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Chicago Startup Gets $1.1M Contract to Develop Alert System for Emergency Responders

A text or a ping preceding lights and sirens could save lives.

With tens of thousands of collisions between emergency and civilian vehicles each year, the notice of flashing lights and sirens isn’t cutting it.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has awarded a $1.1-million contract to HAAS Alert, a Chicago-based startup, to answer the problem with mobile technology to help responding EMR vehicles warn approaching drivers, according to a news release. The contract directs HAAS to collect input from active and retired first responders nationwide via the Science and Technology Directorate's First Responder Resource Group, then design a solution to meet their needs and reduce collisions.

HAAS Alert Chief Operating Officer Noah Levens said the contract gives the company 12 to 18 months to develop new hardware — namely, a mobile advanced warning device (AWD) for responder-to-vehicle communication — and retool its existing software, which is being used by various fire, police and even towing and utility fleets in about 50 cities. The news release said HAAS Alert uses in-vehicle systems and smartphone apps to stream real-time safety messages to nearby phones and connected cars when emergency vehicles are approaching or on scene.

Levens said reporting on such collisions is inconsistent nationwide, but several studies demonstrate the problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records about 60,000 emergency vehicle collisions a year, and the National Fire Protection Association has reported that one in five firefighter deaths over the last decade occurred en route to or from a call.

Collisions are not only tragic but also potentially expensive, sometimes costing $1 million or more in litigation.

“Just having your windows up and doing another action, most of the time it’s a phone, can take the alert radius down from 1,400 feet to 200 feet, which means the average person has about four seconds to respond,” Levens said. “Four seconds to respond to a fire truck barreling down the road at 50 miles an hour blowing an intersection, that’s the problem.”

Stumping for HAAS Alert’s product, Levens pointed to a 2014 study by the University of Minnesota that AWDs reduce the odds of a crash by 60 to 90 percent.

“The thing with first response, historically, has always been, ‘Just make the lights brighter, change the flash patterns, make the sirens louder.’ We’ve maxed that out,” he said. “There are lawsuits now that first responders are losing their hearing because the sirens are too loud. … It’s time for something else.”

HAAS Alert’s new solution will supplement lights and sirens, not replace them, but exactly what it will entail depends on input from first responders. How the alert is displayed, how visual or sound-based it will be, what it will look or sound like — those details will depend somewhat on manufacturers of phones and cars, too. But Levens wants to coordinate with them to create an iconography for the alert, akin to a low-oil light or other universally recognized symbols in cars, and he said the alert radius will be adjustable.

Levens expects the alert will reach people through in-dash connections in newer vehicles, the navigation apps on their phones, and also through wireless emergency alerts and the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. The system will also issue alerts to other responders in the area.

“A lot of communities polled said that if they’re responding to an incident, there could be multiple types of departments from surrounding communities all converging on one location,” said Cory Hohs, CEO of HAAS Alert.

Levens said some fire truck manufacturers have already started building proprietary digital alert systems into their vehicles, and the NFPA is working on industry standards. With autonomous vehicles on the horizon, he said, soon it will be more important to notify vehicles of upcoming hazards than to notify drivers.

“What’s important about CV2X [cellular vehicle-to-everything] technology is … cars need to know this information prior to a camera or short-range sensor picking up this information,” he said.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.
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