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  5. Episode 3: The First Responder Group Doesn't Just Do Widgets

The First Responder Group Doesn't Just Do Widgets

Technologically Speaking. The Official S&T Podcast

Host Dee Saini sits down with fellow Seattleite Paul McDonagh to discuss the stories beyond the “widgets” and how Paul came to lead not only S&T’s First Responder Capability R&D portfolio, but also the First Responder Resource Group—where he was once a volunteer. Paul relives his journey from leading fellow responders as assistant chief of the Seattle Police Department to his arrival at S&T, where he now guides research priorities like pinpointing firefighter location to within one centimeter and helping those battling wildfires breathe easier. In this episode, you’ll hear Paul address some of the current challenges those on the front lines are facing (like COVID-19), responders’ operational needs, and real advancements in tech—including gloves that actually fit! 

Run time: 31:02
Release Date: August 3, 2022

Show Notes

Guest: Paul McDonagh, Portfolio Manager for First Responders and Disaster Resilience

Host: Deepak Saini, Media Strategist

[00:00:00] Deepak: Hi, I'm Deepak Saini. You can call me Dee, and I work for the Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate, or S&T as we call it, join me and meet the science and technology experts on the front lines keeping America safe. This is Technologically Speaking.

Welcome to this episode of Technologically Speaking. I'm your host Deepak Saini and I'm joined by Paul McDonagh Portfolio Manager for First Responder Disaster Resilience here at the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate. Welcome!

[00:00:35] Paul: Thanks for having me today.

[00:00:36] Deepak: Yeah, happy to chat with you. There's so much to cover and talk about. I'm really excited to hear about your career trajectory. So Paul did you grow up in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest?

[00:00:47] Paul: I did. My family moved out from south Chicago. They started out in San Francisco and then my dad moved up to the great Northwest and had the rest of his family up there. So, born and raised in the Seattle area.

[00:01:01] Deepak: Paul, that's great to hear from one tech city to the other. When you were a kid what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

[00:01:08] Paul: Oh, that hurts. Well let's see, started out as a superhero when I was super young. I was a big Spiderman fan and then obviously playing in the NFL,  but unfortunately my physical characteristics are a little too short to be a good performer there. And then I ended up taking a class in college on criminal justice fell in love with it. Coincidentally, my uncles and my grandfather were law enforcement in the city of Chicago with Chicago PD. So, I guess the blood runs deep, I guess. So, I fell in love with it and decided to start testing and was fortunate enough to be selected by Seattle PD.

[00:01:49] Deepak: That's so interesting. I was curious to know, you know, sometimes it's a combination of nature or nurture that really kind of entails your interest into what you end up doing with your life. What was it like being Assistant Chief of the Seattle Police Department? That is not an easy city to oversee in terms of public safety.

[00:02:08] Paul: I don't know that any job in law enforcement right now is easy trying to compete and keep up with all the changes that are happening out there. But, to be honest it was a great job. I absolutely love the city. I've spent over 38 years there, and working for the Seattle PD, I was able to work with some really good emergency managers both at the City of Seattle or surrounding county, which is King County and then also the state and some of our other regional partners. I think the thing that's lost on a lot of people is there's some really dedicated people out there all coming together to try to ensure that we work together and provide the best service that we possibly can.

[00:02:47] Deepak: That's really interesting. You know, in the last 10 or 15 years, Seattle has gone through monumental, unprecedented growth. So, in the spirit of this conversation, what was it like trying to meet the technical and operational needs of your police officers in a city that was growing so fast that anyone can realistically keep up with?

[00:03:06] Paul: Well, it's interesting because I was on SPD when we got our first typewriters. And people who listen to this are gonna laugh, but that was a pretty big thing when we got our electric typewriters. The idea of trying to stay ahead of the curve, it was good on one hand, in that a lot of tech in the city—it's challenging—in that tech cost money and developing tech and making sure you have the right tech, cost money.  And you can't make a mistake, or they, people don't want you to make a mistake. 

