The IoT’s Current and Future Role in First Response

The IoT’s Current and Future Role in First Response

September 2020:

The IoT’s Current and Future Role in First Response

Emerging technologies like IoT, AI, and 5G will deliver a future in which first responders have access to critical data when it matters most.

The IoT (Internet of Things) is improving first-response efforts in many ways, and, in the future, advances in AI (artificial intelligence), 5G, and other technologies will improve these efforts even more. Perhaps the IoT will unlock the potential to prevent some types of tragedies from happening in the first place. After the dust settles from a tragedy, it’s easy to look back at what went wrong during a response effort. In some cases, it’s painful to consider how a response effort could have benefitted had first responders been equipped with the technology they needed to access the right information at the right time.

Consider in April 2018, a high-rise industrial factory fire in Taoyuan City, Taiwan, which ended tragically. Upon arriving on the scene, firefighters entered the building to search for trapped workers, whose locations were unknown. Five firefighters died that night, along with two factory workers, and many more were injured. In 2007, a lone gunman carried out a senseless act of violence against students and faculty at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, killing dozens before taking his own life. In moments like these and too many others, first responders put their lives on the line to save others. Sometimes, their Herculean efforts cost their own lives. Other times, first responders’ valiant efforts are simply not able to prevent a situation from unfolding—at least not completely.

Terrorism, an increased number of active shooter incidents, and pandemics, alongside other issues and trends like urbanization and climate change all create an urgent need for first responders to be equipped and available to provide various types of emergency response at the drop of a hat—from stepping in during moments of sheer panic and terror, like they did during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, to providing relief to victims of a natural disaster, like they did during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

IoT Enhances First Response

Edward Chow, manager of the Civil Program Office at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center managed by the California Institute of Technology, says today’s first responders are faced with increasingly complex and dynamic situations, and it is vitally important that first-responder organizations be able to access data. “From everyday paramedics trying to respond to heart attack emergency calls to firefighters trying to save lives in a large-scale burning factories, IoT-connected devices could provide the realtime patient vital signs and lethal chemical gas information needed to save lives,” he says.

Under funding from the Dept. of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed AUDREY (Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction, and sYnthesis) technology for first responders. The AUDREY Hastings experiment, a cross-border U.S./Canada initiative designed to enhance future communication and decisionmaking for first responders, demonstrated how AI and situational awareness technologies could assist paramedics. As part of the experiment, Chow says: “The team demonstrated the AUDREY technology in firefighting, search and rescue, and paramedic scenarios, (and) is in the process of licensing the AUDREY technology to commercial companies for first-responder applications.”

Bill Schrier, senior advisor of FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority), says connected devices and IoT technologies can most certainly help ensure the safety of first responders. “For example, a physiological monitor—similar to a smart watch—can be worn by a firefighter. If it is connected to FirstNet, it allows a fire scene commander to monitor the firefighter’s heart rate or core body temperature and (know if he/she) needs to be rescued from an incident,” Schrier says. “These same monitors are used by law enforcement dispatchers to determine if an officer is running or under exertion—i.e., a stressful situation—and get her/him backup.”

FirstNet plays a critical role in the advancement of technology for public safety communications. Mandated by Congress, it is the only nationwide, high-speed broadband network specifically designed for public safety. The First Responder Network Authority provides oversight of the network, and AT&T ensures FirstNet delivers for first responders. “Our network separates public safety from commercial traffic and ensures they can get through even during times of network congestion,” explains Schrier. “FirstNet allows first responders to access IoT devices such as drone footage for search and rescue, live body camera footage, and dashcam recordings through a secure, reliable network built to meet their needs and connect them to critical information.”

"A physiological monitor can be worn by a firefighter. If it is connected to FirstNet, it allows a fire scene commander to monitor the firefighter’s heart rate or core body temperature ... "
Bill Schrier, FirstNet

George Brunemann is the CTO of Known Quantity Sensors, which has done proof-of-concept work with the Dept. of Homeland Security on using occupancy sensors as a way of locating and tracking people during emergencies. He says: “We demonstrated the ability to give crews information while in route to the event that allowed them to plan their building approach based on known places in the building where people were trapped.”

According to Brunemann, the main opportunities for IoT technologies to assist first responders are in the areas of communication and situational awareness—both before arriving on scene and during an emergency. For example, being able to start triage and assessment while on the way to the emergency allows first responders to be better prepared for what they will face when they arrive and proactively plan the most effective way to address issues.

Brunemann says this involves things like the ability to communicate with other leaders already on the scene or with people inside the building, see the site before arriving and get details on where/how many people are in danger, get details about who is in the building and possibly even identify victims and potential hostiles. “During the emergency, IoT (technologies) can coordinate and track movement, relay the latest information on where people are located, and give realtime updates on changes in the situation,” he concludes.

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The Future of First Response

New technologies offer a massive amount of information, but the key is to be able to process this information in an actionable way. What is useful? What needs to be acted upon right now? What if firefighters could know before they enter a building whether there were people inside? What if they had data available to them to let them know whether the building was about to collapse?

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Rob Huberty, cofounder and COO of ZeroEyes, says advanced sensors and emerging technologies have the ability to provide this information in realtime, allowing for more immediate, efficient, and effective action. “Instead of questioning decisions in after-action reports, we can provide information that could lead to better outcomes in a proactive manner,” he says.

