Making it work

Along the similar thought process of “you can’t please everyone all the time,” one technology may not solve today’s law enforcement officer’s problems all the time. As the days and years change so must products, however new innovations aren’t that easy to come by – barring that “perfect idea” drawn on that napkin.

The officer’s job requires having the right tools for the job – these range from the highest of high-tech to the why didn’t I think of that simple, all helping him return home night after night.

Under the Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate (DHS S&T), the First Responder Technologies (R-Tech) division makes sure these solutions do solve the issues they advertise to answer. From its initial newsletter published April 2008, R-Tech exists “as an effort to connect first responders to technologies which will make their jobs easier, more efficient, and safer.” The Science & Technology Directorate has been designed to counter threats to the homeland, both by evolutionary improvements to current capabilities and development of revolutionary, new capabilities as well as develop standards to ensure a consistency through products.

Running for almost three years, R-Tech works alongside with TechSolutions, two FEMA programs called the Responder Knowledge Base (RKB) and the System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) program and other programs within DHS S&T.

According to its Web site, www.firstresponder.gov, R-Tech’s mission looks to “provide a portal that enables federal, state, local and tribal first responders to easily access and leverage federal Web services, information on resources, products, standards, testing and evaluation, and best practices in a collaborative environment.

Jose Vazquez, Director of R-Tech, ran a similar program that provided advanced technology solutions to sailors and marines while in the navy. “It’s not so much about doing science and technology development but research and development,” he says. Adding that he sees his job as integrating a couple of technologies together - taking existing technology and enhancing it or taking a solution and pushing it just one more step forward.

Representing the law enforcement officer to the Science & Technology Directorate, Jim Grove, Regional Director of the Interagency and First Responder Programs division, served as a military officer/ medical service corps officer. Afterwards, Grove continued to work with first responders, specifically law enforcement. “It’s really trying to make those guys that have their boots on the ground successful everyday; that’s why I really come to work, if I can make a difference then that’s what it’s all about,” he says.

 

Got ideas?

According to its Web site TechSolutions, www.techsolutions.dhs.gov, “was established by the DHS’ Science & Technology Directorate to provide information, resources and technology solutions that address mission capability gaps identified by the emergency response community.” The program fields solutions that meet 80 percent of the operational requirement within a 12 month to 15 month time frame – a period Vazquez calls “the short term.”

“By providing people better tools and equipment we can save lives and minimize losses – to get ahead of any potential problems so that we can minimize the risk and hopefully prevent it so that we don’t even have to have that threat occur,” adds Vazquez.

The process begins by defining a “capability gap.” This occurs when a task at hand can be aided by currently not available technology or existing tools do not provide a fully effective solution for the problem. In short, whenever an officer thinks “If I only had a widget that would …” that widget comes into question. The program helps the officer define what is it that they really need to accomplish that they can’t or wish they could do better. Ideas can be submitted to TechSolutions at its Web site, limiting eligibility to first responders only.

The program labels its projects in nine different “Technology Readiness” levels:

  • 1 to 2 – Basic Research, The lowest level of technology readiness/invention.
  • 3 – Research to Prove Feasibility, Active research and development is initiated.
  • 4 – Technology Development, Components are integrated to establish that they will work together.
  • 5 to 6 – Technology Demonstration, Fidelity technology components are integrated with reasonably realistic supporting elements that can be tested in a simulated/relevant environment.
  • 7 to 8 – Operational Test & Evaluation, Prototype near, or at, planned operational system. Technology has been proven to work in its final form.
  • 9 – Deployment, Actual application of the technology in its final form.

 

Searching

Found through www.rkb.us, the RKB’s mission is to “provide emergency responders, purchasers, and planners with a trusted, integrated, online source of information on products, standards, certification, grants, and other equipment-related information.”

The site supplies visitors with categorized equipment under specific headings as well as filtering its database into an Authorized Equipment List (AEL) and a Standardized Equipment List (SEL). The latter being a list of commercially available products for first responders, the AEL reflects items available through select equipment purchasing grant programs.

“At the end of the day, we want to provide the first responders with the information on today’s technology … to select the best technology that’s available for them and if they’re going to use grants monies for it, we want to make sure that the things that they are buying are the things that meet the set requirements,” says Vazquez.

The RKB starts ordering its equipment under the following product categories with supplementary sub categories (not shown) within that group:

  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Operational and Urban Search and Rescue equipment
  • Information Technology
  • Communications
  • Detection
  • Decontamination
  • Medical
  • Uncategorized Products

In addition to the RKB equipment lists, the SAVER program, www.rkb.us/SAVER/Saver.cfm, further assists equipment purchasers by providing objective assessments and validations on commercial equipment and systems, and provides those results along with other relevant equipment information. The program evaluates commercially available technology and reports the pros and cons of the product, explains Vazquez, commenting that it "is kind of like a Consumer Reports for first responders."

