Guest post by John Merrill, Office for Interoperability and Compatibility Director and Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) Apex Program Director within the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate's First Responders Group.
The Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) Apex program envisions first responders who are better protected, connected and fully aware, enabling faster, more efficient and safer response to threats and disasters. In 2015, we established our vision for the program and began working on developing an integrated and modular ensemble that includes an enhanced duty uniform, personal protective equipment, wearable computing and sensing technology and robust communication networks.
Much of 2015 was spent crisscrossing the country, engaging with industry and academia, and giving first responders a peek at what we have planned for 2016 through 2020 and beyond. Our activities this year prove that we’re committed to consistently engaging first responders about the tools and technologies we develop for them and providing a forum for industry and first responders to discuss requirements.
National Conversation Focuses on Responder of the Future
This year, we led the National Conversation on Homeland Security Technology, which focused on the Responder of the Future – one of S&T’s visionary goals that aims to help ensure that America’s first responders are better protected, connected and fully aware.
“We wanted to harness diverse viewpoints to engage with a wider range of the homeland security community. By crowd-sourcing the Responder of the Future dialogue, we connected with a more varied audience – and they connected with each other. That’s really where the true value of the National Conversation lies,” said Dr. Reggie Brothers, DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology.
The Responder of the Future dialogue took place virtually through the S&T Collaboration Community, and in person at town hall meetings in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Texas, and Nevada. First responders, public sector officials, industry professionals and members of the public have all took part in the dialogue. Altogether, more than 1,000 individuals from across the country participated in the online conversation by posting questions and ideas, leaving comments and replies, and voting for their favorite topics. This participation is critical as we are using the information collected to refine our path forward in 2016 and beyond.
NGFR Program in Spotlight at White House Smart Cities Forum
In September, First Responders Group Director Dan Cotter participated in the White House Smart Cities Forum where he discussed the NGFR program. Cotter spoke at the request of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In a brief two-minute presentation, Cotter explained how the NGFR Apex program is working to make smart cities safer by designing new capabilities, adapting existing technology and working to stimulate private sector innovation to ensure responders and the cities they serve are better protected, connected, and fully aware.
Cotter said that the NGFR advancements could help dispatch first responders four minutes faster and “when they arrive, they won’t need to assess, they will be ready to act. Think of the difference those minutes can make for an active shooter environment, or a heart attack victim, or in the case of a fire.”
The White House Smart Cities Forum focused on the opportunity for communities to harness the growing data revolution, low-cost sensors and research partnerships to unlock new solutions to their pressing problems, from energy and sustainability to traffic congestion and crime.
At the event, DHS announced plans to invest $50 million over five years to develop cutting-edge emergency response technologies for Smart Cities. As part of this effort, we are collaborating with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to leverage Smart Cities data, analytics, and predictive modeling to give responders the right information at the right time, increasing responder operational efficiency and safety.
EMERGE Accelerator Helps Innovators Develop Wearable Technology
In 2015, we unveiled the EMERGE Accelerator program for Wearable Technology for First Responders to reach entrepreneurs with innovative ideas. After issuing a nationwide call for applicants throughout the entrepreneurial community, the program selected 20 startups and second-stage companies from more than 100 candidates, and helped innovators develop and launch their ideas into investable companies. These new ideas focus in the area of wearable technologies, such as body-worn electronics, advanced sensors and integrated voice and data communications embedded in a responder’s gear.
“We have to be able to integrate the expanding technological capabilities within our first responders’ tool kits, their personal protective equipment, and within their decision making abilities,” said Dr. Robert Griffin, DHS Deputy Under Secretary for Science and Technology. “We sought innovators with ideas for the latest scientific advancements, knowing that sometimes, these technologies aren’t developed in a commercial laboratory or a major industrial company. The EMERGE program is one way we’re charting that path.
”In September, EMERGE participants demonstrated their technology concepts and prototypes to the investor community and industry in San Francisco, California. The EMERGE Demo Day showcased a wide range of innovative technologies such as mouth guards that use bone conduction technology for communication; devices for sensory impaired users that can help first responders locate people in challenging environments; a triage language translator for patients to communicate with first responders; and protective gloves with embedded equipment controls to remotely control devices.
S&T’s First Crowdsourced Prize Competition: FRG’s Indoor Tracking Prize Competition
NGFR is always looking for new ways to bring game-changing technologies to solve first responder problems. The Indoor Tracking of the Next Generation First Responder prize competition asked a broad audience of innovators, researchers, academia, first responders and the general public to help solve one of the responder community’s most persistent challenges – the need for a real-time, robust indoor tracking capability.
“First responders need this technology, and they can’t wait ten years for it to be developed,” said Dr. Robert Griffin, DHS Deputy Under Secretary for Science and Technology.
The Indoor Tracking prize competition was a step towards developing an effective and accurate indoor tracking technology for first responders. The “Where Am I? Where is My Team?” challenge offered a first place award of $20,000 and a second place award of $5,000, with a goal of gathering innovative solutions to the challenge of tracking first responders inside structures. S&T received more than 60 entries, and ultimately selected two creative entries.
After these winners were announced, S&T quickly took to expanding its efforts. At the launch of a two-day workshop designed to train S&T leaders and program managers on the use of prize authority, S&T Deputy Under Secretary Robert Griffin explained that the goal of the prize competitions program is to “tap into all that the new innovation ecosystem has to offer.”
On December 16, the DHS S&T began accepting proposals for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program FY2016.1. This joint solicitation between S&T and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) covers a variety of topics, including video interoperability, resilient systems, indoor tracking and computer-aided dispatch. The DHS SBIR program presents an opportunity for new voices to join the ongoing conversation focused on making the first responder community better protected, connected and fully aware. S&T and DNDO are looking to the small business community for creative solutions to solve the hard problems facing first responders.
First Responders Meet Innovators at NGFR Drone Demo
In October, we held a field demonstration with first responders to test new technology solutions for search and rescue operations. Among the new technology solutions evaluated during the two-day event were an exterior drone that can detect cell phone signals through rubble or concrete and sensors that can detect and locate Bluetooth-enabled devices.
During the first demonstration at Fairfax County Fire and Rescue (FCFR) training facility in Lorton, Virginia, Sensing Location via Exterior Drone (SLED) technology was deployed for a rapid, wide-area assessment. A single drone successfully scanned the area for cell phone signals in less than 20 minutes, providing real-time heat maps of cell phone activity. Based on the location of cell phone signals, canine and human teams focused their searches on high probability locations of victims.
During the second demonstration, Bluetooth Indoor Proximity System (BLIPS) beacons were deployed inside structures to detect and locate Bluetooth enabled devices. This allowed victims with cell phones to exchange messages and images with rescuers. BLIPS also enabled incident commanders to track and monitor rescuers and maintain communication with rescuers searching within rubble.