Alerting the Public

Another transportation system being developed by two retired firefighters will interface with smartphones and GPS systems to alert drivers when an emergency vehicle is approaching. Drivers today are less aware of approaching first responders due to better insulation in vehicles and enhanced audio systems, said Juan Gutierrez, a retired Denver firefighter and president of B&C Electronic Engineering.

“Emergency vehicles show up out of nowhere and all of a sudden people get scared to death and try to do the best they can,” Gutierrez said. “But by the public not getting out of the way, we’re increasing our response times. It’s causing a lot of accidents across the United States, many of them fatal.”

Gutierrez and Vice President of Engineering Carl Johnson are creating 911 Emergency and Traffic Alerts (911ETA), which use automatic vehicle locators already installed in many emergency vehicles and tie that information to personal navigation devices and smartphones. “We know your location and we know the location of that responding vehicle, and we sort of combine the two,” said Johnson, who retired from the fire department in July.

911ETA interfaces with a department’s computer-aided dispatch system, and will be a downloadable application people can install on their GPS or smartphone. The app, which isn’t publicly available yet, maintains a 1,000-foot bubble around the person’s vehicle. If an emergency vehicle enters that bubble, an audible alert tells the driver what direction responders are approaching from.

Gutierrez and Johnson want to make sure this technology benefits everyone. “After meeting with and speaking to people in the deaf community, it became very clear that this is the only — and first — device to really get them ample notification of emergency vehicles,” Gutierrez said. In addition to an audible message, smartphone alerts will have a distinct vibration pattern so the user can distinguish the alarm from a phone call.

The West Metro Fire Protection District in Colorado has beta tested 911ETA since September 2010. The district’s chief, Doug McBee, said it has tested well on a number of smartphones and hasn’t been intrusive on the computer-aided dispatch system.

The company, Gutierrez said, is preparing to offer the app to the public in the West Metro District’s area, and B&C is working with vehicle manufacturers, and cell phone makers and carriers to automatically include the technology in in-car GPS systems and smartphones.

“If the public knows where we are and they know how we’re responding, hopefully they will take appropriate action,” McBee said, “and it won’t be right when we’re on top of them that they finally realize they have a fire truck directly behind them.”

Like-Minded Thinking

These two systems have at least one similar tool in mind for the future: A real-time map that will show first responders the location of other emergency response vehicles, Gutierrez said, so they can see whether they’re convening at the same intersection.

Head, from the University of Arizona, said research must be done on human factors, like how to make drivers aware of the information. But it would be possible to display the information to increase safety. “The driver of a fire truck is a very busy individual, and their vigilance is looking out for traffic and doing the task of driving,” he said. “Looking over at a computer display or something may not be part of their job; we may have to have somebody else on the vehicle helping them. We’re not sure about all that yet.”

These two projects provide insight into the future of public safety for government and the public. Adding technology to transportation systems and taking advantage of existing technology can provide efficiencies and new ways of thinking for emergency vehicles.

Elaine Pittman Elaine Pittman  |  Managing Editor

Managing Editor Elaine Pittman has nearly a decade of experience in writing and editing, having started her career with The Coloradoan daily newspaper in Fort Collins, Colo. Elaine joined Government Technology in 2008 as a copy editor. She can be reached via email and @elainerpittman on Twitter.