Why We Don’t Have Real-life “Avengers” (yet): The Technology Problem in Emergency Response

A building, filled with smoke. People crowded around outside, watching as the firefighters arrive. Usually, the truck would take 10 minutes to show up. This time, the firefighters are in a small hovering vehicle that flies over traffic and arrives within a minute. Usually, orders would be barked for a few firefighters to risk their lives in order to search an entire building for people trapped. This time, a swarm of dozens of robots descends from the sky, with a life scan performed in seconds and a complete search carried out autonomously in a matter of minutes. Usually, when someone is found, the firefighter would need to find their way back through the dark in order to reach the exit. This time, the firefighter’s augmented reality glasses light up and show the path through the building.

Why are we still doing what’s usually done? What’s stopping helpful technology from reaching first responders in order to save lives?

I’m still in the process of figuring out answers to these questions. As I continue to talk to people and learn more, I may update this article to share my findings. Currently, based on my investigation into the challenge of emergency response technology, I believe the core problem is that there are individual and market-level obstacles to building and selling tools for emergency response. Building for first responders is hard because the products have to be extremely robust and reliable, and selling is even tougher because first responders aren’t looking to purchase game-changing tech.

Building products that people rely on in extreme and life-threatening situations is especially difficult. In most industries, when you build a product, it’s pretty obvious to tell whether or not the product works well enough to sell. Are you creating a new beauty product? Great — does it make people feel better about how they look? Are you creating a social network? Great — how many people are on it? Are you creating a tool for first responders? Great — does it still work when subjected to flames, left outside in the rain, covered in smoke, scratched, dropped, or slightly broken, year after year, without fail? This isn’t to say that developing a beauty product or social network is easy, but there are at least clear expectations about what environments your product will be used in, and what counts as a functioning product. How exactly do you test the robustness of augmented reality glasses for firefighters that will be going through varying degrees of heat, flames, drops, and bangs without hundreds of hours of testing in various scenarios?

Since first responder technology must be tested and vetted so thoroughly, it can take years to develop. At this stage in my research, I’ve mostly met with academics who talk about a multi-year-long process of patenting, testing, and then finally trying to market their product to first responders. For a graduate student who desperately needs money after paying for college loans, this drawn-out process can be a non-starter, since it may be years before the business makes any revenue (assuming it doesn’t just fail). As a result, it isn’t considered viable for academics to develop new research and technology into products for first responders; the technology remains in prototype form in the lab, rather than becoming a product that first responders could really use.

Even if you develop a fully vetted product, how do you get it into the hands of first responders? I’m taking a Harvard Business School class on this question right now, and the phrase I keep on hearing over and over is “selling to government is hard.” First, you need to get the attention of public officials or high ranking members of first responder organizations. Next, you need to convince them that they have the money for your product, that it’s easy to use your product, and that they need your product.

In a conversation I had with a few wilderness firefighters, I asked them what products they needed the most. The answer was shoes. Wilderness firefighters’ feet hurt because their shoes need to last a long time and protect their feet in lots of different environments, so oftentimes it’s the firefighters’ feet that end up adapting to rugged, uncomfortable boots, rather than the other way around. How do you sell flying robots to people whose top priority is better shoes?

So, if building is hard and takes a long time, and selling is hard and takes a long time, and there’s no guarantee of making money, who in the world would develop for first responders? No one. And that’s pretty much exactly what we see. There are pockets of innovation, but the game-changing products rarely make it to market. Any brand new equipment is generally a slightly improved version of the same old equipment that’s been used for years.

This needs to change. There are people dying because those who are tasked with saving them are not fully equipped for the job. While the tools currently given to first responders allow them to complete most of their missions and save most lives, we need a pipeline for building new technology that first responders actually use to complete every mission and save every life. At first, the new technology will likely be expensive and less intuitive than the old equipment, but as costs decrease and intuition builds, lives will be saved.

If there’s a fire at your house, which future do you want?

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