Protected, Connected, & Fully Aware

The DHS First Responders Group uses GEOINT to power the first responder of the future and build resilient communities


In 2013, 19 elite ground firefighters—most of them under 30 years old—were killed while battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire northwest of Phoenix, Ariz. The highly trained, highly specialized Granite Mountain Hotshot crew departed their safe zone and descended into rough terrain shortly before high winds whipped the fire into a deadly inferno. Investigators never fully determined why the crew was on the move at this time, but many agree better situational awareness—perhaps in the form of a real-time meteorological update—could have helped prevent this devastating loss of life.

The Yarnell tragedy marked the nation’s deadliest wildfire since 1933—and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) First Responders Group (FRG) aims to keep it this way.

engineer wears a prototype POINTER

A NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer wears a prototype POINTER location device during testing at JPL labs in Pasadena, Calif. Photo credit: DHS S&T

The DHS Under Secretary for Science and Technology (S&T) stood up FRG in 2010. The group partners with first responders and emergency preparedness professionals at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels to develop innovative solutions to public safety challenges—from the everyday to those encountered during large-scale emergencies. In every initiative it undertakes, FRG’s objective is to make first responders safer and more effective.

FRG Director Dan Cotter said his group strives to ensure first responders are “protected, connected, and fully aware.” This extends beyond new uniforms and hardware to include less tangible technologies that help first responders and emergency planners share data and other critical information.

In an ideal world, each first responder is protected with high-tech uniforms and equipment; connected with proper communications and interoperability; and fully aware with access to continuous information on his or her device of choice—delivered in time to provide decision advantage. According to Cotter, the GEOINT Community is instrumental in creating well-informed first responders and emergency planners—and therefore preventing calamities such as that which struck the Granite Mountain crew.

The technology has to be easy and intuitive because if they make a mistake … someone could die. That’s a pretty strong statement of requirements.

— Dan Cotter, Director, DHS First Responders Group

FRG Chief Geospatial Scientist Dr. David Alexander said the group often meets with first responders to discuss their needs and research gaps.

“The No. 1 worry pretty much boils down to ‘Where am I? Where is my team? What is my proximity to hazards?’ Those hazards are diverse and on the move,” Alexander said. “The level of threat those hazards pose changes, and their relation to the people and things we want to keep safe changes. First responders work in a very dynamic environment and we’re trying to get them the critical information they need to do their job effectively.”

Indoor Wayfinding

Most first responders lack the ability to transmit their location once they enter a building to confront potential dangers. In most cases, leadership can only manually confirm their responders are in the structure.

“Firefighters put a magnetic placard on a board that tells the incident commander they’re in the building fighting the fire,” said Bill Stout, deputy director of FRG’s First Responder Technologies Division (R-Tech), which focuses on the rapid development of technologies for first responders. “Imagine if instead the incident commander was able to look at a viewer and tell at any given time where the firefighters are in that building.”

A new geospatial technology might soon make this a reality. R-Tech has a major effort underway with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to achieve high-fidelity indoor wayfinding for first responders. The POINTER (Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders) project tracks first responders via low-frequency magnetic fields that can transmit through dense materials such as brick and concrete.

Current capabilities such as inertial measurement units, pedometers, and GPS devices either cannot or take too long to transmit a signal outside of a building. For example, if a first responders’ device attempts to send a signal once they are three feet into a building, the signal might bounce off other objects and not reach the incident commander until the responder is actually 10 feet into the building.

Andrew Wordin, a battalion chief for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said POINTER provides an enhanced degree of fidelity compared with current methods, including the ability to tell whether a first responder is standing or lying flat.

“This could be valuable information for an incident commander to make a decision to send rescue teams to a downed firefighter,” said Wordin, who is also a member of R-Tech’s First Responder Resource Group—a volunteer working group comprising 120 active and retired first responders from across the nation.

R-Tech leads solutions addressing identified capability gaps from development to prototype in less than 18 months. Once the division—with the help of the working group—identifies a first responder need, it drafts a statement of objectives and solicits industry for proposals, according to R-Tech Director Greg Price. R-Tech solicits proposals for about eight to 10 projects a year, resulting in approximately five awards annually. If a prototype is successful in field tests, it typically takes another six months to get to market.

“R-Tech has successfully put through that process 15 items that can be purchased by first responders today,” Price said.

With continued success, POINTER will soon be one of them. The prototype is undergoing three iterations of testing and is currently in Phase 3. Phase 1 tested the technology outdoors on a football field to make sure it could accurately track X and Y coordinates. Phase 2 took the technology indoors and added the Z coordinate—height—demonstrating it could transmit through structures at a range of up to 25 meters. Phase 3 will include miniaturizing the transmitter to about the size of a smartphone and improving the technology to a range of up to 75 meters.

