May
09
2021
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The human-focused startups of the hellfire

Disasters may not always be man-made, but they are always responded to by humans. There’s a whole panoply of skills and professions required today to respond to even the tiniest emergency, and that doesn’t even include the needs during pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery. It’s not a very remunerative industry for most and the mental health effects from stress can linger for decades, but the mission at the core of this work — to help people in the time of their greatest need — is what continues to attract many to partake in this never-ending battle anyway.

In the last three parts of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, I’ve focused on, well, technology, and specifically the sales cycle for new products, the sudden data deluge now that Internet of Things (IoT) is in full force, and the connectivity that allows that data to radiate all around. What we haven’t looked at enough so far is the human element: the people who actually respond to disasters as well as what challenges they face and how technology can help them.

So in this fourth and final part of the series, we’ll look at four areas where humans and technology intersect within disaster response and what future opportunities lie in this market: training and development, mental health, crowdsourced responses to disasters, and our doomsday future of hyper-complex emergencies.

Training in a hellfire

Most fields have linear approaches to training. To become a software engineer, students learn some computer science theory, add in some programming practice, and voilà (note: your mileage may vary). To become a medical doctor, aspiring physicians take an undergraduate curriculum teeming with biology and chemistry, head to medical school for two deadened years of core anatomy and other classes and then switch into clinical rotations, a residency, and maybe fellowships.

But how do you train someone to respond to emergencies?

From 911 call takers to EMTs and paramedics to emergency planning officials and the on-the-ground responders who are operating in the center of the storm as it were, there are large permutations in the skills required to do these jobs well. What’s necessary aren’t just specific hard skills like using call dispatch software or knowing how to upload video from a disaster site, but also critically-important softer skills as well: precisely communicating, having sangfroid, increasing agility, and balancing improvisation with consistency. The chaos element also can’t be overstated: every disaster is different, and these skills must be viscerally recombined and exercised under extreme pressure with frequently sparse information.

A whole range of what might be dubbed “edtech” products could serve these needs, and not just exclusively for emergency management.

Communications, for instance, isn’t just about team communications, but also communicating with many different constituencies. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, a social scientist at RAND Corporation, said that “a lot of these skills are social skills — being able to work with different groups of people in culturally and socially appropriate ways.” He notes that the field of emergency management has heightened attention to these issues in recent years, and “the skillset we need is to work with those community structures” that already exist where a disaster strikes.

As we’ve seen in the tech industry the last few years, cross-cultural communication skills remain scarce. One can always learn this just through repeated experiences, but could we train people to develop empathy and understanding through software? Can we develop better and richer scenarios to train emergency responders — and all of us, really — on how to communicate effectively in widely diverging conditions? That’s a huge opportunity for a startup to tackle.

Emergency management is now a well-developed career path. “The history of the field is very fascinating, [it’s] been increasingly professionalized, with all these certifications,” Clark-Ginsberg said. That professionalization “standardizes emergency response so that you know what you are getting since they have all these certs, and you know what they know and what they don’t.” Certifications can indicate singular competence, but perhaps not holistic assessment, and it’s a market that offers opportunities for new startups to create better assessments.

Like many of us, responders get used to doing the same thing over and over again, and that can make training for new skills even more challenging. Michael Martin of emergency data management platform RapidSOS describes how 911 call takers get used to muscle memory, “so switching to a new system is very high-risk.” No matter how bad existing software interfaces are, changing them will very likely slow every single response down while increasing the risk of errors. That’s why the company offers “25,000 hours a year for training, support, integration.” There remains a huge and relatively fragmented market for training staff as well as transitioning them from one software stack to another.

Outside these somewhat narrow niches, there is a need for a massive renaissance in training in this whole area. My colleague Natasha Mascarenhas recently wrote an EC-1 on Duolingo, an app designed to gamify and entrance students interested in learning second languages. It’s a compelling product, and there is no comparative training system for engaging the full gamut of first responders.

Art delaCruz, COO and president of Team Rubicon, a non-profit which assembles teams of volunteer military veterans to respond to natural disasters, said that it’s an issue his organization is spending more time thinking about. “Part of resilience is education, and the ability to access information, and that is a gap that we continue to close on,” he said. “How do you present information that’s more simple than [a learning management system]?” He described the need for “knowledge bombs like flash cards” to regularly provide responders with new knowledge while testing existing ideas.

There’s also a need to scale up best practices rapidly across the world. Tom Cotter, director of emergency response and preparedness at Project Hope, a non-profit which empowers local healthcare workers in disaster-stricken and impoverished areas, said that in the context of COVID-19, “a lot of what was going to be needed [early on] was training — there were huge information gaps at the clinical level, how to communicate it at a community level.” The organization developed a curriculum with Brown University’s Watson Institute in the form of interactive PowerPoints that were ultimately used to train 100,000 healthcare workers on the new virus, according to Cotter.

