Far, far beyond wrist radios

October 04, 2012

To believe that technologies once dreamed of in science fiction novels, television shows, and comic strips may one day be a reality, or that real-world technologies might make the fantastic devices of fiction obsolete, you'd need to be either an optimist...or a futurist in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)'s Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).

To keep dreams grounded, S&T maintains a team of futurists in Arlington, Va., at the Homeland Security Studies & Analysis Institute (HSSAI). There, in the Resilience and Emergency Preparedness / Response Branch, analysts explore the art of the possible, helping DHS shape dreams into a lucid, viable vision. "Revolutionary ways of working are often invented because visionaries saw a need and a novel way to meet it," said Deputy Director Bob Tuohy, who is an admitted sci-fi enthusiast.

In 2011, S&T's First Responders Group and FEMA's National Preparedness Directorate turned to Tuohy's team for assistance in forecasting first responder needs. The result was Project Responder 3: Toward the First Responder of the Future (PR3). The third in a series, PR3 identified the capabilities most critically needed to ensure that responders could meet disasters swiftly, surely, and safely in three to five years. "Faced with difficult budget choices, it's vital that the Department get it right so researchers explore the most pressing problems and companies develop the most wished-for tools," said Patrick Spahn, director of S&T's Operations Analysis / FFRDC Management Branch.

While PRs 1 and 2 (2004 and 2008) viewed technologies as a goal, the new report imagines how technologies will become workaday tools that are easily carried and used. Going further, it singles out technologies that will be needed by responders in multiple disciplines--for example, by firefighters and medics, or by emergency managers and police. In this way, DHS and its partners can make the most of limited resources by solving several challenges at once.

Beyond today's fiscal constraints, state and local responders needed to envision a future when budgets may be more solvent. "They asked us to forget that, today, everyone's broke," recalls Tuohy, "and imagine a 'blue sky' scenario, where anything might be possible."

The researchers were also asked to remember that people, places, and industries were becoming ever-more connected and interdependent. How might these dependencies make energy, water, food, and cyberspace itself more vulnerable to attack?

PR3 wasn't the first time the Department gazed a full generation into the future. For FEMA's Strategic Foresight Initiative (2011), DHS futurists flashed-forward to 2026 to help emergency managers understand how their role would be redefined by changes in climate, technology, and society. Every four years, the U.S. Coast Guard conducts its Evergreen process. And the Defense Department, through DARPA, routinely looks far into the future. The HSSAI researchers pored over similar studies from government, academia, responder groups, and industry. It was time well-spent. "We used Evergreen as a model for mapping scenarios against potential capabilities," says Tuohy.

PR3's data came primarily from comments and priorities voiced in 2011 by four focus groups, each composed of law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, and emergency managers. The responders discussed and debated how their jobs would be transformed by changes in the economy, technology, and society, as well as by future calamities rivaling 9/11 or Japan's 2011 nuclear meltdown. How would these changes alter the role of the responder as an individual, on a small team? In a vast network? During a typical day or an anything-but-typical disaster?

If you're versed in network crime dramas--or Star Trek--PR3's findings will bear a familiar ring. If you're not, brace yourself for future shock: The EM, the cop, the fireman, and the medic share a need for game-changers such as multithreat protective suits that are comfortable, light, and slim; intelligent avatars that understand the spoken word; universal translators to let them converse with nervous immigrants; and new learning tools to help them master the new technologies. And responders will need smarter ways to work, team, enlist savvy citizens, and do their jobs if technology fails.

If you think S&T's researchers reached these conclusions by taking notes and tallying votes, think again. Since focus groups are small, findings can be unreliable. To firm up their findings, the HSSAI researchers turned to a survey technique called the Q Methodology--an intensive exercise that revealed, in nuanced detail, how respondents felt about their various needs. Each responder studied a long list of needs, ranking each need's priority from +3 to -3. Then, the researchers used factor analysis--a technique for describing how dramatically correlations vary--to reveal clusters of like priorities farther down the responders' wish lists.

Through factor analysis, an also-ran technology--much like an also-ran talent-show contender--may emerge as an unlikely favorite. When voters merely vote for their favorite contender, the nerd will lose--the fallback of millions, the favorite of few. But when voters voice how strongly they feel about each contender, their new idol may turn out to be the improbable, unglamorous nerd.

Meanwhile, responder agencies must face greater challenges imposed by budgetary belt-tightening, fiscal shortfalls, out-of-reach costs, out-of-touch policies, and out-of-date procedures.

Perhaps the pop-culture accounts of responder technologies are part of that problem. "Everything people see on TV, they think we have," one first responder remarked, adding that this delusion complicates matters when responder agencies are appealing for funds. Talent-show viewers can vote with their phones, but responders must vote with their wallets. That's why S&T is appealing to private industry to provide affordable answers.

Some answers will raise legal or ethical questions. For example, will a paramedic be free to view a patient's entire medical history, or view only the parts that can help her save a life? If a surgeon in Scranton is guiding a paramedic in Pittsburgh, what happens if the link fails?

And how do you sue an avatar for malpractice? Before telemedicine makes its debut, responders will need to hear from experts in medical malpractice and privacy.

That's fine with Spahn, who noted, "Anytime you deploy a new technology, life gets in the way. That's one reason we look so far into the future."

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," said the late Yogi Berra. Project Responder 3 marked the first time S&T tuned its crystal ball 20 years out. But it won't be the last. In 2014, the digital ink will dry on PR4. What new capabilities, and new challenges, might that report describe? It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it. And for DHS, HSSAI will do it right.
To learn how the Homeland Security Studies & Analysis Institute can help your agency turn technology planning into a viable vision, contact Pat Spahn at patrick.spahn@hq.dhs.gov.

US Department of Homeland Security - Science and Technology

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