DHS wants better wearables for nation’s first responders

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DHS wants startups to figure out how to embed wearables in things like firefighters’ flame retardant suits. (Pixabay)

Police officers wearing ballistic plates that double as lithium-ion batteries. 3-D printed knobs that attach to radios so firefighters can manipulate their communications while wearing gloves. Lifesaving devices for EMTs that can be powered by human movement.

Those were some of the ideas discussed earlier this month at a South By Southwest Interactive workshop aimed at cultivating ideas for how wearables can be used by first responders hosted by the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.

Over the course of the workshop, directors from DHS’s S&T office talked about the need for advancing a national conversation on how these ideas can make the country safer while also changing the way federal, state and local government procure their products.

DHS Deputy Undersecretary for Science and Technology Robert Griffin emphasized the need for people to “think creatively” as they come up with ways first responders can leverage the Internet of Things.

“How can we use existing infrastructure in different ways at a price point that will allow us to jump up forward with some of this capacity?” Griffin asked the attendees. “That’s the type of innovation the Internet of Things can offer to us. It’s only bound by your innovation and curiosity.”

In order to cultivate that innovation, the directorate recently launched its
EMERGE! accelerator program, which looks to help the development of wearable technologies and provide a path to introduce them to a variety of markets.

In a partnership with DHS’ Center of Innovation, the U.S. Air Force Academy and the nonprofit Center for Innovative Technology, the accelerator will help develop and launch ideas into companies by providing early market validation, mentoring and access to private investment.

Reginald Brothers, DHS’ undersecretary for science and technology, wants to use this accelerator to create a “defense industrial base” for first responder wearable technology.

“What we are trying to do is not go with the 50 companies that give almost 50 percent of the federal R&D budget right now; we want to get beyond that,” Brothers said. “We understand what the market actually is and how we can make a business case for these types of things.”

At the SXSW panel, a number of people who advise startups argued that the government market is lucrative and continues to trend upward.

“There used to be two sectors venture capitalists would tell you not to ever go into: education and government. That is starting to change,” said John Miri, who has spent 15 years working with state and local governments on various technology issues.

Now working as chief administration officer for the Texas-based utility company Lower Colorado River Authority, Miri told entrepreneurs in the room that the state government IT market alone is $95 billion per year.

Yet even with that number, the advisers were quick to point out the maze for anyone looking to land their product in the hands of government-backed enterprises.

Gabriella Draney, CEO and co-founder of Tech Wildcatters, a Dallas-based startup accelerator, drove home the point that even with billions coming from states, most local first responders operate on an extremely tight budget. While EMTs and volunteer firefighters do have technological needs, their budget constraints are a problem startups also have to take into account.

“It’s not about what’s the cool technology. It’s not even about what’s your problem. It goes deeper than that,” Draney said. “What’s your problem and how much are you willing and able to pay to solve that problem? Start thinking about what problems they are facing beyond running into a burning building.”

Whether the hurdles be technological or financial, David Ihrie, CIT’s chief technology officer, said he and DHS are willing to hear any ideas that could further their mission.

“We are actively looking for companies,” Ihrie said. “If you have an idea, bring it to the table. If you know somebody who has an idea, let us know about it.”

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Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Departments, Government IT News, Innovation, wearable technology
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