Updated: May 3
What do first responders see as their most important communication technology needs? In 2018, the Department of Commerce, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) interviewed 133 first responders in the law enforcement, firefighter, and paramedic fields spanning urban, suburban, and rural jurisdictions. This paper is a summary of the findings of that human factors study with an added focus on first responder applications, or "first responder apps".
The Times, They Are a-Changing'
Beginning in 2007 with the release of the iPhone, the proliferation of mobile technology, such as smartphones and tablets, is shifting how people communicate, including first responders. "The public safety community is transitioning from land mobile radios to a communications technology ecosystem including a variety of broadband data sharing platforms." Many of these broadband data sharing platforms package their services as applications for computer web-browser and smart devices.
"The public safety community is transitioning from land mobile radios to a communications technology ecosystem including a variety of broadband data sharing platforms." - NIST First Responders Study
First responders - law enforcement, firefighters, and paramedics - react to an extremely wide range of incidents daily. Some events fall well outside assigned duties, skills, or training. To be successful, first responders must "expect the unexpected" and function as a jack-of-all-trades. The needs of first responders vary by discipline, location, role, and other factors. Because of this, the study found that there is no "one-size fits all" solution, meaning no single solution will work for all first responders in all situations, all the time.
But Some Needs Universal
The study, however, found that while first responder needs vary, they all still share universal similarities. Specifically, "...all [first responders] need to know the location and nature of incidents, and traffic patterns while en route...."
....no single solution will work for all first responders in all situations, all the time....but, "...all need to know the location and nature of incidents, and traffic patterns while en route...."
Navigation directions, are not mentioned specifically in the study, but should be implied from the need to know "...traffic patterns while en route". A wireless incident alert with embedded navigation directions effectively answers the need to know the nature of an incident, it's location, and the optimal way to get there. Even though a first responder may be familiar with the area and know a route to the incident, it may not be the most time-efficient route at that moment. Dynamically updated navigation directions can provide significant time-saving advantages by freeing up the first responder to focus on moving to the incident, rather than wayfinding.
Tech designed for the user
Technology must be designed for the user. Beyond this, for any first responder app to be valuable, it must be not simply just designed for the user, but designed so it is easy for the user to learn, understand, and operate.
Desire for "Better, Faster, Cheaper"
First responders, like everyone, want technology solutions that are "better, faster, cheaper, and easier to use". While this is impossible with many new technologies, as they mature, "better, faster, cheaper" becomes possible. The more broadly a technology is adopted, the wider it's impact. Mobile and web applications have entered this stage and will continue to accelerate in usefulness, capacity, and speed as wireless networks transition to 5G mobile service over the next 3-8 years. While some first responder applications will become more affordable, there will still be a minimum price threshold. As an anecdote, caution should be paid to "freemium" offerings. The old mantra remains true, "if something is free, you are the product".
What do first responders want and need from technology?
Improve current technology, the technology that officers already use. The most used technology is the technology you already use. This means any new applications of technology, such as a first responder app, needs to rely on things most users already use every day. New technology should focus on making existing technology, for example, a smartphone, tablet, or computer, more effective and more useful.
Reduce unintended consequences. Minimize the negative effects of reliance on technology.
Recognize one size does not fit all. No single solution will work for all first responders in all situations, all the time.
Minimize technology for technology's sake. Do not adopt technology that is a solution looking for a problem. Tech must first solve the felt needs of first responders.
Lower product and service costs. Technology must be affordable for it to be adopted by many first responders in a meaningful way.
Require useable technology. At the end of the day, the purpose of technology is to make your job easier. This means, "Develop ‘Fisher-Price’ solutions – simple, easy to use, light, fast, and not disruptive. Technology should make it easy to do the right thing, hard to do the wrong thing, and easy to recover when the wrong thing happens."
"Develop ‘Fisher-Price’ solutions – simple, easy to use, light, fast, and not disruptive." - NIST First Responders Study
Building the trust to use new technology requires consistent, positive, performance over time. Past bad experiences with other technologies bias a first responder against adopting new technology, even if the implementation performs well. This trust is most significantly shaped in the beginning.
First responder feedback is central to developing usable and effective technology solutions, such as a first responder app. The result of this feedback should be to make it easier for you as a first responder to do your job.
"Technology should make it easy to do the right thing, hard to do the wrong thing, and easy to recover when the wrong thing happens." - NIST First Responders Study
While leadership is often the deciding factor in purchasing new technology, adoption of it within an organization will fail unless the first responder force sees "immediate and tangible benefits to themselves". To be adopted, new technology, especially a first responder app, must make a first responder more:
Effective: Do the job better.
Efficient: Do the job faster and easier.
Satisfied: Feel confident and at ease doing the job.
What is an example?
Live Alarm by Lifeline Applications is a mobile and web first responder app designed to help first responders deal with a wide range of emergencies including an active shooter or mass shooting situation. With it, first responders can notify all personnel involved of an incident, share text, photos, videos, view and edit a common map, and plot navigations directions to the site. This first responder app frequently receives unsolicited feedback from clients indicating how easy it is to learn and use. To learn more, please visit the Lifeline Applications website or contact us.
Reference: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Study: "Public Safety Communication User Needs: Voices of First Responders" https://www.nist.gov/publications/public-safety-communication-user-needs-voices-first-responders. A public version may be accessed at: https://tsapps.nist.gov/publication/get_pdf.cfm?pub_id=925970
Cite as: Dawkins, S. , Greene, K. , Steves, M. , Theofanos, M. , Choong, Y. , Furman, S. and Prettyman, S. (2018), Public Safety Communication User Needs: Voices of First Responders, Proceedings of the 2018 Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, PA, [online], https://doi.org/10.1177/1541931218621021 (Accessed February 23, 2022)