First Responders Discuss Advances in Tech Since 9/11

There were no smartphones or social media sites like Facebook and Twitter before 9/11.

by Jessica Pounds, Cleburne Times-Review, Texas / September 13, 2016
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(TNS) - When terrorists attacked New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, technology was quite different than it is today.

There were no smartphones or social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Most people were just getting their clunky cellphones and only had dial-up internet in their homes since high speed access wasn’t affordable. People were still relying on newspapers, the radio and television solely for information.

Johnson County Emergency Management Director Jamie Moore said much has changed since that time, both for residents and first responders.

“Technology makes us more efficient in our responses,” he said. “The key is figuring out how to utilize it most effectively. There’s a lot of technology out there so it’s finding the pieces that will work in your community that are affordable and then implementing those pieces.

“Some of the things that we’ve done in Johnson County that we didn’t do back on Sept. 11 or prior to that is utilization of smartphone apps. We have developed a smartphone app that allows the citizen to look at a map and see exactly what’s going on in Johnson County at any specific time that they’re looking at it.”

Since 9/11, Moore said the use of smartphones to obtain and disseminate life-saving information has proliferated.

“Now everybody has a smartphone — even the elderly have them — and so they can download our app and in real-time see where the structure fire is, where it is flooding, what streets did the tornado effect, where there is a law enforcement incident or where the roads are closed,” he said. “That’s all the information that somebody might want to use to help themselves and/or their families make emergency decisions.

The Emergency Ops Center app can be downloaded for free through the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Moore said social media has also been a game changer since the development of Facebook in 2004.

“That’s where people are getting their primary source of news,” he said. “So we’re trying to engage the public where they’re at, whether it’s on their phone with an app or their home computer on social media, and provide them information so they can make decisions for themselves.”

From the first responder side, Moore said emergency personnel are always trying to implement technology to help in their decision-making.

“Our use of drones provides real-time information to command staff persons making decisions on where we move these fire trucks or we move the law enforcement folks,” he said. “Having that technology and then being able to see a better picture of what’s occurring in real time and be able to move those resources makes a difference in our response.

“That makes the difference of how fast we get that fire put out. It makes a difference on where we move our law enforcement officers to engage whatever threat might be happening. It makes a difference in our ability to respond effectively and so we we’ve embraced this technology and we utilize it almost on a daily basis in some form whether.”

Drone pilot Garret Bryl of Joshua said he believes if first responders were able to access the use of drone technology during the terrorist attacks there would have been less casualties.

“During 9/11 as we all know and sadly, we had many first responders die,” he said. “I’m not just talking about the men and women who ran up the stairs to try to find people, but the ones who died afterwards who dug in the rubble and died of cancer. With modern technology we could do a whole lot of what those guys were doing without having to be right at the scene.”

Bryl said instead of trying to send people in blindly, you can now assess the scene from your command.

“Before all we could do is put police and firefighters all over the ground,” he said. “Now with higher risks like that you can have true bird’s eye view and stay at your command while keeping an eye on the scene.”

Bryl has used his personal drone to assist rescue workers locate victims during flooding, maintain emergency personnel accountability, conduct rapid storm damage assessments and assist police with searches.

Although using new technology is exciting, Bryl said the most important part is being properly trained.

“In the end what it all comes down to is we will always need firefighters to do what they do best,” he said. “But if we keep them out of hazardous environments by providing that perspective it is just a game changer.”

Bryl said not all emergency service personnel are on board with using drones in their line of work, but hopes some of the common concerns — such as invasion of privacy — will soon dissipate with increased education and training.

“One of the challenges we are facing is the old school mentality of ‘We are just going to keep saving people the way we always have’ and we need to overcome that,” he said. “A lot of times, the departments don’t realize the potential for drones and how much it can help their department, whether it is police or fire or search and rescue.”

Cleburne Fire Chief Clint Ishmael said since 9/11, air packs have improved, increasing the survivability of firefighters.

“When a firefighter goes into a fire, they go into it blind,” he said. “The mask on the [self-contained breathing apparatus] is only made to protect them from the smoke.”

Ishmael said handheld thermal imagers ­— devices that visualize hot spots — were new in 2001, but since then technology has made it possible to combine them with the mask on SCBAs.

“They are now able to get thermal imagers built into the mask of the air pack so when our firefighters scan the fire they are able to see victims that need to be rescued, furniture that you need to get around and hot spots that need to be extinguished,” he said. “Although we don’t have them in Cleburne right now, every firefighter will eventually have a thermal imager in their mask for a head’s up display.”

The thermal imaging system works by detecting infrared heat, and then transmitting this information into the in-screen display. Points of extremely high heat — which could be likely to explode into fire — glow bright red on the screen, allowing users to know which areas to avoid.

The display is positioned below the user’s eyeline, allowing them to look down into it when they want to see thermal imaging, but otherwise does not impair their vision.

“This technology is just now starting to hit the market,” Ishmael said. “We lose firefighters in the U.S. every year because they get lost or disoriented from the smoke. This will help save lives.”

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©2016 the Cleburne Times-Review (Cleburne, Texas)

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