First Responders, as a group, have a unique relationship with technology. The ability to apply technology to fitness, training activities, and established procedures in the first responder field allows for the integration of many technological developments into every day practices. Fingerprinting was initially used to enforce contracts, for instance, and police radar was an adaptation of military technology developed to measure the sink rate of landing amphibious aircraft. First responders make better use of some technologies intended for a different consumer audience, or have the patience to wait for ideas dismissed as science fiction 20 years ago and turn them into viable tools, such as augmented reality used for training, GIS technology to solve crime, and drones to fight fires.
Much of the current excitement around wearable technology in fields like firefighting, emergency medical services, and law enforcement draws from this patience and past success. With enough time to iron out the technical, financial, and bureaucratic details surrounding them, off-the-shelf wearable gadgets and purpose-built tools—along with the software that runs on them—have a chance to realize their full potential.
Wearables are not new to first responders
At some level, every tool on a modern police officer’s belt or firefighter’s pack fits the definition of “wearable technology.” Each piece of equipment was at one point considered cutting-edge, with early adopters paving the way for eventual widespread use.
Take the standard set of handcuffs attached to a police officer’s hip. Though as common as badges and walkie-talkies now, their story involves a century of development to become ubiquitous. From its beginnings as shackles reserved for the worst offenders, handcuffs evolved into the precision-engineered tool of the trade we see today. This same pattern of invention and improvement marks the history of every tool that an emergency responder might don on a belt loop or backpack.
All of these tools are designed for constant contact. Use in the field is a critical factor in their design, and each helps first responders accomplish specific tasks that used to be much more difficult to complete. Whether breaching the door of a burning home with a Halligan bar or using GPS-chipped wristwatches to ping their current location to a remote command center, first responders are able to do their jobs more efficiently and safer when these tools are always at arm’s reach.
If there is a significant difference between the tools of yesteryear and today’s silicon-baked gadgetry, it is in the acquisition of these modern devices. While there may come a time when new gadgets will line market shelves like so many CB radios, there is little question that wearables will need to offer first responders cost-effective solutions to achieve widespread adoption.
Technology companies tasked with filling this niche face challenges beyond simply discovering and designing uses. Perhaps the biggest challenge arises from the extreme punishment first responders can deal their gear.
As a rule, electronics aren’t great at handling abuse, like drops or exposure to water and smoke. Devices that can endure rougher handling are often bulkier than commercial versions, thanks to beefier plastic casing and other durability-enhancing measures. Wearables cram many sensitive components into small form factors and leave them further exposed to the environment. Manufacturers of cellular phones and tablets are still searching for a sweet spot between usability and durability.
This need for durability stems from a larger requirement of continual performance. Where for the average user a damaged phone may result in a missed call or highway exit, technology failure is a much more serious problem for first responders when lives are at stake. Slow or poor performance can delay reactions from rescuers trained to make every second count. In the field, seconds wasted on waiting for a mission-critical device may literally be the most important moments in a victim’s life.
The continued advancement of head-mounted wearables like Google Glass™ wearable computing device illustrates this challenge. In theory, having digital information visible over a view of the real world would be revolutionary. Firefighters could use a high-tech rebreathing mask to guide them through a smoke-darkened building, with integrated heat- or pulse-finding technology outlining any living thing in their path. Without stopping to look down at a phone, EMTs could navigate through a mazelike apartment complex or around roadway obstacles as they race towards a call. Patrol officers could scan people they pull over with facial recognition technology, searching for outstanding warrants without ever seeing an ID.
There is no shortage of augmented reality (AR) apps for consumers right now, with uses ranging from gaming to interactive tour-guiding and beyond. Mature applications for first responders, however, are lagging behind. Considering the crucial role wearable devices would immediately take in any first responder’s playbook, it is fair to say a wait-and-see approach is better than committing to a given technology before it’s ready.
Funding remains a roadblock to accelerated adoption
The disruptive potential represented by burgeoning technology attracts interest from influential organizations. Some measures—often legally-mandated—are extending the adoption of wearables like bodycams to additional departments. Other initiatives are trying to spur further innovation and foster production of next-generation high-tech tools.
Of these, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) EMERGE program may be the most visible, wielding the most influence to create change in the industry. EMERGE funds and supports private-sector technological advancement around a theme. For 2016, the focus was wearable technologies. By building up programs that seek to develop “body-worn electronics, advanced sensors, and integrated voice and data communications embedded in responders’ gear,” DHS is pushing a breed of technology closer to real-word deployment.
Development involves more than creating a groundbreaking new technology, however. Researching ways to reduce material costs—and thus price points for end-user organizations—is equally important. The recent top-down push in law enforcement to adopt body-worn cameras can inform the next wave of new technology.
While there is little question that wearable cameras can positively impact policing—a 2012 study, for instance, saw use of force drop 50 percent with “ten times [fewer] citizens’ complaints” during a pilot study for a California department—the issue is less about efficacy than financial efficiency. Current funding of body cams drives acquisition of the devices and training of officers to use them properly. It also includes support for long-term storage plans, which is one of the challenges of adoption that is easy to overlook.
Funding also requires some in-kind investment at a time when many budgets are shrinking. Larger police organizations may be able to foot the bill for equipping their forces, on top of recurring data storage costs, but smaller departments will have trouble securing that additional funding. Lacking the prerequisite technical resources (both human and hardware), agencies may not be prepared to support an infrastructure to manage the deluge of digital video that comes with continual recording. If a holistic view of the technology does not include support for its ongoing success, the up-front investment in technology could be wasted.
These concerns aside, even technologies with disruptive potential have to start somewhere. For technologists among first responder ranks, it is an exciting time to be on the frontlines. A pending explosion in consumer tech, combined with funding initiatives to prime its development, means that firefighters, EMTs, and police officers are on the cusp of innovation that can improve how they do their jobs. As processing power grows and production costs shrink, organizations can begin to upgrade their technological infrastructures to help save more lives.