[00:03:38] Deepak: Yeah, this is so interesting. I feel like your work and your time at the Seattle PD was very foreshadowing of what you would be involved with at S&T and the First Responder Resource Group. Do you remember when you first became aware of S&T?

[00:03:52] Paul: Yeah, I was assigned to Seattle Police Department Homeland Security Bureau a little bit after September 11th. There was a lot of activity when DHS was first developed and I was working the Homeland Security grant program for SPD and the city, and so had communication back through FEMA, which is now part of DHS and the grant program to try to work out authorizations for grant expenditures and things like that. So that's when I first heard about the program. And then, for the First Responder Resource Group, and when it kind of transitioned into that I was at a conference, I believe. Or they were at a conference and I happened to run into them. Just a casual conversation was well hey did you know we had this this working group? and it's like well I've heard of it. And they said well if you're interested, you know, drop us an email, we'll see if maybe we could put you in there. And not quite a year later, they said hey we have an opening would you be interested? You don't get any money, you have to volunteer so everyone that's part of the FRRG is a volunteer first responder. They donate their time and experience to us. And, fortunately my city said yes and so I was able to join.

[00:05:03] Deepak: So, you were with the Seattle PD while you found out about the First Responder Resource Group?

[00:05:10] Paul: Yes.

[00:05:12] Deepak: And, then so you started off as a volunteer and then eventually that led you to actually working for The Science and Technology Directorate full-time as the portfolio manager for First Responder Disaster Resilience. So, a lot of what we do at the Science and Technology Directorate is sometimes really difficult to explain to the people closest to us. How do you describe your job to your friends and family?

[00:05:35] Paul: That's interesting because it usually takes a couple of sentences. My short speech is that I work with first responders across the nation to determine what their capability needs are. And then we take that information back and internal to DHS, we determine where we're going to try to force or look for a potential solution. Now in looking for that solution, first, we have to locate see if there isn't something already out there commercially off the shelf, et cetera. Or maybe if there is, maybe we could instead of just saying hey there's something to buy, there's something that we can improve. So, we may do an outreach to the business community and say hey we want to talk about this, and would you be interested? And then the other option is, that DHS may determine that they want to go ahead and create a solution. So, we the short answer is we try to determine if we can create a solution that will increase the capabilities of first responders at the local level, which in turn helps us with our national programs. I think this group is so necessary and it's, I hope people don't think this is a cliché, but they really are our first line of defense for homeland security and safety. And so, the first responder portfolio manages, our customer base is over 2.5 million first responders across the nation.

[00:06:58] Deepak: Oh, that’s a lot.

[00:07:00] Paul: Oh, I think that's probably underreported because EMS personnel and emergency management personnel are a little less documented than say the police and fire but they're just as important. And so, the reason I think it's so important for DHS to reach out and the way that we reach out, which I'll explain in a second, is because they are our first line of defense. They're protecting our local communities, which everyone knows makes up the overall whole. And in that protection if they can do a better job there, they can do a better job doing other things.

And life safety is our big mission clearly. But, the reason I like this program and I think it's been successful over the years, prior to my arrival, is the fact that DHS has taken the steps to go and ask the first responders what are you facing? What's concerning you? And what are the capability needs, improvements that you need that will help to do their job better? We're not telling them hey we have this widget, or we think you should do this. We're actually asking the people out in the field what's your experience telling you? What's your knowledge telling you? And is there something that could make it better so that you can do your jobs better at home? And then we take that information and we kind of sift through it and we make the determination if hey I think we can do something in this arena and then we'll work towards solution development. And more often than not, we're successful. Sometimes it's simple. Sometimes it's very complex. We've been working on communication platforms for years. And again, that's complex because of the different entities involved in making sure that you share data effectively across all levels of government and to those who need to share it. So, I think that's what makes it unique in our case is that we go to the customers and ask them what they need and then try to bring that back. 

