A new effort to pair tech startups with the needs of the fire service
In the early 2000s, when I was a fire chief, I understood the importance of supporting innovation for the fire service. With evolving changes in technology, the built environment, and our communities, we had to look beyond what existed to do our jobs. We supported our firefighters’ participation on NFPA standards committees and, as one of 28 national urban search and rescue teams, our staff played an up-close role in the development of specialized training and equipment to meet the complex needs of responders to urban search and rescue events.
In keeping with the tradition of supporting innovation, I took part in a recent event in Washington, D.C., called the EMERGE Accelerator Program for Wearable Tech for First Responders. The event matched first responders—law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical departments—with startup wearable technology companies looking to reach new markets and get input on their ideas. The sponsors, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Center for Innovative Technology, a venture collaborative called TechNexus, the Pacific Northwest National Lab, and the Science and Technology Directorate, selected the participating startups from more than 200 that belong to a small business incubator.
In many cases, first responders were not necessarily the sector that these startups originally envisioned as their market, but these companies recognized that what they had developed could be useful in that area. Our role was to listen to their business pitch and provide feedback on whether there was a potential fit for their technology in the responder realm.
Several presenters had programmable LED lighting for apparel. Others introduced wearable technology that could provide real-time monitoring of vital signs that linked to health databases. One company presented technology that managed data integration and security for wearable devices. While I was impressed by what I saw, there were also some notable absences of products I hope can one day be developed, such as a product that offers a solution to the “Z axis within a meter” challenge, so that incident commanders can track in real time which floor of a building their responders are on. As I listened to a number of the presentations, I saw great engagement and interest from the first responders in attendance, who had a lot of thoughtful questions and comments on how the new technology might help solve problems they face daily.
I believe this exchange between private innovators and the first responder community is critical for both parties. In Virginia Beach, through our department’s frequent participation on standards committees and hands-on training, we had many good interactions with companies creating products for first responders. We had opportunities to test products and provide feedback without committing to a purchase. In many cases, manufacturers made modifications based on our feedback. Both parties were grateful to have opportunities like the department’s annual urban search and rescue school to test new technology in environments that were as close to real as possible.
It’s too early to know how the products developed by these startups will impact first responders, but next steps include working with EMERGE on a tech showcase at the upcoming NFPA Conference & Expo in Boston. NFPA can offer informed reviews to the Department of Homeland Security and other organizers of these events. Such collaboration is important because, while technology can provide solutions, it also can create challenges. Efforts must be made to combat the information overload that may come with the wave of new technologies, and we have yet to define the safety parameters for use of these technologies in hazardous environments. NFPA codes and standards could help address those challenges and many more.