Integrating IoT Devices to Help First Responders Save Lives

Cities that adopt IoT tech could reap big benefits. A network of connected sensors and devices can reduce the severity of accidents or eliminate them entirely, like smart cars that intelligently avoid impacting one another.

by Matt Johnson / April 18, 2019
In this July 2, 2018, photo, traffic moves on the old Gerald Desmond Bridge next to its replacement bridge under construction in Long Beach, Calif. The new Gerald Desmond Bridge at the nation’s second-busiest port isn’t just a crucial route for cargo trucks and Southern California commuters - it’s a concrete-and-steel science experiment for engineers and seismologists. It’s slated to open next year. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) AP/Jae C. Hong

Smart cities are the wave of the future, and the technologies that enable them are expected to become a $135 billion market by 2021. That’s an increase of $55 billion since 2018, according to the International Data Corp.

When people think of the Internet of Things, (IoT), the consumer devices that come to mind range from useful gadgets, like smart thermostats, to gadgets that are currently more of a novelty, like smart toasters. Behind the scenes, however, there is a whole class of IoT technology that promises to not only improve the quality of life for residents, but also save them.

For first responders, the prospect of smart traffic lights is a welcome change. By operating in conjunction with GPS technology in response vehicles, smart traffic lights can help first responders easily avoid traffic congestion and safely reduce response times.

Sensors that monitor the structural integrity of buildings, bridges, sidewalks and roads can improve safety by detecting issues before they cause an accident. With preventive maintenance, cities can avoid the costs associated with everything from minor injuries caused by an uneven sidewalk to major car wrecks or other fatal accidents.

Delving into the data

While sensors can improve safety in a plethora of ways, many city officials are rightfully concerned that the massive amounts of data collected by IoT devices might not be entirely actionable. They're also concerned about the potential of IoT devices stretching already-overburdened systems to their limit.

The capability of the Apple Watch to detect falls is one great example of an innovative IoT device that could be more than the health-care system bargained for. While you could certainly argue that the technology has the potential to save lives, it might also drive an excessive number of 911 calls when they aren't actually warranted if something malfunctions. With perhaps millions of the devices in a large city, it's easy to see how the issue could spiral out of control and flood emergency call centers with false alarms.

There are two main problems standing between city officials and IoT adoption. The first is the issue of integrating new technologies within existing systems, and the second is figuring out how to ensure devices collect useful data.

IoT advantages

In spite of the difficulties with integration, the cities that do adopt IoT tech stand to reap big benefits. A network of connected sensors and devices can reduce the severity of accidents or eliminate them entirely, such as smart cars that intelligently avoid impacting one another.

Sensors can also provide an incredibly rich picture of what's happening when an emergency does occur. A smart watch might be able to provide paramedics with patient vitals before they've even arrived on the scene, or a fire department might be able to use sensors to determine whether a building has been fully evacuated.

Many of the most groundbreaking IoT technologies have yet to be invented, but the data gathered by IoT devices is already helping city officials use their resources more effectively. For example, officials can effectively distribute Amber Alert information to an entire population, and apps such as Waze show transportation officials valuable traffic data so they can reduce bottlenecks.

No matter the city, IoT devices have the potential to improve safety, efficiency and quality of life for residents. To speed up the pace of adoption and make the most of IoT tech, follow these steps:

Look for IoT opportunities

The IoT boom shows no sign of stopping, and the technologies powering the devices are becoming more and more capable. Look for ways these devices can improve day-to-day operations while simultaneously adopting strategies to mitigate the new risks they present.
IoT security can be a complex subject because there isn't just one single IoT security solution. Instead, securing the IoT involves a whole new ecosystem, a combination of cybersecurity and physical security.

Like other systems, IoT security involves lots of preparation. Conduct risk assessments and build processes that respond effectively to those risks. Prepare your organization for IoT-specific breaches and prioritize accordingly. Spend the most time focusing on the most likely scenarios.

Partner with tech companies

There are an exciting number of advancements in the consumer IoT sphere, but that doesn't mean legacy emergency response systems are irrelevant. The key is to find companies to partner with that can bridge the gap between new IoT tech and old legacy systems.

Focus on partners that can enable you to benefit from IoT data immediately without calling for significant changes in technology or processes. The criteria is important because it lets you learn what you need and what you don't without requiring large, risky investments in time or money.

The partnership between the city of Chicago, the Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago is a great example. Together, the three organizations launched the Array of Things — a network of interconnected sensors spread throughout the city that provide information on issues like air pollution and climate.


Engage the community

When residents are looking into unfamiliar IoT technologies that are designed to keep them safe, they often look to public safety officials for guidance. To offer a high level of expertise, take the time to familiarize yourself with emerging consumer safety technologies. Then, help citizens get the facts they're looking for while fighting the spread of misinformation.

Attend community forums. If none are available, look at online message boards. Make it a point to spark thought-provoking discussions in whatever medium makes the most sense. At the very least, you'll learn how resident expectations are changing, and the community will recognize that you intend to be a progressive and forward-thinking agency.

Implementing new technologies requires residents to adopt a forward-thinking approach. It's not always easy to instill, but the benefits can be well worth it. Engage as many residents as possible in your discussion, and don't give up when some of them refuse to listen to your advice. When their neighbors decide to follow it, many outliers will start to come around.


Open a dialog with key players

It's difficult to think about, but schools, hospitals, event venues and large companies are all potential mass-casualty locations. Talk with the individuals in these places about how smart devices can be used to reduce risk and assist emergency responders in the event that something were to happen.

App-based solutions, for example, are informing first responders when they arrive at the scene of a disaster, ensuring they have the situational awareness they need to perform their jobs safely and effectively. Schools, offices and other organizations are relying on similar tools to keep the lines of communication up and running when the worst happens.

To expand the adoption of IoT safety technologies, talk to those who aren't yet utilizing them. You might be surprised how many people still don't know these solutions exist. Let them know about the available options, and most leaders will see the improved safety capabilities these technologies can deliver.

The IoT is here to stay, and devices in the consumer space are enjoying rapid adoption. To make the most of the IoT's capabilities, however, city officials must start to prioritize adoption on a larger scale. With a forward-thinking approach, leaders can ensure their cities are on the forefront of this wave of technological innovation.

Matt Johnson is the chief operating officer of Noonlight, a connected safety platform and mobile app. Noonlight delivers help from emergency services when needed and peace of mind when it’s not at the click of a button and by connecting smart devices to deliver automatic safety.