[00:08:57] Deepak: I see. So, I know the FRRG meets annually, and it really has like two really important things to identify the capability gaps that are high priority in the first responder community and then define the operational requirements that technology and knowledge products must meet to effectively fill in those gaps. What comes out of those meetings? I feel like with all the great minds in one room, I just really feel like they've gotta be really beneficial and productive to really meet the needs of 2 million first responders across the country.

[00:09:33] Paul: Well, it's interesting. You brought up a couple of key points about our products and our solution development. The first thing we ask when the first responders become a member of the First Responder Resource Group is that they yes, they represent their discipline—police fire, EMS, bomb technicians, canine, emergency managers, public safety communications. You're not necessarily to represent your individual department. You have to take that broad look at things, a national look, if you will, and look at it from your discipline. But then we add the caveat that they also have to look at it from the other disciplines’ point of view and how you're going to interact. That was one of the reasons that sold me on this program when I was asked. It wasn't the fact that they said hey you're a PD guy—can you tell me what law enforcement needs? It was how are you going to work with fire, EMS, emergency management, your fellow law enforcement or other responders in the nation—or the region where I was at—and come together and try to figure out what the solutions are? And what was interesting is, when you get into the groups, which I'll talk about here in a second—what was concerning for fire, EMS, and emergency management was also concerning for law enforcement. We had the same needs and by bringing everybody together and sharing what was going on, they were able to capitalize on that. We break them into specific groups, very very broad groups, but groups nonetheless and every discipline is represented in it. So, we cover things like personal protective, communication platforms, technical tools, our operational needs—things that you would need out in the field. Is there emerging issues that are being unaddressed right now that you see coming forward? What's the future hold for us? And then also things like command and control, situational awareness. So, we'll ask them those broad areas, is anything happening in here? And last couple of years, clearly the wildfires that we've been facing across the nation are of utmost importance. And we've been able to leverage some of that information and we've been working on some wildland respirators for the firefighters that are way out in the field that don't have access to SCBAs to try to improve their health response capability.

[00:11:47] Deepak: It's really great that you brought that up about the wildfires. I feel like with what's been going on with climate mitigation and the threats that our emergency responders face, not just with climate-fueled fires and hurricanes, and whatnot. But, just everyday sort of in the city comings and goings that happen with emergency responses.  How has the work for first responders significantly changed from perhaps even the last 10 to 20 years to even now?

[00:12:16] Paul: Well, first of all I think you're right. It appears that the situations first responders are facing is growing every day. And our communities expect our first responders to do a great job. That’s the right one to have. But I think what's interesting, the last few years it appears, and again I don't have any data on this yet but the frequency or the speed at which some of these events are our communities are facing is increasing. I have a friend who lives outside Boulder, Colorado, and unfortunately, they've already had a number of wildfires there and it's very early in the season for that. So, the other thing that is illustrative of the change is the interdependence between the disciplines. Early on in my career and even previous—oh it was a house fire, took care of it. Well now, we're seeing that the house fire also has EMS support needs, also has law enforcement needs, and we try to stress that interdependence of the other disciplines within the FRRG to achieve a solution development. So, things that we developed for the fire service, we've worked on being able to allow firefighters to see in a visibility declined environment or smoke-filled or maybe fog. And that application could also be applied for law enforcement, to help make their jobs a little bit better too.

[00:13:40] Deepak: Yeah, that's really important to point out. And I think that ties home why the average everyday American citizen should care about the work that the First Responder Resource Group is doing. Because not only does it protect first responders in the field and help them become more efficient and effective at their jobs, but it's two-fold it's also very life-saving for average citizens that are caught up in natural disasters or fires or accidents or earthquakes, the list goes on.

[00:14:07] Paul: Yeah. I think our response to the pandemic is a tremendous example of all the disciplines coming together to do the best we possibly could in –quite honestly—a very tragic and complex situation. Our EMS providers, which does include our hospital staff people in this description here, went above and beyond the call, but our fire service was also out there handling a lot of calls as were law enforcement trying to make sure that everything else remained calm while people were getting the services they need. And we already have some feedback from our first responder group, that there's a couple of things they'd like us to look at that might be able to improve our EMS or health service response within the first response community. But then apply that to the potential of any other future pandemic so that we're not just, oh yeah, we got through it and forget about it. We're going to go ahead and learn from what we went through before and try to make sure that we're even better prepared for something else that might come down the road.

