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Real Words or Buzzwords?: Situational Awareness – Part 6

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This is the 26th article in the award-winning “Real Words or Buzzwords?” series about how real words become empty words and stifle technology progress, also published on

By Ray Bernard, PSP, CHS-III

Situational awareness is an important element of organizational resilience, which most of today’s organizations are striving to achieve – yet our tools for establishing and maintaining situational awareness are still being designed for the most part per 20th century thinking and requirements.

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  • The previous five articles on Situational Awareness (SA) defined the function and scope of SA from several different perspectives. This article will identify several important requirements of Situational Awareness now (i.e. in the 21st century) that previously were not technically achievable but are achievable now and should be a part of our SA design “thinking caps”.

    Originally, SA technical capabilities were designed with a fixed scope and to be utilized by a small set of SA information consumers (sometimes just one consumer, such as a fighter-jet pilot), because they were part of a fixed system. In the physical security world, SA capabilities have been confined to Security Operation Centers (SOCs) and Emergency Operation Centers (EOCs). Thus, the technical attributes described below have not previously been included in security system or emergency management system requirements.

    Situational Awareness in the 21st Century

    Real world expectations for organizational awareness, thinking and response have grown far beyond what they used to be, given the digital connectedness of living and the technological advancement of personal and organizational information systems as well as social media. Due to this new and permanent level of interconnectedness, there is no longer any excuse for organizations not to be aware of situations that affect their own personnel and the members of various related communities, both physical and cyber. Situational awareness is an important element of organizational resilience, which most of today’s organizations are striving to achieve – yet our tools for establishing and maintaining situational awareness are still being designed for the most part per 20th century thinking and requirements.

    Today, situational awareness tools must be:

    • Highly-scalable as to SA scope and SA consumers
    • Time-centric regarding situations, plans, activities and shared awareness
    • Highly-analytical and self-learning to minimize success dependency on human expertise and experience
    • Distributed and resilient to persist despite communications interruptions
    • Highly-contextual to appropriately support personnel and teams with defined roles, responsibilities and objectives
    • Flexible to account for situation-related fluidity in roles, responsibilities, communication links and information sharing
    • Maximally-automated to support not just awareness but also the execution of response plans and management of related activities
    • Compliant with regulatory and organizational requirements for data and personal privacy
    • Auditable across all integrated elements

    Article space constraints don’t permit delving deeply into all nine of these requirements in this article, but in the next article I will use material from the Hospital Incident Command System to provide an operational context for each of them.

    These capabilities can only be achieved by the integration of an array of applications that each contribute as a part of the awareness and response picture. The information technology exists to achieve this now. The security design thinking doesn’t – yet, but thinking is starting to move in that direction.

    Pieces of the technology puzzle are emerging. Milestone, Lenel and Eagle Eye Networks have system architectures that support distributed and resilient operation. Eagle Eye is already fully in the cloud. Milestone and Lenel are moving there. Maxxess provides its Ambit product, a cloud-based managed messaging system that adds new situational awareness capabilities to existing security systems. Register here for a May 24th webinar on Ambit and school emergency preparedness by threat assessment specialist Victor Rocha.

    I could see at ISC West that other companies are also starting to move in directions that relate to the situational awareness capabilities listed above.

    Cloud and APIs are Needed for Full Situational Awareness

    The integration required to provide situational awareness to the level described in this article involves two things whose use has not been fully understood yet within the security industry: the cloud and APIs. The level of scalability and resilience required for many aspects of the integrated SA capabilities described above can only be done with true cloud systems. Scaling up to thousands of simultaneous users is simply not doable from a premises-based server, but with a system well-engineered specifically for cloud deployment, it’s a piece of cake.

    While APIs (application programming interfaces) have been around the physical security industry for a while, many of them lack the depth and robustness needed to support integration for purposes of situational awareness capabilities listed above. Product APIs from Lenel, Milestone, Eagle Eye, Verint and others come very close – but currently no products support SA-related compliance and auditability requirements, although many companies are committed to including such requests in their development roadmaps.

    In the next article we’ll take a close look at the system-related specifics of those SA capabilities, using the Hospital Incident Command System as our frame of reference.

    Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities ( He is the author of the Elsevier book Security Technology Convergence Insights available on Amazon. Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security.