Manuel Navarro has a relatively simple request. He would just like to know: Where is everybody?
“For years we’ve talked about knowing precisely where our firefighters are within an incident, and no one has come up with the best way to do that,” said Navarro, a division chief in the Menlo Park, Calif., fire department. He also serves on the technology council of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. “We go on the radio and say, ‘Do you have all your people?’ But we don’t know where those people are. They may not know it themselves. For us, that is a massive safety issue.”
For years technology has been promising to fix the issue but, like many in the first responder community, Navarro has been less than impressed. “Just about every firefighter has an iPad,” he said. “But if I get to an active incident and you have your nose down in the computer not watching what is going on, I’m going to be talking to you later. You aren’t there to take pictures and take notes.”
Now technology is taking a new turn. Supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the high-tech community has begun developing a new generation of devices that go far beyond laptops and tablets.
Referred to generally as the Internet of Things, the new wearable technologies integrate into firefighters’ existing suits, making available a range of sensors that can deliver vital data on the status of a rescuer in the midst of an unfolding event. Observers say the new wearables could dramatically alter the face of firefighting.
The catalog of wearables is growing fast, in part because this is an industry still very much in its infancy, one dominated by small startups. These devices are still finding their feet in the mainstream market and even more tentatively among emergency responders. Still, early offerings give a sense of where things are headed. Some of these include:
• puncture-detection sensors woven into fabric, so that if an officer is shot, a 911 call would go out automatically;
• a range of fabrics that generate electricity by the body’s own movements, keeping devices at the ready without the need to haul extra batteries and chargers;
• a mouth guard that serves as a communication device, using bone conduction to channel signals through the teeth and jawbone, conveying sound even in a noisy environment; and
• wireless camera and video capabilities built into eyewear.
One good example comes from CyberTimez, a Washington, D.C., company working on a solution to Navarro’s longstanding lament, that is, knowing a firefighter’s location. The company’s Cyber Trackz device, which should go to market this year, follows a rescuer’s trail in much the same way consumer exercise wearables help fitness buffs count their steps.
“Right now there are a lot of people [tracking location] from the outside in, using GPS, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth triangulation where beacons and sensors have to be dropped, and even then they can only determine where someone might be,” said CyberTimez CEO and co-founder Sean Tibbetts. By having the wearer passively broadcast location data, Cyber Trackz aims to make things simpler and more accurate.
Interestingly, the company did not start out in the emergency response business. In fact, its location tracking technology came to life as a means to help the disabled find their way home should they become lost or confused. This is a driving trend within firefighter wearables, this migration from the consumer space into the emergency realm.
There’s a market logic here that makes good business sense, but that has also worked against emergency responders’ ability to gain timely access to these tools.
The firefighting community is tremendous — some 30,000 fire departments according to the National Fire Protection Association. That’s a potential market of 1,140,750 firefighters — a hearty audience for anyone looking to augment the standard uniform with a helpful new piece of technology.
But there’s a snag. This market is wildly fragmented. Each department is an island, operating largely on its own and purchasing for itself from its own budget. For an entrepreneur this makes market entry logistically difficult, to say the least. There’s no central entry point, no consolidated way to reach out to all those potential customers.
Even if there were an easy way in, many entrepreneurs still would be wary of trying to introduce technology into a field that basically hasn’t changed the way it operates in the past 150 or so years.
Finally, even among entrepreneurs whose tools could greatly benefit emergency responders, the needs of firefighters are just not very strong on the radar. Dating sites? Absolutely. Taxi apps? Sure. “Entrepreneurs tend to solve the problems that they see, and first responder issues are not generally the problems that they are sitting around thinking about,” said Brendan Karp, who heads the Chicago venture capital firm TechNexus.
Karp has been helping to shift that mindset in recent months, as a partner in an ambitious wearables initiative led by the DHS.
DHS Steps In
Start asking around about firefighters and the Internet of Things and you will very quickly run into the name Robert Griffin. As DHS deputy undersecretary for science and technology, as well as a former fire chief with 20 years in local government, Griffin has drawn from his own experience to bring DHS leadership to local firehouses. “Everything that I do comes from the field,” he said.
Why would the DHS concern itself with the local fire department? As Griffin sees it, it’s all a continuum. Local security impacts the city, which influences the state, which drives the nation. “Homeland security is really about community security,” he said.