[00:15:08] Deepak: Yeah, that's really interesting you point that out. Because I feel like the pandemic, we really hit the nail on the head in terms of just removing the wool over the average everyday person's eyes over what first responders really have to endure and really have to go through. Like collectively, we've known these are hard jobs—they're emotionally tolling, they're physically tolling but we've never been through something like this in our lifetime. So, I really hope that that's evolved into a lot more respect and appreciation for first responders. The next thing I want to ask, what specific expertise does S&T bring to its partnership with the First Responder Resource Group?

[00:15:49] Paul: Well, I tell you what that's one of the areas that I'm really impressed with the caliber of people that Science and Technology has hired for literally every position. Whether that's an admin person that knows the process but remembers who to contact and what their skill set is within the discipline all the way up to some of our PhD-level scientists and engineers. They are absolutely amazing. And being a relatively new hire, I've had a lot of questions. And everybody that I’ve reached out to has been extremely collaborative, really cooperative and pleasant to deal with. Nobody has a-- well you just don't understand how it is here. It's, nope we're all a team. We're all gonna work together, and if you have any more questions, get back to me. I think that's probably one of the biggest things, but what's also interesting is the level of dedication that they provide to give things like our knowledge products. So, the first responder group doesn't just do widgets, if you will. Yes, we do equipment, but we also do a lot of knowledge products. We pass on information that helps our first responders make decisions or even purchases at the local level. But also helps keep them safe. And right now, we're working on electronic vehicles, battery operated vehicles and some of the hazards that they pose not only to the occupants during an accident, but the responders. And what is the best practice there. And there's been a lot of good pieces of information out there.

[00:17:18] Deepak: That’s really great to hear. It seems like we really do take a holistic approach to addressing a whole myriad of first responder needs and not just tech.

[00:17:28] Paul: Well, it really is that because I was speaking with some first responders in the fire service the other day, and it's like well you can give us more gear, but we really don't—if it's too big, it won't fit on the truck because the trucks already full of gear that we already know that we need on a day-to-day basis. And so, sometimes it's applying it a little bit differently or just making them aware of a hazard and then they can go ahead and go in and look for it. So, the idea of the holistic approach, I think permeates throughout Science and Technology.

[00:18:01] Deepak: Paul, I really liked that you brought that up. It takes a village, a diverse team to really bring all these thoughts and ideas and systems and processes and technology gaps up to the surface to disseminate and to figure out to make this work a lot better. Why is direct collaboration between the government and first responders so essentially important?

[00:18:23] Paul: Well, I think that direct collaboration, the benefit for that is you're speaking to the people who need the product or the solution, if you will, directly. And, they're saying well yeah you could do X or Y, but that leaves me exposed on the you know ABC DEF, and it won't work. Or I wear big fat gloves when I'm doing that, so those little tiny buttons won't work for me. Or it's not gonna work If I'm going code to a call, I have to jump out and if it falls down it will break. So, there's a number of different aspects to it in terms of developing a viable solution for our first responders. If we just say, hey I have this widget and it's going to change your life. And then we take it to them, and nobody ever uses it, that's a waste of time and money and that's not worthwhile. So, we go to them we ask them what they want. We actually prioritize what we're going to work on. But in that prioritization, we continue to use our first responders throughout the whole solution development process. We can use them as subject matter experts in terms of hey if this is the solution, would it work—just that verbal communication. But we also bring them in during the development process where they get to see the proposed physical solution, if there is one, and put their hands on it and kind of run it through the test and say, hey yeah this would work or you need improvements here, here and here. And so, throughout the whole process we try to do it because our end state is not only to identify their needs, rapidly develop the needs, but also get it into their hands through commercialization. So, we don't want to develop a product that doesn't work. And that's the benefit of talking directly with the customer base is saying, hey will this solution work for you?

