October 5, 2012

Health, Safety And Technology Tools Merge At Homeland Security

John Neumann for - Your Universe Online

Most of us grew up on television, films and comic books featuring characters casually using incredible technologies that seemed plausible but always somewhat far-off into the future. But look around today and notice how incredible some mundane objects are when compared to our youth. Now also notice how those technologies are also keeping tabs on you.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) maintains a special department, called Homeland Security Studies & Analysis Institute (HSSAI), a division of the DHS´s Science & Technology Directorate that broadly shapes the future of technologies that you buy into.

In the HSSAI 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.

DHS´s First Responders Group and FEMA´s National Preparedness Directorate turned to Tuohy´s team for assistance back in 2011 to aid in forecasting the needs of first responders. The result was Project Responder 3 (PR3): Toward the First Responder of the Future. PR3 identified the most critically needed capabilities to ensure that responders could meet disasters swiftly, surely and safely in the next 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.

Building on Project Responder 1 & 2's goal insights, the new report imagines how technologies will become workaday tools that are easily carried and used. Going further, PR3 singles out technologies that will be needed by responders in multiple disciplines–for example, by firefighters, medics and police.

In this way, DHS and its partners can make the most of limited resources by solving several challenges at once. The forward-thinking brains in the study were also asked to consider 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?

Data from PR3 came primarily from comments and priorities voiced in 2011 by four focus groups, each composed of law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and emergency managers. 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?

Dick Tracy Was Just The Beginning

Some of the so-called future technology of fiction that are now or are soon becoming affordable realities include the 2-way Dick Tracy-style wrist radio. Of course most all of us have a far advanced version of this in our smartphones. From the comfort of our couch or coffee bar, we can touch a single button and be in contact with pretty much anyone in the world for the cost of a cell phone plan.

The beat cop of the near future will be donning “augmented reality” eyeglasses that can ID any shady character while approaching him. Armed with assistive technologies like data visualization, the law enforcer will also be fighting new forms of cyber crime. Wirelessly “plugged in” to a homeland-security network, he´ll spend less time responding to crime, and more time thwarting it.

23rd Century Star Trek Technologies Now

Smartphone apps right now are being developed that will be able to assess the general health of someone by holding a plug-in monitor over the patient similar to the television show´s tricorder that looks overly-large and cumbersome now. FDA approvals are the only stumbling blocks at this moment but that is being changed as fast as it can.

Using telemedicine via Skype-style communications, the paramedic of the future will make tough calls and perform advanced procedures on site, aided by expert systems and doctors watching from a distant emergency room.

The medicine bag of the present is already filled with amazing technology that was unthinkable just a decade ago and future emergency kits will be even more capable with bags of artificial red blood cells to aid at trauma scenes. Glues that act as sutures, smart bandages that indicate which type of bacteria may be infecting an open wound and even stimulate blood vessel growth to speed the healing process.

Bionic Man-Style Limbs, Iron Man-Style Protection

Along with dizzying advances in artificial limbs that can make athletes run faster and jump higher than normal persons, an Iron Man-style exoskeleton would allow a first responder to lift and carry victims with much more ease than even a well conditioned person could.

Imagine also advanced thermal and environmental-resistant suits that allow extended activity in harsh or poisonous environments. These outfits could be fitted with language translators, satellite communications, etc., ready for almost any scenario.

This is a dizzying array of technology and although some of it is reality today and some is feasible, none of it will be cheap to scale up, that is why the DHS has not committed publicly to a mass adoption of such tools as of yet.

But when the next major disaster strikes and you need rescuing, you may wish they had.