Griffin admits to thinking wearables were just a fad at first, but his mindset has come around and he now describes a range of ways in which the new tools could have helped him do his job out in the field, and could help others today.
Wouldn’t it be great, he said, if commanders could track the health and telemetry of firefighters in the heat of the fight, monitoring the well-being of rescuers even when those rescuers could be neither seen nor heard by conventional means? Or if they could have inexpensive, real-time 3-D monitoring of an interior space in the midst of a blaze? Or tools that could see beyond the infrared, to pick up a heartbeat or other sign of life from a kid who’s hidden in a closet or under the stairs?
All these may well be possible if the entrepreneurial community steps up. Griffin is working with technologists and investors to see that that happens.
Much of that effort comes in the form of the EMERGE wearable technology accelerator program. The initiative aims to attract entrepreneurs whose technologies might benefit the first responder community, including body-worn electronics, advanced sensors, protective equipment and embedded communications systems.
The program has offered mentoring opportunities to more than a dozen firms and held multiple demonstration days, where investors and entrepreneurs have come together to explore what might be possible. Organizers were looking not just for functionality, but also usability.
Tomorrow’s fire suit will have to be lean: First responders don’t want to have to carry any more than they do today. With this in mind, the makers of wearables are aiming to produce tools that are convenient, if not outright transparent, to the user. Small and lightweight, many are incorporated directly into the fire suit.
Among EMERGE participants, this included EnergyBionics’ energy-harvesting technology built into a watch, a NuCurrent wireless antenna as thin as 0.08 mm and BearTek Bluetooth-enabled gloves that let the wearer operate electronic devices.
In the effort to identify such products, DHS has teamed up with organizations like the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), which helped pull together the September 2015 Demonstration Day in San Francisco. “People were just blown away by the variety and quality of the companies we were presenting,” said David Ihrie, CIT’s chief technology officer.
Ihrie said the center will take input from multiple players to get these ideas off the drawing board and out into the hands of firefighters. Maybe FEMA could help by targeting UASI grants and other local spending in support of these technologies. The DHS can help by continuing to bring people together, and perhaps by establishing some forms of testing and certification, in order to ensure interoperability.
“What is an appropriate role for the government, what is an appropriate role for intermediaries like us? We don’t have all the answers yet, but we believe these are all very possible,” Ihrie said.
In the near term, EMERGE organizers would like to see prototypes in the hands of first responders to generate initial feedback. Griffin said that in those tests, companies will have to show not just the technological success of these products but also their market viability. “If we approach this just as a technology challenge, we fail,” he said.
In this case, market viability means in part the ability to smoothly insert that technology into working fire departments. As Griffin noted, commanders can’t just shut down their firehouses for a week or a month to train on a new technology. It has to happen seamlessly — and it has to work flawlessly the first time. At DHS, “we can work with industries to pilot those technologies, to allow them to continue to develop the technology so they have worked the kinks out by the time it is ready for mass release,” said Griffin.
Still, having a great product doesn’t ensure mass acceptance.
Firefighters are a conservative bunch. They train to be cautious in a rescue situation, and that same sense of prudence sometimes seems to dominate the firehouse mindset. They are rarely early adopters of technology, and it seems unlikely they will race to embrace the new wearables. How to get the new tools into ready hands? Griffin has a few ideas.
• Launch wearables in big fire departments. “People look to L.A., New York and Chicago as the thought leaders. So we start there and then build on that word of mouth,” he said.
• Consider form. Technology is supposed to be sexy, all rounded edges and sleek lines. The right form will help drive adoption. “It has to look like what you see on TV.”
• Hand it out first to urban search-and-rescue and other specialized teams with a keen interest, then let them play. “They take it, they break it, they change it and adapt it, and then they talk about it in the stations and everybody says, ‘Isn’t that neat?’”
• Skip the chiefs. Bring them in the loop, sure, but don’t expect them to leap out of their seats with excitement. Instead find a 20-year-old to test drive the stuff, then let the technology make its way around the station. “You work with the willing. You find the right person.”
Whether by these or other means, it’s virtually certain that wearables will be part of the firefighting arsenal sooner rather than later. Standard disclaimer for all high-tech stories: No, this is not science fiction.
“The future is coming really fast,” Ihrie said. “If you look at the convergence of the Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence, 10 years from now the world is going to look very different than it does now. Emergency response folks are going to be living in a very different world.”