Envisioning the Future of First Response

Is it possible to predict the future needs of first responders? A DHS-sponsored project thinks so.

by Lucien G. Canton / June 29, 2017

How do you coordinate the activities of numerous independent organizations who can’t share information among themselves? Emergency managers face this problem daily. But we are usually dealing with organizations that at least share some common ground. What if, for various reasons, our organizations were unable to tell each other what they were working on?

This was the problem facing Kristin Heist, director of Product Experience for Continuum Innovation, a global innovation design firm. For over a year, Heist has spearheaded a joint effort of Continuum, Pacific Northwest Laboratory and the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate to define a future vision for first responder tools, clothing, technology and support systems. Because companies are not like public agencies, they cannot share proprietary information among themselves without sacrificing comparative advantage and risking profit. Heist’s approach to the problem is the same we use: Create a shared vision. The lack of a shared vision kept companies from recognizing how their products could be adapted for public agency use or used in collaboration on joint ventures. Further, this lack of a shared vision meant that problems were viewed as technological without factoring in the needs of first responders and the reality of field operations. Companies often development products on their perception of need rather than on actual need.

Heist and her team decided to create a vision for what first responders would be using 15 years in the future. This period was chosen so that current technology could be leveraged while still allowing time for increased research and development. The team began where most projects do: They conducted a series of interviews with first responders. However, the next phase was truly inspired. Instead of just reporting the results, as is common, the team used the results to construct prototypes of the envisioned equipment. These prototypes were shown to first responders who provided recommended changes. You can find the results in a series of videos on the project website.

Will this vision hold true for the future? Visions, especially where technology is concerned, can change in unexpected ways when they meet reality. But this vision has several things going for it: 1) The project is based on a real assessment of the needs of first responders, and 2) the prototypes have been vetted by the field personnel who will have to use them. While not all the technology is available yet, the project team believes that everything developed is within the reach of current technology. There’s still a lot of work to do, but having a vision of what that future could look like brings us a lot closer to making this vision a reality.