[00:20:14] Deepak: I want to quickly bring up POINTER, which is a groundbreaking tracking technology—for our listeners that may have not have heard of it before—that can locate first responders within three feet via low frequency magnetic fields that can transmit signals through materials including wood, concrete, brick, and rebar. So, in a recent testimonial San Diego Fire Rescue Assistant Chief of Emergency Operations, Chris Webber gave a really powerful testimonial about his son who's also a firefighter in Southern California, which as we know, Paul, we've talked about has some of the most active wildfires. Now this is Chief Webber.

[00:21:08] Webber: My son is almost a 10-year firefighter with our fire department. It would greatly put my mind at ease knowing that Battalion Chiefs and Captains that are watching what he's doing in our most, our busiest fire station in our department, probably has the highest ratio of fires in the area that he works. And knowing that that technology was watching him in those situations, would put my mind at ease and allow me to retire early.

[00:21:25] Deepak: Paul like what comes to mind when you hear that come from another first responder?

[00:21:32] Paul: Well, first of all I completely sympathize with what he's saying because as a father you want to take care of your children, but you want them to grow. And so in that regard completely agree. As I'm taking over for from the team that actually initiated that project. And that project took years to develop. And we can get X Y coordinates like you get on your cell phone right now. If you asked to get directions to a store or something. What has happened now is some really really smart scientists have been able to add the Z coordinate, which gives us elevation or depth. And ye,s it does in fact work through different materials. And right now in phase one, it appears it's going to be going commercial hopefully here pretty soon. COVID had some delaying effects on that as it did throughout our industry world. But as a commander who ordered people to go into harm's way in the past, I can tell you it's it's very very beneficial to be able to know where they are and what they're encountering in the event that they need to call for someone. And they're saying hey we need ambulance in here, we have a victim down or we have a trapped victim, we know exactly where they are. And if something happens to them, we know where to send in the other rescue teams to pull them out. So, it is going to be—as a one of the evaluators said—a bit of a game-changer in terms of first response community. But I think it's going to be a benefit. It's going to allow us better command and control. It's going to allow us a safer environment for our operators. 

[00:23:03] Deepak: Yeah, I mean I think this is revolutionary. It could probably be applied elsewhere perhaps a military or probably any other agencies that could benefit from it.

[00:23:13] Paul: Yeah, I think we have to think of it in terms of our capability is going to increase and again it took a little while to get to the point where we could get the Z coordinate accurately. You can get—there are some products I believe that are out there now that you could probably get within you know 12, 14, 15 feet. But the problem with that is when you go to elevation, that could be another floor. So, if you say hey I have a rescue here, I need EMS at this location and it says there on the 14th floor you might be on the 13th or you might be on the 15th. So, the scientists here worked on narrowing that down. And if I'm not mistaken, we're within a meter or so of their actual location. And that's what's going to really make a game changer.

[00:23:56] Deepak: What's the latest and greatest new tech that the FRRG is working on with S&T?

[00:24:02] Paul: Well, we have a number of projects going, like I said, both in PPE—personal protective equipment or communications and things like that. But I think, for me personally, because I have friends in the wildland firefighting profession, that respirator that we're trying to finish development on I think is going to be a real game changer too. We know our wildland firefighters face some horrific conditions and breathing shouldn't be one of them. So, making sure that they're protected so that they can continue to fight the fires and get that done quickly I think is one of the ones that I'm really happy with. I've been currently working on some information management sharing platforms and there's some success in that arena. I can't really tell you that it's successful yet because we still have to finish some tasks, but some beta testing is looking very very promising and getting that out there. And again, that's another platform that will be able to help every discipline that's out there. And my goal is to make sure that that platform should be accessible with permissions all the way up to the federal level. So, if you had a natural disaster you could share information all the way up to and including with our FEMA partners, who are also going to be trying to support the people on the ground. So, that's another one that's pretty good that I'm really excited.

[00:25:22] Deepak: What does it take to be your first responder as you look back through all the journeys that you've had in this time? 

