First responders encounter dangerous, life-threatening situations on a regular basis. As they respond to natural disasters, accidents, criminal activity, and other incidents, public safety organizations need real-time information to inform their decision making and data that helps them focus their attention on areas where their services are most likely needed next.
Alex Cooper, Director of Government Strategy and Market Development at Zebra Technologies, says emerging technologies have the potential to enhance the ability for public safety organizations to respond to incidents and recover more quickly afterward.
Cooper points out that Internet of Things (IoT) technology applies to public safety on both micro and macro levels. For example, biometric sensors on a firefighter’s equipment can provide a remote command post with visibility into that individual’s health and status. “Firefighters are under a tremendous amount of physical stress,” Cooper says. “Being able to monitor their vital signs from a command post would give a commander the information they need to know when to call them back.” He adds that sensors can also tell a commander if a firefighter has fallen and to initiate search and rescue.
He adds that Zebra has a strong suite of IoT solutions that help first responders collect and aggregate device data in the field to gauge their status and show which need recharging, new batteries, maintenance, or repair.
On the macro level, IoT is helping to create smart cities, giving them the capability to monitor traffic flow and road conditions during a natural disaster, determining optimal emergency and evacuation routes.
Public Safety Networks and 5G
Dedicated networks are enabling reliable communications for first responders. Verizon’s public safety network gives priority and pre-emptive services to first responders to ensure they have access to broadband when and where they need it. Cooper adds that FirstNet’s Band 14 rollout is also underway. According to AT&T, which is building the FirstNet communication platform in a public-private partnership, the platform is dedicated to first responders and “bringing public safety a much-needed technology upgrade to help them connect to the critical information they need. Every day. And in every emergency.” Cooper comments that many people entering public safety roles are digital natives and are more comfortable with data than talking on a radio, which requires adapting workflows.
“These are trends that make it a favorable market for ISVs,” Cooper comments.
Streaming high-quality video is still very difficult over 4G. The lower latency and higher bandwidth of 5G will enhance video quality, as well as reliable push to talk applications over broadband. “The build-out of 5G will further enable those capabilities, and they’ll continue to be of interest to first responders,” says Cooper.
Although use of artificial intelligence (AI) in public safety is still on the cutting edge, Cooper explains that this technology is used in predictive firefighting and policing. “Using AI and analytics, they’re pinpointing locations where crimes may occur or where a fire might spread,” Cooper explains. “AI is starting to make an impact on public safety.”
Drones and robots
Drone and robots are used to surveil areas that aren’t safe for humans. “In the recent wildfires in Australia, firefighters sent drones to assess unsafe areas and to look for people in need of rescue,” Cooper says. “They extend an agency’s visibility.”
Similarly, he adds, “Robots can go places people can’t — or shouldn’t.” For example, if an overturned vehicle is pushed over an embankment during an accident, leaving only a few inches to check on passengers, a robot can navigate the terrain and provide remote feedback or video.”
“Agencies are just beginning to imagine the potential,” he points out.
AR and VR
Cooper comments that there is some interesting research in the use of augmented reality and virtual reality for public safety. A pilot slated for spring 2020 involves using AR to create 3D images of an environment filled with smoke or other substance that impairs visibility. The thermal imaging solution renders an image of the surroundings for a first responder using a heads-up display.
Cooper adds that Zebra just released its first heads-up display, although it’s not specifically designed for this vertical. “We’re definitely interested in working with ISVs who could adapt it for public safety,” he says, adding it could be adapted for form factors including glasses, a device that attaches to a mask and breathing apparatus, or that projects images above a vehicle’s dashboard.
The Pros and Cons of New Technologies
In addition to the features and functionality that solutions designed for first responders will provide, agencies will also find value in the data generated by public safety technology. One example, says Cooper, is using data for after-action reports. “We work with one ISV partner — who is an active fire department member — who created an app for firefighter accountability,” he says. “It tracks who is on the scene, how long they’ve been deployed and works with dispatchers of neighboring units that respond to create a log of the entire incident. It’s a massive time-saver versus taking a manual approach.”
Cooper reminds ISVs, however, that although there are many interesting applications for technology in public safety, “First responders’ jobs are not to test technology. It’s to save lives, prevent crime, and protect property.
“Technology, ideally, needs to be seamless for end users, which is difficult to accomplish. If it’s too overwhelming, provides too much data or results in carrying too many devices, they won’t use it,” he says. “Then it’s a lose-lose.”
“If you work in this space, you want to take advantage of emerging technologies, but keep workflows in mind,” he advises. As you develop solutions, Cooper says getting input directly from first responders before investing time and money in the development process and throughout the development cycle is vitally important.
Developing public safety technology is demanding, but rewarding, both in business growth and the contribution you are making to public safety.
“I encourage anyone who is interested to dig deeper and look at the opportunities,” Cooper says.
For more information on working with Zebra Technologies as a part of its growing ecosystem making first responders’ lives and jobs easier, learn more about Zebra’s PartnerConnect Program for ISVs and Public Safety webpage.