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Self-Driving Ambulances And Augmented Reality Crime Scenes: Welcome To The Future Of First Response

In 15 years, police, firefighters, and paramedics will lean more on data and cutting-edge tech to do their jobs.

Self-Driving Ambulances And Augmented Reality Crime Scenes: Welcome To The Future Of First Response

Fifteen years from now, a paramedic arriving at the scene of a distress call will walk in with full knowledge of the patient’s medical history: Advanced data-sharing platforms will brief the emergency response team on the patient’s current circumstances while a self-driving ambulance pilots them to the scene. Firefighters will be able to access structural data on the building they’re about to enter via a hands-free headset, so they’ll know what staircases to avoid; police officers will use drone technology to pin down a suspect’s exact location and reduce the need for potentially dangerous chases.

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All of these concepts are part of The Future of First Response, a collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and the design firm Continuum. The initiative gathers key players from the first-response industry, government, and technology and design companies to draw up concepts for how the industry could integrate tech advancements–from the availability of biometric data to self-driving vehicles–into their work.

DHS Science & Technology hosts several working groups dedicated to first responders–understanding their needs, providing technical assistance, and developing new technologies and strategies. But one thing they’ve heard constantly from first responders participating in these groups, says Kristen Heist, product experience director at Continuum, was frustration over the fact that all of the new tools and technologies were being developed separately from each other. “First responders were constantly telling us that that they felt like Christmas trees or charm bracelets, dangling all of these one-off solutions that didn’t necessarily work together,” Heist tells Fast Company.

“What we’re trying to do with The Future of First Response–why we set it up as a vision project–is to create a real blueprint for how an ecosystem of solutions could work together,” Heist says. “Once that vision is designed, separate companies could go and work on pieces of that vision.” The collaboration of government, tech development (through PNNL) and user-centered design (from Continuum) will be the key to rolling out the visions for police, fire departments, and paramedics, which were conceived over a year of workshops from 2015 to 2016; the products and strategies will be released over the next 15 or so years.

The innovations packaged into The Future of First Response range from technical to more data-driven. For police, for instance, a base-layer shirt acts as a protective layer, but also contains sensors that track the health and whereabouts of the officer wearing it. “What DHS and PNNL wanted to do to get this vision off the ground was to bring in industry partners that were working in analogous categories,” Heist says. So to bring the base-layer shirts to market, they’ll be partnering with athletic gear companies already playing with tracking technology and looking to get into more protective gear. For the augmented reality glasses, designed to give police hands-free access to information about their environment, the Future of First Response teams are looking into partnering with manufacturers developing similar devices for oil industry workers.

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One innovation that’s already rolling out to police forces came about from a collaboration with someone who attended one of the workshops and had experience running a series of companies that did background research. He developed FirstTwo, a software platform and app that pulls up data on the neighborhood and residents that officers are about to encounter, once they enter their destination address. “So now, they know a little more going in, whereas before, they often didn’t know what they were going to walk into,” Heist says.

But given how personal-data heavy many of the innovations in The Future of First Response vision are–from suspect bracelets that officers slap on arrestees to track their health signs and any movements, to a body camera embedded in police badges, to cuffs that paramedics wear to record all calls and interactions–the players involved in developing the first-response ecosystems have had to toe a careful line. “There’s been obvious public concern about things like body cameras,” Heist says. The use of recording devices in policing has long been a concern–while law enforcement departments maintain that they’re used to keep police accountable, the unevenness with which footage is either withheld or released has given rise to the perception that officers are using cameras for their own benefit, not for the good of the public. Developing a more transparent and consistent system for handling the footage and data collected by these devices will be a crucial part of rolling out these more tech-driven first-responder systems.

Ultimately, the innovative ecosystems envisioned as The Future of First Response should help police, firefighters, and paramedics better do their jobs. While police officers were skeptical about integrating self-driving vehicles into their work, doubting automatic cars’ ability to respond to sudden commands in the same way as a human driver, paramedics immediately saw the value, understanding that if they didn’t have to drive, they prepare more thoroughly to assist the patient en route. “So instead of having to focus on steering around other cars, they can focus on who is the patient they’re about to see, what kind of devices they need to bring onto the scene, and how to prepare themselves,” Heist says.

“In order for first responders to be successful, they need to be human,” she adds. “The idea behind the Future of First Response is to help make them better at their craft by using technology to remove all the barriers–like driving, or using multiple devices to field data and calls–that make it harder for them to do their jobs.”

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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