Although the testing focused on homes, warehouses, and buildings no taller than 12 stories—which encompass about 85 percent of the environments to which firefighters are usually dispatched—the hope is to be effective in buildings as tall as 100 stories or more. The technology will also be adapted for other types of first responders.

POINTER shows promise for law enforcement as well, particularly for tracking officers during situations such as active shooter incidents, Alexander said. This spring, law enforcement representatives were invited to NASA JPL in California to witness POINTER and make recommendations for tailoring the capability to their mission. R-Tech anticipates POINTER will be commercially available in mid-to-late 2018.

Price describes POINTER as “truly a lifesaver.” For example, he continued, a major concern for firefighters is having their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) run low on oxygen—an example of a “mayday” situation. In 1999, six firefighters died responding to a fire at Worcester Cold Storage & Warehouse Co. in Massachusetts. The first firefighters to enter the warehouse became disoriented when their SCBAs ran low, then fellow firefighters became trapped attempting to locate and rescue them.

“The mayday situation is the most dynamic situation when fighting fire,” Wordin said. “We call it ‘the incident within the incident.’ We are always fighting the clock during any incident. Technology that can help find a downed, missing, or trapped firefighter faster and get the rescue team to that firefighter faster is going to save lives.”

Building Resiliency

Resiliency against disasters at the local level begins with first responders, especially when it comes to an effective emergency response that minimizes loss of life and property damage, according to Alexander.

FRG created its Flood Apex Program in 2016 at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency with the goal to bring together new and emerging technologies to improve communities’ resilience to flooding—America’s most costly disaster. Property damage caused by floods totals approximately $7.9 billion annually and each year about 80 to 90 people in the U.S. lose their lives during flooding events.

Texas Rangers assess flood waters

Texas Rangers assess flood waters in the Lower Colorado River Basin in April 2016 following heavy rainfall. Photo credit: Lower Colorado River Authority

The program’s research and development tracks focus on six areas: reduce flood fatalities; reduce uninsured losses; improve mitigation investment decisions; enhance community resilience; improve management of flood support data; and improve predictive flood analytics. Each of these tracks will contribute products to the Flood Apex toolbox throughout the four-year program. GEOINT is a common thread across all aspects of Flood Apex, Alexander said.

“Understanding the hazards in your community is a geospatial activity,” he said. “When you combine land use, flood plain, meteorological, and elevation data, then you understand your hazard. The lack of detailed elevation data for the nation is the No. 1 gap we face when it comes to understanding flood hazards. If you understand where the hazard is, you understand the locations at risk and can compare those with the locations of homes, critical infrastructure, and more.”

The ability to predict which areas are most at risk could allow DHS to implement preventative measures such as increasing storm water capacity or changing building codes; automatically knowing where to concentrate response efforts when an emergency occurs; and encouraging home and business owners as well as private critical infrastructure operators to invest in proper insurance and flood proofing.

“We’re not going to prevent all floods, but we can improve our ability to be resilient—to deal with the event and bounce back,” Alexander said. “But we can’t fully model and anticipate the risk if we don’t use GEOINT to improve our predictive analytics.”

Following Hurricane Matthew in 2016, FRG began working with the State of North Carolina to determine how sophisticated 3D elevation data sets derived from LiDAR can improve the ability to understand flood risks. The state is at the forefront of fusing LiDAR with weather forecasting in an emergency operations environment.

At the federal level, FRG is collaborating with NOAA’s Office for Coastal Management in Charleston, S.C., to model future conditions including potential effects of sea level rise at different depths and to predict surge levels during an event such as a hurricane.

Stanford University and U.S. Air Force personnel examine the JAGER drone before a test flight at the 2016 First Responder Electronic Jamming Exercise. JAGER, which stands for Jammer Acquisition with GPS Exploration and Reconnaissance, was created by Stanford University staff and students and triangulates jammer signals from the air. Photo credit: DHS S&T

“Flooding isn’t the only concern,” Alexander said. “The force of a wave could knock a building off its foundation.”

In an embrace of emerging technology, the program is seeking inspiration from the Internet of Things (IoT) to construct a network of low-cost, disposable smart sensors. The rising water sensors will be deployed on critical infrastructure such as levees, dams, water storage systems, and low water crossings or other hazardous intersections to automatically report when flooding is starting to accrue and provide early warnings to first responders.

