Envisioning the Future of the Fire Service

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How data and connectivity solutions can revolutionize the responder workflow

Over the past couple decades, improvements in internet speed and our understanding and utilization of data have transformed much of our daily lives. We went from playing board games to playing multi-player RPG on our iPhones. Instead of purchasing and waiting a couple hours to download a movie to our hard drives, we can now stream it live, over the cloud, on-demand, based on our personal preference established by our data inputs, on practically any device.

In fact, it’s not just the everyday lives that became more convenient and interesting due to the development of technologies. The first response industry is also a beneficiary, and we’re beginning to see within the start-up ecosystem a myriad of ventures targeting different parts of the responder workflow to solve for the current inefficiencies. Below is an illustrative landscape of a number of relevant players based on the responder workflow bifurcation between pre-scene and at-scene applications.

Pre-scene Applications

Here, pre-scene entails all the communication and processes that take place prior to the responder team arriving at the scene of the incident. At the information delivery level, an illustrative example is FirstDue, an NYC-based venture that specializes in aggregating and communicating critical pieces of information (e.g., tenant/resident information, building structure, location of nearby hydrant) to nearby fire agencies and responders that are en route to the scene. With these pieces of information at the fingertips, the response team can then not only park the truck at the most optimal location around the building, but also plan around different nuances such as the source of fire, point of entrance into building, characteristics of people involved in the incident e.g., infant, pet, pregnant woman.

At the aerial overview level, companies like Impossible Aerospace develop deployable first response-ready drones that can get to the scene before the fire trucks do. This early insight into the scene, then, allows for the fire chief in charge of the scene operations to plan for the coordination of the response scenario ahead of arrival for more efficient overall incident management. In conjunction with the knowledge about the building structure and the people involved, the visualization of the actual fire ahead of arrival allows for situational awareness that simply hadn’t been available before.

Beyond the information coordination via voice/text/video/imagery, another critical area of improvement in the first response workflow at the pre-scene level is the actual movement of the fire apparatus from dispatch to the scene i.e., route optimization. In terms of route optimization, companies like Pi Variables provide layers of clarity on the current traffic status by leveraging their IoT-enabled work zone cones and crash attenuators that can push their APIs to relevant stakeholders such as navigation providers or first responders directly. In other words, Pi Variables can help the responders avert roads and areas under construction while en route to the scene by receiving real-time alerts.

Other ventures look to optimize traffic management by directly taking control of the input — traffic lights. NoTraffic, for instance, develops AI-enabled cameras installed at intersections and a proprietary optimization engine that dynamically adjusts the traffic timing by communicating with existing traffic controllers. This enables first response vehicle preemption i.e., quite literally prioritizing the response vehicles to get from point A to point B with minimal traffic light intervention. These incremental traffic management solutions may only shave off a few minutes of response time, but in emergency situations, every minute and second counts and those could quite literally be the difference that helps saves lives.

At-scene Applications

Similar to pre-scene applications, at-scene here entails all the workflows and processes that take place once the responders do arrive at the scene. From a software platform perspective, there are players like TabletCommandDisaster TechOrora Tech, and Perimeter that provide overall scene visualization and incident management solutions. Ranging from weather and responder data aggregation, graphic visualization of area of interest to digital checklist of critical procedures, these platforms provide the necessary support for optimal decision making processes for the fire chief.

Zooming in a step further, there are responder-to-responder communication platforms and utility tools for individual responder execution at-scene. Regarding the responder-to-responder communication, ventures like GoTenna and BearTooth offer devices that allow responders to stay connected even in off-grid situations by leveraging the mesh networking capabilities. An extra communication device that is independent of backhaul connectivity provides an alternative optionality and a safety net for responders to ensure they’re always connected throughout scene execution.

Regarding utility devices that can be used during execution, 3AM Innovations and FireHUD are at the forefront of building hardware and software applications to track critical metrics such as the responders’ current location, path travelled indoors, time under stress, SCBA status, and heart rate. Going back to the overall scene management and situational awareness equation, these again inform the fire chief of critical status updates regarding responder health and movement that simply were not available without these technologies.

In addition to the wearable devices mentioned above, there are other utility tools that enable other aspects of the situational awareness for the responders as well. CompanySix and Lumineye are illustrative examples of hardware-driven solutions that allow the responders access to information and views indoors without physically diving in themselves. CompanySix develops a portable device with high-torque motors and a high-resolution camera that can be maneuvered remotely. Purpose-built for first responder use cases, their product can provide critical insights into an area that may be filled with smoke and potential explosives that may hinder responders’ ability to see or enter. Lumineye, similarly, builds wall-penetrating radar devices to help first responders identify people and threats through walls. With their sensors, Lumineye’s Lux products can triangulate to detect a person inside and also track his/her relative movement.

Need for Connectivity

The responders’ workflows are now inundated with new technologies that can effectively transform their ability to understand, communicate, plan, and respond accordingly from the moment an incident occurs. However, all these solutions operate under the assumption that connectivity is not a lingering issue. In fact, looking back at the history, the during and after the unfortunate 9/11 attacks, there had been several communication failures resulting from traffic overload.

Even outside the anomaly events, connectivity is critical simply because no one can afford things to go awry because “there was bad internet” i.e., preventable technological issues in this day and age. Put another way, all of the already-available and developing technologies around first response essentially call for the need for connectivity at the infrastructure level that seamlessly works in any situation, at any given location.

From an actual implementation perspective, it’s apt to leverage the truck as a central connectivity hub because that’s where a lot, if not the majority of data activities will take place. As technology and devices that are used at emergency scene (whether by an individual, truck, drone, dashcam) proliferate, that data needs to be transmitted, stored, downloaded, accessed/viewed by others. And in areas where infrastructure is down, or just lacking, it’s imperative connectivity isn’t a bottleneck in those scenarios.

The future of the fire service will inevitably involve incorporating a number of hardware and software solutions with rich data that can better equip responders and fire chiefs alike to make swift, informed decisions for optimal execution of live incidents. To enable this, however, better connectivity can’t just be a nice-to-have. It’s imperative the future of response starts and ends with the most resilient network possible.