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Responder Spotlight: Josh Dennis

Release Date: May 2, 2015

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) relies on experienced emergency response and preparedness professionals to guide its research and development efforts. The First Responder Resource Group (FRRG) fills that role. An all-volunteer working group, the FRRG helps S&T maintain focus on the top-priority needs of responders in the field. This new series will highlight several FRRG members, offering a glimpse into their daily responsibilities, as well as their ongoing support of S&T technology development.

josh dennis portrait Meet Chief Joshua Dennis, the District Chief in the Office of the Fire Commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department (CFD), the Planning Section Chief on the CFD’s Incident Management Team, Hazmat Response Duty participant and FRRG member. In his time with the CFD, Chief Dennis has served in a first responder capacity, working on fire companies from a diverse cross section of neighborhoods in Chicago and in the CFD’s Special Operations Division.

“I am the executive officer to a department of 5,000, and my job evolves on a daily basis, but my main function is to assist the commissioner in implementing programs, policies, and procedures,” he explained. “I work on whatever is most pressing at the time. The most important thing about my job is flexibility.”

As a member of the FRRG, Chief Dennis contributes to first responder engagement and receives helpful information by participating fully in FRRG meetings, webinars and Twitter chats, all of which allows him to be more effective in his work. He routinely provides input and feedback on FRG technology research and development, including the Cell-All technology.

“If you ask my opinion, I’ll give it, good, bad or indifferent,” he said. “Overall, I like hearing what’s out there. As a result, I try to be actively involved in anything that comes to me.” He said being at actual physical meetings to make connections, interact and see what’s out there is one of the most rewarding parts of the FRRG meetings.

“It’s not necessarily about the widgets as much as it is the discussions about the widgets and sharing what everyone’s doing to coordinate development efforts. That’s always positive. The FRRG allows me to save time specifically to interact with other first responders and learn about new technologies.” He also enjoys “being on the cutting edge of what’s possibly out there. It’s exciting and cool, and it’s definitely something that most people would be foolish to not want to be a part of.”

In June 2014, he attended the FRRG meeting in Washington, D.C. and plans to attend this year as well, explaining that it is important to attend in person where he can dedicate a week “to jump in, being able to touch stuff, it makes it a little more real.” Furthermore, Dennis notes it is more efficient because “trading documents back and forth using email is a lot different than having everyone in the room touching the same thing and bouncing things off of each other, that’s a lot more beneficial than everyone sitting in their own silos sending emails about the same topic to each other. Having a vigorous discussion on an issue bordering on an argument can bring out better things and brings people together from across sections.”

He attributes his career in fire service to luck, chance. Over 17 years ago, he had a general interest to become a firefighter, took the qualifying test with 35,000 other candidates, and was among one of the first groups to be called back. He served as assistant to the City of Chicago’s Chief Emergency Officer within the Office of the Mayor. There he oversaw major projects and was the Mayor’s Office liaison to both the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and the CFD. He was appointed District Chief in August 2010.

CFD is the largest fire department in the Midwest. Established before 1837, it is also one of the oldest major organized fire departments. In 2013, the CFD employed more than 4,500 firefighters and paramedics and received over 600,000 fire and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) phone calls. As one of the busiest departments within the United States, Chief Dennis explained, “fine tuning and implementing new ideas can be difficult. If we want to try something out or train the entire department, it can take months, whereas a small department can do that with relative ease. That’s a challenge. With our profession it’s important that everyone is on the same page. The reality of our situation doesn’t lead to quick innovation. We do the best we can under the circumstances, and we have to be good stewards of public resources.”

“In 2013 we got email. It’s allowed us to use multiple platforms. Since then, we have added Microsoft SharePoint to more quickly and efficiently share information. This allows us to send information to our members, instead of printing copies for each firehouse. We can now reliably gain access to pertinent information, and it’s helped us immeasurably in becoming paperless and modernized. The changes might not seem like much, but for a 5,000 person organization, it’s quite an undertaking.” He says his department will often borrow resources due to limited budgets, but what they count on more than anything is leveraging partnerships with S&T, local universities such as the University of Chicago and other entities to re-purpose technologies to use within their department.

josh dennis and a fellow responder look at building with a fire hose in front of it and wooden pallets to the side.
Observing the FINDER demo.

Chief Dennis was involved in the Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response (FINDER) demonstration at the FRRG meeting. FINDER is a radar-based technology with the ability to detect a human heart beat and can be set up from as far back as 100 feet from a rubble pile and can provide search results in less than a minute. Chief Dennis was asked what prompted him last year to invite S&T Program Manager John Price to Chicago to test FINDER in a fire capacity. “My thought was FINDER works great for the collapse scenario but I would love to know how this works as an application for actual urban fire-fighting and in all those different scenarios.” After the tests, Dennis concluded that FINDER “did not work perfectly in a fire scenario and wasn’t quite ready for residential firefighting, but we wouldn’t have known this unless we tried. It’s a terrific tool for collapse pile situations, and I’m excited to see what’s next.”

He also was involved in the Next Generation Multi-threat Textile Project lead by S&T Program Manager Bill Deso. The goal of this effort is to develop a garment that could provide protection against multiple threats (i.e., chemical/biological, blood splash resistance, and flame resistance). It is designed to have superior durability and to be part of a normal duty uniform. Chief Dennis received six prototypes (three jackets and three pants) in November 2014; his EMS team tested them by wearing the prototypes during their runs (up to 30) per day for about a month. They provided input on the testing of these garments and the project findings should be released later this year.

While the fire department is moving forward with new technology, Chief Dennis is a firm believer in using social media such as Twitter to engage with communities, track emergencies and communicate response efforts. “It’s the best way for us to disseminate information quickly,” he said “It’s also an easy way for us to help control an incident. We’ve had incidents where citizens tweet about smoke, and we are able to respond and clarify what’s being said, or to tell everyone it’s okay. We’ve become a reliable source of information, which helps with rumor control.”

Dennis has received more than 30 different emergency response certifications and endorsements and earned a Juris Doctorate from DePaul University. He received a Master of Science in Public Safety Administration from Lewis University in Illinois, where he taught issues and trends in the fire service, on the undergraduate level. He also received a Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School. In addition, he has guest lectured on emergency management and leadership issues at the University of Chicago and has received training in tactical rescue disciplines, Hazmat and weapons of mass destruction-related topics.

Through all his training, he remained interested in the implementation of new technologies for firefighters. When asked what his technology wish list would be in a dream world, he replied, “a weather machine, super throwing spider bots with sensors and cameras that can collect information within an emergency scenario, a widget to harness the internet and serve as a universal platform to collect data from equipment such as axes, hoses, temperature gauges, etc. Or a widget that allows you to know where first responders are at all times and how they’re doing.”

Check back soon for additional FRRG member spotlights. For more information on how to become a member of the FRRG, contact first.responder@hq.dhs.gov.

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Last Updated: 06/10/2024
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