The disposable sensors could potentially cost less than $1,000 each when brought to market—“orders of magnitude” less than permanent sensors, which can run upward of $20,000, according to Jeffrey Booth, director of FRG’s Information, Applications, and Standards Division. Booth described the sensors as “a global game changer” because of the low cost and ability to deploy them to underdeveloped nations.

FRG recently awarded Phase 2 contracts through the DHS Small Business Innovative Research program to three companies—Evigia, Physical Optics, and Progeny—to continue developing the sensors. In Phase 2, the companies will transition the sensors from proof of concept and build 100 to be tested by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) in Texas.

Eventually, FRG hopes these sensors will trigger automated alerts to individuals and help prevent flood-related deaths. For example, when a sensor detects flooding, it could send an alert to all smartphones within a designated radius.

“Imagine if three to five years from now you’re driving and your intelligent dashboard tells you there’s a flood a half mile away,” Booth said. “That’s pretty useful for you to be able to make a decision and turn around. It’s a mobile geography. The citizen is in essence a sensor receiver with their smartphone, so as they move about the geography they can be alerted of changing events.”

In addition to reaching individual citizens, these technological advances have the potential to transform how public works and utility providers support emergency management.

“Sensors placed with the right density can create a live map of where the water is,” said Mike Davis, smart alerts principal program architect with LCRA. “This allows first responders to focus their resources on areas affected by the event instead of trying to spread out and cover every possible scenario related to the flooding.”

Ultimately, the sensors are one of many initiatives under way to create the first responder of the future.

“It’s about whether we’re providing meaningful information to the first responder,” Alexander said. “We want them to be fully aware of what they need to carry with them, of what they might be encountering, and of what is happening around them at all times during a rescue mission.”

The First Responder of the Future

What other technologies will equip the first responder of the future? And how will future responders analyze and make decisions based on the influx of information from smart sensors?

It all comes back to ensuring first responders are protected, connected, and fully aware, according to John Merrill, lead for FRG’s Next Generation First Responder (NGFR) Apex Program as well as director of the group’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility.

Programs such as POINTER and other efforts to develop wearable devices will help protect responders. Regarding connectivity, FRG is conducting exercises and researching technologies to mitigate the jamming of radio, GPS, and wireless communication systems. To facilitate better situational awareness, FRG developed a Next-Generation Incident Command System (NICS) that manages and distributes to first responders and decision-makers real-time feeds such as vehicle locations, airborne images, video, weather, and terrain. More than 2,000 responders in more than 250 organizations have been trained on NICS.

Looking to the future, NGFR hopes to ensure the viability of IoT to generate even more enhanced situational awareness. Merrill’s team is working with the Integrated Justice Information Systems Institute and the Open Geospatial Consortium to develop and test architectures and standards to tailor IoT capabilities for first responders. FRG is also harnessing artificial intelligence with the AUDREY (Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction, and Synthesis) platform, being created in partnership with JPL.

“We’ve received a lot of feedback from first responders that they’re being inundated with data and they don’t know how to extract the information they need,” Merrill said.

Designed to act like a personal assistant, AUDREY will pull in data from various sensors such as those in development under the Flood Apex Program, and notify first responders to, for example, close a road, evacuate an area, or deploy resources to a certain location. Additionally, the platform can provide contextual insight from similar events that occurred elsewhere in the country.

A natural gas sensor prototype detects a leak during an integration demonstration for the Next Generation First Responder Program. This sensor and other Internet of Things devices are virtually connected via a common data reporting platform that makes it easy for responders to receive and digest data from a number of remote sensors. Photo credit: DHS S&T

AUDREY is also scalable, meaning those on the front lines see a more simplified version than those in the command vehicle, who in turn see a less complex version than those at the command center.

“We know first responders are not analysts and we do not want them to be analysts. We want them to focus on their particular mission,” Merrill said. “We want them to ingest the information but we don’t want them to be so engrossed in the analysis that it deters from accomplishing their mission.”

Cotter said he often tells the FRG team they must develop technology for those who are “tired, dirty, and hungry.”

“It means the technology has to be simple because the user may be on a 14-hour shift with little sleep,” Cotter said. “The device has to work even if it is dropped in the mud. It has to work well for someone who might be hungry, low on patience, or not feeling well. It has to be easy and intuitive because if they make a mistake—tell someone to go the wrong way or mark a map incorrectly—someone could die. That’s a pretty strong statement of requirements.”

Heroes At Work

An innovative program run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation matches service members in their final months of active duty with businesses and organizations

‘Geoinfluencers’ Rising

Meet two social media influencers whose viral content is taking GEOINT to the masses.

Honoring The Fallen

A new NGA memorial honors the service members who died while supporting U.S. mapping missions as part of the Inter American Geodetic Survey.