These three tech tools can help keep our citizens safe (and our first responders, too)

Cities typically spend at least half of their general fund budgets on their police and fire departments and/or emergency medical services. Yes, it’s a lot. But that level of spending often isn't enough to provide adequate protection and assistance for growing populations. And the agencies that provide those services often don't have the tools they need to respond quickly and efficiently in some situations.

Our story below outlines technological innovations focused on providing first responders with the tools they need to keep citizens safe, from a dedicated communications network to leveraging augmented reality tech for training purposes and others. Every city's needs and circumstances are different, but city leaders committed to ensuring their city is a livable one should know about the new tools and advances that could make them safer places for their citizens to live and work. — Doug Peeples


Unraveling the first responder communications tangle
One of the big obstacles police, fire and other first responders face when responding to emergencies is the communications network they rely on. Why? Because it's usually the same network used by businesses and citizens and during times of crisis such as severe storms those networks can get overloaded. Also, when a major emergency arises and first responders from several jurisdictions are involved they can run into a serious problem: their communications networks aren't compatible, which can delay their ability to coordinate their responses.

Those are problems a nationwide public safety broadband network from the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and Council Global Lead Partner are expected to fix. FirstNet contracted with AT&T earlier this year to build a communications network solely for public safety use, which will incorporate existing AT&T infrastructure. And it's gaining traction. The network is to be available to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories and tribal lands. As of earlier this month, 28 states had chosen to subscribe to the service. States are required to decide whether to opt-in and buy a subscription to the service or not by December 28, although those that choose to opt-out initially can change their minds later for a limited time.

The network will provide more than high-speed mobile communications. It's also expected to relay critical information first responders need as they're dispatched to emergencies, enable collecting real-time information on traffic conditions and support other smart city public safety improvements. In October AT&T and FirstNet launched a developer program. "This program will tap into the expertise and creativity of the developer community to drive innovation for public safety. It will also connect first responders with developers to create apps that will help them stay safe and save lives," said FirstNet CEO Mike Poth in a news release.

Another approach: airborne
A recent comprehensive study of LTE drone technology conducted by Council Global Lead Partner Qualcomm suggests that drones could be developed to the point that they would have a major impact in a number of fields, from wildlife conservation and mapping to news gathering and… public safety. It doesn't take much imagination to see the potential public safety applications: monitoring emergencies and relaying that information back to first responders, monitoring troublesome traffic locations and providing backup communications to name a few.

Putting augmented reality to work on public safety
Augmented reality (AR), which superimposes computer-generated images over a real-world view, has turned out to be a promising resource for public safety in a number of ways. Here are two examples:

  • Computer scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio began working with the medical community earlier this year to develop an augmented reality-based medical training simulation referred to as PerSim for police, firefighters and paramedics. The training involves putting on a Microsoft Hololens holographic computer which can display animations of medical situations the trainee is likely to encounter, such as a person suffering a stroke or seizure.
  • A company in the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Enterprise Development Center is using AR for an entirely different purpose: teaching first responders how to detect chemical, biological and other hazards. The specialized HAZMAT training offers realistic scenarios in which the trainee is equipped with protective gear and tools and is taught proper response and protocols with the aid of the hazard simulations.

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.