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Wearable Technology by Industry: First Responders

Written BY

Emily Friedman

May 18, 2015

When a building is on fire, every second counts for the first responders rushing to the scene. Technology that could potentially save time and limit distractions could save lives in this scenario. For example, smartglasses could feed important real-time, lifesaving information directly to the eyeline of a firefighter, without his having to take his attention off the critical task at hand to reach for a radio, smartphone, tablet or computer. For those entrusted with our safety & security, having both hands free – a well-known advantage of using wearable tech as opposed to handheld devices or computers – is not just convenient; it’s crucial.

There is great potential for wearable technology in the public sector. When it comes to police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, wearables are currently being tested to provide remote communication support & feedback; reliable visual & audio documentation in the field; increased safety & better training; and, as mentioned, the ability to access information hands-free while carrying out essential tasks.

Wearable devices can assist in field communications and improve situational awareness, allowing for more informed decision making in the field, while keeping first responders’ hands free to deal with multiple issues at once. Imagine a paramedic tending to a patient while recording & transmitting information about her condition; or a firefighter searching for victims in a fire while simultaneously receiving insight allowing him to assess the best route to get to them. In both cases, smartglasses would “do the trick.” Wearable cameras – a hot topic right now – can be employed to document field procedures or protocol. The captured evidence could not only be used as proof in court, effectively protecting police officers (& firefighters) from negative legal ramifications of which they are undeserving; but it could also protect the public from police violence. Even more, the video could be leveraged as part of training, or to augment traditional police officer & firefighter training. Wearable tech can also track first responders’ health vitals & environmental factors, increasing safety by providing early indicators of potentially hazardous situations.

As far as wearable devices go in public safety & security, body-mounted cameras are at the forefront of the discussion. While smartglasses like Google Glass have image-, audio- and video-recording features, wearable cameras are in a class of their own. Like environmental & biophysical sensors and also voice & data communication chips currently being built into belts, vests, and other police & firefighting gear; robust cameras are being mounted on police officers’ tactical eyewear, ball caps, collars, epaulettes, etc. and embedded in firefighters’ helmets.

There are clear advantages to sharing incident data in real time via wearable cameras (and mics) in the field, but it’s not just about “see what I see.” Cameras mounted onto or built into all kinds of police & firefighter gear create an electronic record of events, which can provide indisputable proof of procedures followed (or not followed) by a department or unit. Such documentation can protect firefighters & police officers from legal matters, yes, but it can also lead to increased safety in the future. For example, firefighters could exploit video artifacts made by wearable tech to review, assess, and critique their skills & performance, which would ultimately make them better firemen. In addition, cameras in the field might promote proper conduct and following of protocol, leading to reductions in use-of-force & other complaints against police officers along with gains in firefighter & fire victim safety.

Smartwatches also stand to impact emergency personnel by assisting with field communications and measuring one’s health in the field via built-in heart rate monitors, pedometers, and various other sensors & apps designed to track exercise, sleep and stress levels. A small camera in the Samsung Galaxy Gear allows the wearer to point his wrist and discretely shoot photos & videos, which could provide additional situational awareness to police and serve later on for evidence or training purposes.

Let’s look at a few real-life examples of wearable tech in public safety & security:

  • Many emergency medical personnel are using Google Glass to view vital information about patients and treat them at the same time. Outfitting ambulances with Glass enables paramedics to give doctors at receiving hospitals a heads-up about incoming patients’ conditions, which can make all the difference in saving someone’s life.
  • First responders in disaster areas are using Google Glass to collect data & images from their surroundings while treating those affected or partaking in search & rescue missions. Emergency workers can collect all the necessary information pretty much effortlessly, allowing them to keep their minds & hands on more urgent tasks.
  • Firefighters are using helmets equipped with thermal sensors and robust cameras to record the view as they move through an incident as well as determine whether an area they are about to enter is safe, and identify people through smoke. All that information can be relayed back to a central control room via a smartphone app.
  • Patrol officers are using Google Glass at routine traffic stops to quickly run license plate & background checks without having to return to the cruiser. And Glass can enable police commanders to view crime scenes from the POV of their officers in the field, leading to more informed decision-making and better resource management.

Of course, there are several major challenges to such applications, which are currently being tested in ambulances, police forces, and fire departments across the US. Finances, for one, are always an issue in the public sector; most fire departments, for instance, do not have the funding to upgrade to the latest technology. But it is the matter of privacy which is of greatest debate, especially when it comes to wearable cameras. Any cameras used on duty must comply with established law & policy, such as the Freedom of Information Act and varying records retention schedules. As it is, all videos, pictures and audio recordings acquired by police have to be checked for people’s faces, addresses, license plates, and other personal information before being released to the public. This is sensible, for in an age of social media where images & videos can “go viral,” precautions need to be taken. Police units & fire departments will have to review & strengthen existing policies before institutionalizing new, continuously recording technology like wearable cameras or Google Glass.

On top of posing a threat to privacy, the presence of a camera on scene could also change the dynamics of firefighting & police work, opening the door for some unintended consequences. Such technology adds an element of self-consciousness for both first responders & civilians. People’s behavior naturally changes whenever a camera is introduced, and while this might encourage police officers to be extra vigilant, it could also provoke civilians to act dangerously during an emergency—for example, by attempting heroics for which they are not qualified. In general, cameras create a level of transparency in public safety & security for which not all involved are necessarily prepared or comfortable.

Another challenge is device durability, often referred to as “robustness.” How are manufacturers making wearable devices field-proof (ex. temperature-, weather-, chemical- or fireproof)? Are hardware makers considering durability and other real-world, in-the-field factors? What about the fact that firefighters & police officers already have so much gear weighing them down? In its current form, for instance, Google Glass is not compatible with the standard firefighter oxygen mask; the device doesn’t fit inside the mask and is also rather fragile, limiting its use to external personnel during a fire. The Motorola HC1 headset computer, on the other hand, is supposedly best for use in harsh environments & remote locations. As demand increases for wearable technology in the public sector, we will surely see more practical, rugged, and tailored form factors fit for use in a burning building, natural disaster or other chaotic emergency setting.

Further Reading