ZeroEyes is an AI-enabled solution trying to take on a complicated and serious problem in the U.S.: gun violence. “Our approach is to give information before shots are fired,” Huberty says. “If we give critical time back to first responders, they have the ability to be proactive and prevent the shooting from ever occurring. This is more meaningful than second-guessing others or providing condolences after the fact. We view this as taking a meaningful step forward.”

To provide information proactively, ZeroEyes algorithms are constantly asking: Is there a gun in this image? If the answer is yes, the solution turns that data into an immediate response and creates the opportunity to act before tragedy strikes.

Active Shooter Incidents in the U.S.
From 2000 to 2018

Source: FBI

“We can make our cities safer with access to critical information in a timely manner,” Huberty says. “The possibilities for other (AI) solutions are massive. If we can take definitive questions and combine them, AI can be a force multiplier.”

Nick Nilan, director of public sector product development at Verizon, says first responders face countless challenges, but the most important one may be accessing the right information at the right time. He says 5G will be instrumental in providing first responders with this access. In fact, he says: “The convergence of 5G and edge computing will fundamentally transform public safety—from critical communications and situational awareness to virtual reality and drones, these technologies will enable life-saving capabilities that will empower those who protect and serve our communities.”

5G’s higher bandwidth and lower latency means faster data transfer speeds, which will allow first responders to process critical information more efficiently. Combined with 5G, edge computing will help first responders effectively implement emerging technologies such as mixed reality or AI-enabled devices for crisis response. As examples, Nilan offers connected ambulances for faster patient transport during emergencies and search-and-rescue drones that can reach inaccessible areas when it matters most.

“By combining the data gathered through IoT devices and smart sensors with 5G’s high bandwidth and low latency and edge computing’s advanced processing power, first responders can process mission-critical information more efficiently to inform realtime decisions,” Nilan explains. “For example, LTE-connected body cameras improve officer safety by providing realtime monitoring of situations and giving command staff the ability to route additional resources to officers responding to incidents. 5G and edge computing will also better enable intelligent video solutions that gather, analyze, and transmit video data for improved situational awareness and faster decisionmaking.”

  • 5 Trends Affecting Today’s First Responders

    • Urbanization
    • Artificial intelligence technologies
    • 5G networks
    • Autonomous vehicles
    • Increased active shooter incidents

The Verizon 5G First Responder Lab, in partnership with Responder Corp., identifies promising companies from around the world and gives them access to 5G technology to develop, test, and refine their public-safety solutions. “The 5G First Responder Lab is helping to drive the future of public safety forward by providing opportunities for startups and new companies to develop their solutions,” Nilan says. “The lab does more than just power the technology. By working directly with the public safety community, Verizon and Responder Corp. help ensure that the technology being tested and developed will meet real first responders’ needs.”

CHDS K-12 School Shooting Database

The K-12 school shooting database documents each and every instance a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week.


Source: Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS)

The future of first response in light of technology innovation won’t be without its issues. David Ihrie, CTO of the CIT (Center for Innovative Technology), says alongside traditional challenges first responders face are emerging challenges resulting from new technologies. “The more traditional challenges in emergency response are basically around situational awareness and communications,” Ihrie explains. “More recently, emerging-technology challenges include things such as intercepted communications or social media making response more difficult, harassment of responders with drones, increasingly advanced computer-based solutions that may make it more difficult to operate, and others have both increased the range of threats that responders face as well as increased the complexity of those threats.”

Ihrie also notes that the adoption of IoT technologies in first response are critically dependent on responder trust in the systems and the inclusion of regular training on their use. “Technologies that are designed to only be used in emergency situations are unlikely to provide much value because of issues related to trust and training,” Ihrie says. “That said, there is clear potential for (the IoT) to help in rapid identification of situations, in suggesting courses of action for both responders and civilians in emergencies, and in providing just-in-time expert information in some situations.”

The CIT is leading efforts to test prototypes of new technologies with responders across the country, and it is also acting as a thought leader to help understand and consolidate the lessons learned from these tests. The center also helps direct innovation so technology developers can respond to the sometimes-counterintuitive lessons that come out of actual field testing. With so many organizations and companies working toward a better future for first responders, there may come a day when technology can save the lives of first responders and civilians alike. It may even be able to prevent tragedy from striking at all.

“The big open question is how do we get there from here?” asks Ihrie. “Who is going to pay for widespread adoption so, for example, responders have a reasonable degree of assurance that they can easily access layout information from unfamiliar buildings? The answer that we have come to is what we refer to as ‘commercial first.’ For example, it is much easier to encourage a building owner to put in place occupancy sensors that will save energy and provide a return on investment over a short period of time than it is to say, ‘put in this specialized sensor that we hope will never sound an alarm.’”

Commercial-first implies that the relevant technologies must be useful on an everyday basis, not just in emergencies. During an emergency, the tech would then be able to switch to emergency mode, selectively making information feeds available to responders after some type of trigger occurs. This, along with investments in making sure responders trust the devices and solutions they’re working with and are well trained in how to use them, will be key strategies in achieving the desired future—a future in which the IoT can make critical data available to first responders when it matters most.

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Peggy and Reza Arghandeh, professor, the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, talk about the evolution of smart cities and what is coming next. He says on his daily walk he sees how he can have an impact on his community—from the local level to the global level.

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