 

Genesis

While the online form is available, submission of a capability gap can also be done face to face – by way of talking to first responders at conferences or shows. Submitted ideas are then examined by an integrated product team (IPT). In this, Grove explains, "the first responder IPT side uses the operational requirements document process." This is where specifics of the product in question are captured; aspects that need to exist when the tool/solution are developed, what it needs to do, any performance measures, etc.

John Verrico, Spokesman for the Science & Technology Directorate, explains this process further with an example. "One of the things that come out of talking to infrastructure and first responder organizations was the need to have the equivalent of a black box ... for investigators to try and help find what had transpired on a bus or train," he says. The research eventually led the team to a self-contained incident recording camera; in the event of a crime, accident, explosion, etc., the camera would store the footage and data prior and during an event.

He continues, "One of the key things is obviously if there's a bomb blast on a bus, the camera will have to survive the blast, survive a fire, or getting wet - all these kinds of things. Little by little the definition of what we needed the camera to do ... the specifics started adding up, that then defines the parameters and gives the industry something to really work on to produce the device." 

According to Verrico, with this process the "forensic camera" was developed within five months - with prototypes already produced.

However that turn-around may be an exception, the goal of the program is to have an 80 percent solution within a 12-month to 15-month time frame, the "short-term." The DHS S&T has six other divisions that work on transitioning the technologies from three years to five years.

The "80 percent solution" refers to if the solution will in fact solve 80 percent (minimum) of the initial problem. In addition, IPTs score ideas to rank priority; on a 5.0 scale work begins on anything receiving a score of 4.2 or higher.

Looking at the acquisition process, Grove explains that the equipment for state and local government has to fall within the grants process; a solution that takes 18 months for the industry to manufacture is almost 36 months before it will be in the hands of a first responder.

"If we're really doing our jobs if we're trying to get that in the hands of where it can do the most good, then we have to try to be as efficient, proficient and as fast as we can at getting these technologies out," he says.

 

To illustrate

Examples of first responder products going through the research and development process include (among many others) 3D situational/location technology, multiband radio and a newly designed rebreather unit. Under the short-term aspect, the program annually funds 10 to 12 products, as many as 18.

When 3D location/situational awareness technology came to their attention, the program called for any company that could accomplish a determined set of specifications. After multiple testing with law enforcement tactical teams and comparing results to current procedures, none tested met the situational requirements. During testing, the program allowed individual companies to be present and listen to its own product’s evaluations.

“In this particular case we [initially] had vendors saying the technology met the first responder requirements,” adds Vazquez. “It really came down to a misperception, in people not knowing what the first responder requirements were … the problem is that it didn’t work under the operational requirements.”

Recently, after receiving similar feedback from evaluating teams, one manufacturer of vehicle stopping equipment returned its product redesigned to better meet requirements. "They [the working group] wanted it smaller, lighter, to be able to reuse it and cheaper. The company came back to us with a new version that's the size of a soda case, weighs a bit more than a soda case, is reusable, can be maintained in the field, deployed faster and under $1,000," says Vazquez. He adds that the product will be brought to the working group for another evaluation.

In another situation, during the Presidential Inauguration, says Vazquez, law enforcement officers had four to five radios on their duty belt - a substantial and annoying capability gap. In an attempt to avoid this situation, DHS S&T began work on a multiband radio to combine these “five radios” into one.

According to a Directorate’s press release published October 2009, the radio will “work on the five frequency bands currently used by state and local first responders, and, if necessary, can work on four other bands used exclusively by the federal government, the Department of Defense, National Guard and Coast Guard.” It also says that they expect the battery to last “in excess of 10 hours.”

“We needed a radio that was the same size, same basic shape and same weight as current radios that the guys are using now,” says Grove.

“The genesis is the law enforcement officer and us as their intermediary taking a look at the technology and seeing where we can bring the right technology to assist,” adds Vazquez.

Similarly, Grove also heard complaints about large bulky SCBA rebreathers. A group of both law enforcement and fire was gathered to take a look at what was needed. Grove explains that law enforcement said they wanted it to be compatible to existing systems, because they would not be able “go out and buy a whole new system.” But also include some enhancements such as a cheap-to-stock filter capability and a low-profile mask to not impede line of sight.

This new design is made of composite materials, chambered tanks to lay across a back, is about 1 1/2 inches thick and weighs less than ten pounds.

While technology and equipment are merely tools, if the right tool for the job needs that something extra or has been already sketched on a napkin - someone will listen. Any crazy request to solve any problem is just that, another possible solution.

“There is no such thing as a crazy request,” says Vazquez. “Because what’s not achievable today is achievable tomorrow, and you can only head in that direction.”

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