[00:25:28] Paul: Oh, well I’ll speak more about the people that I've met from the different disciplines over the years. And I think the first one that I'll bring up is a level of dedication. They want to serve and they want to help others. And that dedication to duty I think is something that is amazing. I grew up across the street from us Seattle Fire Department paramedic. And first of all, just the nicest man in the world, but he rose up he was an instructor for the paramedic program, which is nationally recognized as one of the best in the nation. And he literally loved his job. He wanted to work. He wanted to serve the community. He wanted to help out. And that was illustrative, I had the pleasure of traveling across the country to teach for a little while, and I ran into first responders in some of the smallest towns out there and some of the larger cities. And all of the people that were there were very, very committed to their job. That's probably the biggest thing that I think it takes to be a first responder. It's not always pretty, and unfortunately there's a lot of tragedy involved, but I think each year we're getting better and better at what we do as first responders. And we're saving more and more people. And I think that's something that they should take a lot of pride in. And so that self-worth is there if you're willing to put in the time and the energy or the dedication. I think first responders professions are some of the best ones to be in.

[00:26:55] Deepak: What was your first job? So, you know sometimes we start out in high school, sometimes in college, sometimes it's completely unrelated to what we ended up doing as our career path. But what was the first thing that earned you your first paycheck?

[00:27:08] Paul: First paycheck, I was a janitor, which they now call facility maintenance. One of my friends, their family had a janitorial service. And I was fortunate enough that they let me work for him when I was in high school. And then I continued on and did that as my college job in my first year in college.

[00:27:27] Deepak: That's so interesting to me. It seems you never really know until you talk to a person about you know where they've been, where they come from, the different diverse sort of hats they've had to wear, which I think really makes someone a well-rounded person. And you know as a first responder, it does require to have that sort of mentality to like really empathize and think through you know a lot of different sectors and human empathy. So, Paul technologically speaking what does the word technology mean to you? 

[00:28:00] Paul: Oh, for me, I think it's opportunity. Growing up I'm old enough now that computers were just starting to get big as I was younger and actually learned how to do basic coding but fell off of that because I wanted to try some other things. But, what's interesting is as you look back—look at all the things that have improved in the world because of the technology that we've created. When you hear the word technology you should think of opportunity.

[00:28:27] Deepak: Yeah, I mean the world is our oyster. It's fascinating where we can take science and technology, which brings it back home in the matter of national security. We're able to utilize and harness these tools and the latest research and implement those across, not only just our entire directorates or components can be effective and efficient and safe, but also at the end of the day the bigger picture, so citizens can sleep peacefully at night. You know put their babies to bed and leave all of that worrying to us.

[00:29:05] Paul: Well, I think it's nice to know that here at DHS Science and Technology, we're trying to leverage both the science and the technology components, often time merged together, so that in the unfortunate event that something does happen, we have a better probability of helping out and saving lives than we ever have in the past. And that is something that I think is really motivating for, well it is for me, and at least I believe it is for the people that I work around.

[00:29:34] Deepak: Thank you, Paul. Paul, this is a great conversation. I learned a lot from you. It's been great to do a deep dive on your career and your work with the First Responder Resource Group as a volunteer, and now as a portfolio manager for the First Responder Disaster Resilience here at DHS S&T. I want to thank you for your time and for really kind of peeling back the layers and holistically speaking about the importance of first responders in the field and the efficiency and effectiveness that is needed especially with life-saving technologies that we're bringing to the fold. It's been an honor to have this conversation. Thank you for being here.

[00:30:13] Paul: I do want to stress it–I'm not doing it alone. There's a lot of people behind the scenes that are doing their very very best to help our first responders. And we're going to continue that. So, thank you for having me today.

[00:30:39] Deepak: This has been Technologically Speaking, the official podcast of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. To learn more about S&T and find additional information about what you heard in this episode, visit us online at scitech.dhs.gov and follow us on social media at DHSscitech. Thanks for listening.


Last Updated: 04/19/2024
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