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  6. Responder News: Harnessing the Internet of Things for First Responders

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Responder News: Harnessing the Internet of Things for First Responders

Release Date: August 15, 2015

The Internet of Things (IoT) is transforming the technology landscape. From environmental monitoring, transportation and infrastructure management, to manufacturing, health care and building automation, IoT is providing sensing and data sharing capabilities that were unimaginable a decade ago. Now the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has launched a pilot to apply IoT to the challenge of vastly improving responders’ situational awareness during emergencies. That pilot, the Incident Management Information Sharing (IMIS) Internet of Things Pilot, kicked off at a two-day meeting July 9-10 at the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute on the campus of the George Washington University Virginia Science and Technology Center.

Lock image The IoT is the rapidly expanding network of objects embedded with sensors able to gather, communicate and exchange data with other devices. It includes everything from “smart” household appliances to sensors monitoring traffic flow and municipal water systems. For responder use, new types of low-cost wireless sensors are emerging that can quickly make a wide range of observations of an incident, its environment and its effects on people, including the responders themselves. Among those types are in situ environmental sensors (e.g., temperature, wind, radiation and toxic substance detectors), wearable sensors (e.g., cameras, explosives detectors and vital signs monitors) and imaging sensors (e.g., visible light and infrared cameras) on mobile platforms such as unmanned aerial systems and autonomous vehicles.

Evolving networking technology enables these sensors to connect automatically as soon as they are deployed. Simple connectivity, however, is not enough to meet the needs of emergency responders. Responders require access to continually updated observations, analysis, alerts and predictions from emergency response information systems and mobile devices to ensure they have an accurate shared view of conditions. Many current sensor platforms need too much preplanning and infrastructure set-up to work in rapidly evolving situations. Their nonstandard integration systems can prevent information sharing. Responders need standardized technology that makes sensors easily and immediately identifiable, accessible, usable and useful across all teams and information management platforms involved in an incident response.

Such technology is S&T’s goal.

S&T’s objective is to harness the potential of the IoT as part of its Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) Apex program. Under its contract with S&T, IJIS is acting as prime contractor on the pilot and has brought the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and its members onboard to provide the technical expertise required to develop interoperability solutions that employ lightweight, low-cost wireless sensors to support incident response and management. This partnership has enabled S&T to assemble a working group of nine organizations from around the world, including Botts Innovative Research (Huntsville, Alabama), Compusult (Nova Scotia, Canada), Envitia (West Sussex, United Kingdom), GEO Huntsville (Huntsville, Alabama), Noblis (Falls Church, Virginia), Northrup Grumman (McLean, Virginia), SensorUp (Alberta, Canada), the University of Melbourne (Victoria, Australia) and 54⁰ North (Műnster, Germany). Their goal is to develop and demonstrate a prototype IMIS IoT architecture tailored to the real-world requirements of the emergency response community by the end of December 2015.

Acknowledging the extraordinary technical challenge the team faces, NGFR Apex Program Director John Merrill advised team members to “see the world through responders’ eyes” when planning and developing their prototype. He enumerated the unique needs of responders in critical incidents, especially the need to “get the right information to the right person at the right time.” He added that too much or unnecessary information can be a dangerous distraction to responders in emergency situations, and that reliability is essential for any technology to earn and keep responders’ trust. Finally, he focused on integration. “The NGFR Apex program has 40-plus technology projects in the works, and to be useful to the first responder community those technologies all have to work together seamlessly. The necessity for reliability and interoperability,” he said, “makes standards a primary focus and foundation for this pilot program.”

Throughout the two-day meetings, discussions and white board brainstorming enabled the group to refine their understanding of responder requirements. An emergency scenario and associated use cases involving a collision between a train and a chemical tank truck served as a structure for identifying the situational awareness and information exchange challenges responders face. The team identified a wide array of needed sensors, platforms and data technologies required to meet those challenges. A clear road map is in place.

“It’s a really talented team,” said Merrill, “and the proof is going to be when they plug in their prototype in December and it does exactly what it’s expected to.”

Last Updated: 01/12/2023
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