help the EMS community.

JEMS: Can you talk a little about IJIS’ public safety initiatives and highlight your most notable successes in this realm?

Jarral: One example is our work with Text-to-911. Out of 6,000 PSAPs (public safety answering points) in the U.S., only 30% can accept texts, and only in English. We looked into the problem of language, asking: ‘What if the text that comes is non-English? What do you do with it?’ PSAPs were using tools like Google Translate, but the accuracy was not there. Now, we have successfully demonstrated how artificial intelligence can be used to do the language translation and interpretation, but the human validation piece has further to go.

We’ve shown that by leveraging technology we can overcome some of these translation and interpretation challenges. We want to build a technology that can be used as a training example to do that translation and interpretation with high accuracy. We’re excited to pilot this technology with some PSAPs this year.

Last year, we also finished something around the Internet of Things. We were looking at ways to help first responders manage data collected from the sensors on their body as they’re responding to an incident. The question is, since there’s so much data, how do you collect the data, secure that data and address first responders’ needs?

JEMS: Your experience includes the creation of many interoperability programs. Have you found that there are any unique considerations for including EMS in the overall interoperability picture in public safety?

Jarral: Yes. One opportunity we’ve had is to work very closely with EMS around the prescription drug and opioid crisis. We’re working on a use case to share data and look at interoperability across the different data sets.

We looked at the issue of people getting over-prescribed prescription drugs. We put monitoring in place to identify high-risk activities in the prescribing and filling process and developed a framework with standards and policies to share the data across state lines. Today we have 16 states that are connected using this framework. We are excited that some of the data that is being collected by EMS is now coming across to other first responders.

JEMS: What are some other examples?

Jarral: The other piece we’re looking at is CAD interoperability, since it’s often the case that fire and EMS services have their own CAD, apart from other public safety agencies. Everybody talks about interoperability, but we know that there are new challenges when it comes to enabling interoperability between CADs. That’s something that we are actively pursuing right now as we are standing up a working group that is looking at this issue right now.

We are also looking at how first responders are equipped and informed when an actual incident takes place. Everybody talks about situational awareness, but quite often not all the data is being delivered to them. We’re looking at how to make their jobs easier and streamline the process by getting them the data they need without having to log in and out of two, or rmore, different systems. These are some of the examples and opportunities that we see where we need to collaborate with EMS.

JEMS: How has the role of leaders in emergency services or public safety evolved? What do you think the most important consideration in the industry is right now?

Jarral: The role is changing with the new workforce that’s coming in, many of them being millennials. The leaders of the justice and public safety space have to better understand the needs of this generation and be equipped to address retention issues and encourage this new generation of the workforce, because that’s a huge problem in this current state.

The next generation of leaders have to understand technology. Not understanding technology is no longer an option. Going forward, they have to understand all the nuances of the technologies and how they can incorporate them into their operational needs, so their staff is encouraged and able to get the data and information needed to do their jobs. They have to be tech savvy.

I think they need to come with a mindset of collaboration because quite often we run into roadblocks around policies, politics and egos, and the next generation of leaders have to be mindful of that because that’s not going to cut it in the environment of the connected world. Collaboration is everything.

JEMS: What experiences in your career most contributed to your growth as a leader?

Jarral: Learning from the best in this industry. I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to work with some of the top leaders in justice and public safety who have been at this business for 30 to 40 years. I’ve had the privilege and opportunity to work with them and learn from their successes and their mistakes.

JEMS: It seems that there are more books about leadership coming out than ever before. Are there any in particular that you recommend to people with leadership aspirations?

Jarral: You can read books all day long, the best experience is learning from the best leaders out there. If you can identify a leader with a successful, proven record and work with them or talk to them, it’s the best guidance you’ll find in your lifetime.