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Addressing First Responders' Lack of Access to Technologies

A Short Recap of Smart Firefighting Podcast Episode 88: Data, Location Tracking & a CTA for All Smart Firefighting Innovators with David Wild


SFF Guest David Wild

“Not all data is useful,” noted David Wild, but first responders do not have the opportunities to draw from all the handy data and technologies out in what is universally known as the “Internet of Things.”


Wild works to bring modern data and informational technology to prepare for and prevent crises while simultaneously achieving more scalability, equity and overall improved recovery for first responders. His podcast show Digital Resilience, book Personal Digital Resilience Handbook and blog dive into how to personally use technologies in a robust, reliable and secure manner.

In 2019, while a professor at Indiana University's Ludy School of Informatics, Computing & Engineering, Wild founded and was titled as the Director of the Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab which focuses on discerning how to utilize such profound technologies in accordance with developing industry-focused innovations that “help the people who help us when things go wrong:” emergency, crisis, disaster and medical responders, humanitarian aid, environmental activists, etc.


Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab

Since Wild has additionally served as an EMT for the past decade, he has witnessed firsthand the intense frustration first responders endure due to their lack of access to good technologies.

“I think the Lab was born out of my personal frustration, that lack of technology for first responders,” Wild commented. “These people are trying to save our lives, so when things go wrong they should have the best technology, not the worst technology...when I’m out on runs as an EMT, I think, ‘This is a disaster - there’s nothing here!’ So, let’s bring technology to first responders.”

The problem is, however, that technology developers do not understand nor try to understand the constraints and needs of first responders, often designing something that requires a huge amount of cognitive effort, a reliable WiFi connection or is too distracting for the job at hand. Transforming already successful human-computer interaction into tools that first responders can actually use is the core mission at the Lab, accomplished via training technology developers how to design with first responders in mind.

The Lab’s training adheres to a simple method: “For every ounce of introducing technology into a first responder’s life, there needs to be ten pounds of research and testing - and testing again.” According to Wild, testing (and testing again) assists technologists in comprehending the full context in which the technologies can be used and who it can be used by.

One of Wild’s university classes teaches how to focus attention on the simple yet consistently-overlooked limitations first responders face, such as their need to wear gloves when using touchscreens or their high-stress environments. The essence of the class is to show student technologists how to, “introduce technologies in ways that somebody is not going to die if it does not go well.” The class includes lessons about table topics and appropriate device sizes as well as contextual inquiry sessions with first responders themselves, allowing the students to gather a hands-on yet personal frame-of-reference. “It's so important for everyone [reading] to have conversations with firefighters, EMTs, police, law or whomever to really put yourself in their shoes and understand what a day in their life is like,” noted host Kevin Sofen.

“The Internet of Things” & Consumer Tech

The “Internet of Things,” as hinted earlier, is made up of pervasive devices / internet owned by average individuals; the majority of people own a cell phone - many with Bluetooth - so getting access to that phone and Bluetooth data could potentially aid in finding the location range of missing victims, for example. The public’s devices then “spew out” data in various ways, consequently offering various options for what can be done with the data which - as exemplified in the above example - can be incredibly advantageous for first responders.

Unfortunately, though, for every device specifically designed for first responders, “there’s 10,000 other devices that could provide useful information in context,” but are not available for first responders’ use. The first responder market is not a mass market and, therefore, “not big enough for the Googles of the world to really care about,” forcing the first responder industries to undergo the “infrastructural drift” - or to revert backwards to the “old ways.” For instance, firefighters commonly use a GPS to get efficiently to a scene, but their ability to efficiently navigate neighborhoods proves crucial when the connection falters or the server goes down. “The Bloomington fire department still makes people learn the mapbooks,” offered Wild, “because if they don't do that, when this GPS thing goes away, they’re going to be screwed.”

There are, of course, companies that develop devices intended for first responders specifically - such as Motorola - yet their price tags feel unattainable for the majority of departments. Wild is committed to bridging the gap between first responder and consumer technologies via adopting new methods to utilize consumer technologies in reliable ways.

“One thing we've been looking at is how first responder technology relates to consumer technology that's currently out there," Wild stated, "and how to potentially use it to get situational awareness.”

Kevin, SFF’s host, added that applications like Uber and Lyft “can know exactly where I am, give me the exact timing coordinates and [Uber Eats] can know exactly when my food is being made, where it is, when it's gonna be here and how it's gonna get to me,” yet all the data turns into noise, preventing first responders from deploying those same technological principles.

The issue then becomes filtering out the noise as a “triage exercise on the data source” to find out what data can actually be transformed into actionable steps that improve first responders’ jobs. To be able to research the overarching problem that must be solved, Wild always asks, “what is a source we can’t use now but think we’re going to be able to five or ten years from now?” From there, he goes on to research, design, test, test and test innovations to discover what works and does not - but “there’s a whole lot of work that goes in between.”


Learn More from David Wild

To find out more about Wild’s innovations and Crisis Technologies Lab, his efforts towards providing geolocation and tracking to first responders and how it will parlay into a five phase competition starting around September and October 2021, listen to Smart Firefighting podcast’s EpisodIe 88: Data, Location Tracking and a Call-to-Action for All Smart Firefighting Innovators with David Wild on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts from!