First responders gear up

Perhaps the pace is not as swift as some would like, but a host of interesting and valuable new technologies is making its way from the development labs into the hands of those who work on the front lines of homeland security.

Among the technologies are sophisticated video systems that can alert security officials to suspicious activity, such as a bag left unattended at an airport terminal or a person trespassing in a secure area. Multimedia-equipped handheld computers enable first responders to survey a disaster scene with real-time video or see maps showing potential dangers such as a nearby chemical storage tank. And emergency management teams can carry mobile networks to communicate with one another even when the local network infrastructure gets knocked out.

In this special report, we take a closer look at the latest developments in those fields and offer numerous examples of how agencies are already putting products to work — or laying the groundwork to use them in the


One aspect of the development and deployment of homeland security technologies that bodes well for their success — besides the obvious value to those who use them — is the strong opportunity for synergy among them. For example, advances that make the transmission and management of digital video more efficient for surveillance systems can play a role in an application that beams video to a fire captain's handheld computer. Likewise, the mobile networks that enable first responders to communicate in any locale can also carry the map data that warns them about nearby


Another plus is that the needs driving the market for these technologies are not limited to the homeland security arena of firefighters, police and emergency management officials. The same tools are equally valuable to military forces, who, like first responders, also require mobile, resilient technology that allows them to communicate and access data in the field. This creates an excellent opportunity for development efforts designed for one community to be tapped by another. And this dual use creates a bigger market for the products and encourages more companies to invest in them.

As developers design homeland security tools they should keep in mind the special environments in which the products will be used. Many lessons have been learned in the past few years about wireless networks and the now-common personal digital assistants.

For example, emergency workers need a way to input information into handheld devices that is quick and nearly foolproof. Voice-recognition capabilities can be useful here. Also, the amount of information presented on a device, which should vary according to the role of the person using it, also has to be managed carefully so that users are not distracted or overwhelmed by data.

Testing products in the field and training users are also important parts of the process. One story in this report shows how agencies are using disaster simulations and other readiness exercises to test the new equipment's effectiveness and start the necessary training. These exercises are necessary because a real disaster scene, where lives are at stake, is not an ideal place for on-the-job training.

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