EMERGE: The Future of the First Responder

In August, TechNexus announced the second year of the EMERGE Accelerator, our unique partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) focused on catalyzing and commercializing technologies to enhance the safety and productivity of first responders — police officers, firefighters, emergency medical professionals, and a number of other public and emergency safety personnel.

As we set out on a path that would eventually include hundreds of in-depth conversations with entrepreneurs, first responders, investors, and industry partners, we laid out a number of focus areas around product form factors and high-level use cases that we collectively believed were imperative to effectively preparing and outfitting the first responder of the future.

Throughout the process of having these discussions and synthesizing our learnings, we found these initial focus areas turned out to be just as important as we anticipated and the companies that were ultimately selected fit well into one of more of the categories. What became more important in our evaluation process, however, were key behavioral, purchasing, and distribution trends that the best companies were tapping into in order to compete in a traditionally difficult market on more than simply product quality.

Here, we will touch briefly on all of these overarching themes and, over the course of the next couple months, explore them and the companies that embody them more deeply in an effort to paint a picture of the type of innovation occurring in the first responder market.

Taken together, this set of themes make up a large subset of what is driving the first responder space forward, but it is in no way intended to be entirely exhaustive — as we have come to learn, both during last year’s inaugural program and in the run up to this year’s, more themes will develop and our understanding of them will evolve over the course of the program.

Zero UI

We heard the term “zero UI” mentioned while listening to Jeremy Wall and Adam Janecka of Lumenus describe their product and felt that it succinctly summed up one of the most common refrains we were hearing in conversations with first responders across the United States.

First responder can’t afford, for one second, to have their heads down looking at a screen or to have one of their hands occupied with picking up or touching a device. That single second is often the difference harm and safety for first responders, their teams, and the people they are protecting and serving.

Smart glasses, for example, are an interesting — and almost obvious — implementation of a touchless future, and while heads up displays are yet to deliver on their promise in the consumer space (although that may soon change), they are making a measurable impact on the way first responders perform their duties.

From Six-15, Augmate, and Visual Semantics in the heads up display and smart glasses space to Lumenus and Human Systems Integration, who leverage different types of smart clothing to improve safety and situational awareness, this year’s cohort includes a number of teams exploring new ways for humans to interact with devices and technology in high-stress situations.

Follow the Enterprise

Over the last 10 years in the enterprise, we have seen a tremendous shift in the way software products are bought and sold. As cloud infrastructure decentralizes technology buying decisions in organizations and tech savvy individual contributors — who now spend a bulk of away-from-work time interfacing with software products — become the buyers, “bottoms up” distribution has become far more prevalent.

Buying decisions in the first responder space have long mirrored those in the enterprise space, as vendors aimed to impress the head of IT instead of the individual police officer. Companies like VaultRMS, LuminAID, and Pear Sports are three of the companies in this year’s cohort participating in what could loosely be called the “consumerization of the first responder.”

No matter where the buying decision actually occurs, the usage and implementation decision rests with the first responders asked to take these products into the field each and every day. To paraphrase Andreessen Horowitz’s Benedict Evans, tools must follow workflows before they can replace them.

This is far more true in the first responder space than in the enterprise since, as we noted in the section above, anything that throws a first responder off for even an extra second can result in serious consequences for anyone involved in these life or death situations. If emerging products and services don’t ultimately provide a differentiated user experience that plays nice with current toolkits, the odds of adoption and, by extension, business success are exceedingly low.

Software Eats Wearables

If it seems strange that many of the companies in this year’s cohort aren’t creating a hardware, body-worn product, it shouldn’t.

The way wearables are thought of today is somewhat analogous to the way the mobile phone market was viewed pre-App Store, when the hardware — better cameras, screens, speed — was where the bulk of the competition was occurring. Once the developer ecosystem around the App Store began to mature, software expanded the use cases and reach of the mobile phone market beyond anything most imagined.

We have now reached a point in the first responder market where many emerging companies that leverage wearable based sensors started off building some kind of hardware/software hybrid before deciding to focus solely on differentiating through software. Like the mobile phone market, innovation (and competition) will continue on an upward trajectory, it will simply be more concentrated among larger players with strong, existing distribution networks and the ability to spend heavily on R&D.

Most of the next generation of companies — like, CommandWear which has developed a software platform to integrate data from wearables and sensors and give responders real time communication capabilities with improved situational awareness — may skip that hardware experimentation phase altogether, allowing them to stay nimble and remain agnostic to which devices and form factors emerge and take hold in the market.

