DHS Develops Mechanism To Identify Technology Gaps Encountered By First Responders

First responders need and deserve the best tools and practices available to help save lives and protect property. The responsibility of identifying the gaps in existing technology -- and working to fill those gaps -- belongs to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). DHS S&T knows that first responders need to be part of the process.

As a result, DHS has created a new First Responder Integrated Product Team (IPT) specifically for first responder needs. The First Responder IPT was established to address the highest priority research, development, test, and evaluation needs of the nation’s first responders, using a process driven by the first responder community.

DHS S&T already has IPTs in place to identify the research priorities of DHS components, such as the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. IPTs identify, prioritize, and work to fill capability gaps. In short, they ask what their stakeholders need in order to perform their jobs more safely and effectively. IPTs also work with stakeholders to rank which of those needs is most important.

DHS has collaborated with first responders through programs such as TechSolutions, a component of the First Responder Technologies program that funds the development of prototypes to bridge capability gaps identified by first responders. While these individual efforts have reaped rewards, DHS S&T wanted to have broader and more direct involvement with the first responder community -- through tribal, state, local, and territorial responders. The new First Responder IPT does exactly that.

The First Responder IPT relies on members of the first responder community to help identify the most pressing needs facing first responders and to suggest ways to address those issues. In pursuit of this goal, the IPT created the First Responder Working Group (FRWG)

The FRWG comprises 38 professionals who represent the first responder disciplines of fire, law enforcement, emergency management, and emergency medical services. These working group members hail from communities across the nation and agency sizes ranging from rural to metropolitan, according to Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald of Story County, Iowa, who serves as FRWG chairman.

Although members represent a variety of disciplines and geographic areas, they often face similar challenges in the field. The members meet quarterly to identify capability gaps and help pinpoint the development of technologies that could mitigate those gaps. At a September 2009 meeting, the FRWG identified overall gaps that affect all disciplines as well as needs in each specific discipline.

“We work on issues that improve safety and allow us to do our jobs better,” Fitzgerald said. “Scientists at DHS S&T [and partner agencies and organizations] will then take that information away and start working on a product or a widget to address our needs.”

The FRWG works with DHS S&T to establish requirements to meet those needs. FRWG members continue to collaborate with DHS throughout the process to develop solutions to the most pressing issues. Later in the development process, DHS often holds pilot programs in different parts of the country to validate a new technology and ensure the design is effective for first responders in the field. Based on the input gathered, DHS makes adjustments to the technologies as needed.

“This is an iterative process,” said Randy Zeller, director for Interagency and First Responder Programs Division at DHS S&T. “It will take some time to get it right, but we are well underway. The first responder community is large and diverse, and we are counting on our FRWG advisors to represent their larger communities. That is a challenge for them, and we are very grateful that they are willing to help us out in this way.”

In addition to supporting the development of technologies, DHS S&T collaborates with other federal agencies and the first responder community to help identify and, if necessary, assist in the development of national standards that will govern the equipment used in the field. Standards guide the development, use, and implementation of technologies. National standards give the federal government and the private sector common standards or benchmarks to judge individual technologies. The standards help ensure that equipment not only meets the needs of the first responder community but that it can be integrated with legacy systems and hardware from vendors that first responders have already purchased.

Standards development is badly needed in the areas of communications and information management. The FRWG ranked data integration and interoperability among the capability gaps that affect all first responders, regardless of discipline. Given the importance of this gap, DHS S&T and FEMA have already made significant investments in this area and will continue to do so.

DHS S&T recognizes that while technology can make first responder communities safer and more efficient, technology created without an eye towards real world problems and conditions can be, at best, an exercise in futility and frustration. Therefore, it focuses on developing technological solutions that meet the needs of first responders and can be deployed in the field.

For more information, first responders can download a guide to the First Responder IPT at http://www.rkb.us/contentdetail.cfm?content_id=222028.

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