On top of that, and as we have had pointed out to us numerous times over the last few months, the reality is that there simply isn’t much capacity for more equipment on the body of first responders. Fire fighters, for example, carry equipment that can weigh in excess of 70 pounds and are covered head to toe in gear. Like we touched on above, anything that doesn’t immediately integrate with existing technology and attire is facing a steeply uphill battle. It is a lot easier to do this, and to gain an initial foothold, with a software-first approach.

Follow the Enterprise

A conversation about a first responder accelerator with people from outside market generally elicits some form of these two comments:

  • “Seems like a very niche market.”
  • “Seems like that’d be an extremely difficult market to sell into.”

To a degree, both are true and speak to the history of disconnect between the startup ecosystem and the first responder world. Founders see a path to market riddled with bureaucratic hurdles and loops just to sell into departments and organizations faced with constant budget uncertainty.

So what, exactly, is the path forward to bring products to market in a cost and time-efficient manner when the issues outlined above are sure to stick around for the foreseeable future?

For companies like the aforementioned Augmate and Six-15 along with HaaS Alert, the creators of a mobile vehicle-to-vehicle communication platform, this path has been through the enterprise. Since the first responder of the future looks a lot like the miner, utility worker, or general laborer from a technology utilization perspective, companies that find an initial niche in an adjacent market (or who form relationships with entrenched suppliers to the first responder world) can more quickly iterate to a product that fits into a first responder use case.

This doesn’t necessarily solve, for example, the firefighter version of the last mile problem — that no other use case, from military, to mining, to utility work, truly matches up with needing to be able to take a product into a burning building, have it stand up to 1000°+ heat, and then bring it back again the next day. But it can provide some cost relief and helps position the first responder space as an accessible and profitable adjacency for many industrial products.

Preventative Human Performance Training

The work of a first responder is physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. That should be immediately obvious to any observer. What may be less obvious to outsiders is the form with which this danger typically presents itself.

While police officers face a constant threat of assault and attacks via deadly weapons, vehicle crashes are equally as likely to cause fatal injuries (a problem being tackled by HAAS Alert). And in an area with more relevance to the theme of preventative human performance training, non fatal injuries that result in lost work time are most often simple strains and sprains occurring during foot pursuits or other physical encounters that an increasing number of officers are not fit enough to handle properly.

As noted in a report prepared by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, officers engaged in fitness training regimens are less likely to suffer these types of injuries and require less rehabilitation and fewer missed days of work to recover. For that reason, the report recommends that agencies implement mandatory fitness programs.

This is true as well for firefighters, where the number one reason for loss of life is cardiac arrest (not burns or building collapses).

Pear Sports is directly addressing the problems above with its responsive training platform, which incorporates numerous forms of biofeedback and makes it easy for agencies to offer tailored fitness programs to officers.

VaultRMS is working to solve the next biggest killer among fire fighters — cancer resulting from chronic exposure to toxic substances — by providing an affordable and simple way to track every exposure over the course of one’s career.

Beyond the physical impact of the job, first responders face a bevy of stressful situations that training and ongoing monitoring often fail to properly address. Former police sergeant and current University of Washington sociologist put it this way in a recent quote in Scientific American:

“Put plainly, when cops mess up, the explanations offered tend to be ethical and political, when the more empirically solid explanations are much simpler than that — they are basic failures of human performance under stress. We need evidence-based, human performance training that starts in the academy and continues across every career phase, so when you’re tired, scared or stressed, you still do the right thing.”

If first responders are not physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to take on the rigors of their duties, no amount of tactical technology will help make them effective and the companies that make up this cohort seem well aware of that fact.

First Responder Technology: A Crucial Piece of Smarter Societies

How do we make the societies that we live in safer, more secure, and more resilient? This is a question that many great organizations and brilliant people around the world are working to solve. In the venture and startup space alone, outstanding firms like UrbanUs and Urban Futures Lab are building robust communities to support the people and companies building the future of how we will live together. This is in addition to the countless university organizations, non-profits, and city and government departments working on innovative solutions to the problems we all face.

The first responder market, is of course, an important subset of this broader ecosystem of innovation.

That is why companies like LuminAID, founded by two architects in response to the 2011 Haiti earthquake, has set its sights on expanding beyond disaster relief in order to find first responder-specific use cases and form factors for its lighting and solar technology.

With more companies like LuminAID — and the others involved in this year’s EMERGE cohort — realizing the potential for impact offered by building for first responder use cases, we are excited about the innovation ecosystem developing to drive our societies into a safer, more secure, and more resilient future.