When I look at the spectrum of edtech products existing today, one of the key peculiarities is just how narrow each seems to focus. There are apps for language learning and for learning math and developing literacy. There are flash card apps like Anki that are popular among medical students, and more interactive approaches like Labster for science experiments and Sketchy for learning anatomy.

Yet, for all the talk of boot camps in Silicon Valley, there is no edtech company that tries to completely transform a student in the way that a bona fide boot camp does. No startup wants to holistically develop their students, adding in hard skills while also advancing the ability to handle stress, the improvisation needed to confront rapidly-changing environments, and the skills needed to communicate with empathy.

Maybe that can’t be done with software. Maybe. Or perhaps, no founder has just had the ambition so far to go for broke — to really revolutionize how we think about training the next generation of emergency management professionals and everyone else in private industry who needs to handle stress or think on their feet just as much as frontline workers.

That’s the direction where Bryce Stirton, president and co-founder of public-safety company Responder Corp, has been thinking about. “Another area I am personally a fan of is the training space around VR,” he said. “It’s very difficult to synthesize these stressful environments,” in areas like firefighting, but new technologies have “the ability to pump the heart that you need to experience in training.” He concludes that “the VR world, it can have a large impact.”

Healing after disaster

When it comes to trauma, few fields face quite the challenge as emergency response. It’s work that almost by definition forces its personnel to confront some of the most harrowing scenes imaginable. Death and destruction are given, but what’s not always accounted for is the lack of agency in some of these contexts for first responders — the family that can’t be saved in time so a 911 call taker has to offer final solace, or the paramedics who don’t have the right equipment even as they are showing up on site.

Post-traumatic stress is perhaps the most well-known and common mental health condition facing first responders, although it is hardly the only one. How to ameliorate and potentially even cure these conditions represents a burgeoning area of investment and growth for a number of startups and investors.

Risk & Return, for instance, is a venture firm heavily focused on companies working on mental health as well as human performance more generally. In my profile of the firm a few weeks ago, managing director Jeff Eggers said that “We love that type of technology since it has that dual purpose: going to serve the first responder on the ground, but the community is also going to benefit.”

Two examples of companies from its portfolio are useful here to explore as examples of different pathways in this category. The first is Alto Neuroscience, which is a stealthy startup founded by Amit Etkin, a multidisciplinary neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Stanford, to create new clinical treatments to post-traumatic stress and other conditions based on brainwave data. Given its therapeutic focus, it’s probably years before testing and regulatory approvals come through, but this sort of research is on the cutting-edge of innovation here.

The second company is NeuroFlow, which is a software startup using apps to guide patients to better mental health outcomes. Through persistent polling, testing, and collaboration with practitioners, the company’s tools allow for more active monitoring of mental health — looking for emerging symptoms or relapses in even the most complicated cases. NeuroFlow is more on the clinical side, but there are obviously a wealth of wellness startups that have percolated in recent years as well like Headspace and Calm.

Outside of therapeutics and software though, there are entirely new frontiers around mental health in areas like psychedelics. That was one of the trends I called out as a top five area for investment in the 2020s earlier this year, and I stand by that. We’ve also covered a startup called Osmind which is a clinical platform for managing patients with a psychedelic focus.

Risk & Return itself hasn’t made an investment in psychedelics yet, but Bob Kerrey, the firm’s board chairman and the former co-chair of the 9/11 Commission as well as former governor and senator of Nebraska, said that “it’s difficult to do this if you are the government, but easier to do this in the private sector.”

Similar to edtech, mental health startups might get their start in the first responder community, but they are hardly limited to this population. Post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions affect wide swaths of the world’s population, and solutions that work in one community can often translate more broadly to others. It’s a massive, massive market, and one that could potentially transform the lives of millions of people for the better.

Before moving on, there’s one other area of interest here, and that is creating impactful communities for healing. First responders and military veterans experience a mission and camaraderie in their service that they often lack once they are in new jobs or on convalescence. DelaCruz of Team Rubicon says that one of the goals of bringing veterans to help in disaster regions is that the veterans themselves “reconnect with identity and community — we have these incredible assets in these men and women who have served.” It’s not enough to just find a single treatment per patient — we oftentimes need to zoom out to the wider population to see how mental health ripples out.

Helping people find purpose may not be the easiest challenge to solve as a startup, but it’s certainly a major challenge for many, and an area fermenting with new approaches now that the the social networking wave has reached its nadir.

Crowdsourcing disaster response

Decentralization has been all the rage in tech in recent years — just mention the word blockchain in a TechCrunch article to get at least 50 PR emails about the latest NFT for a toilet stain. While there is obviously a lot of noise, one area where substance may pan out well is in disaster response.

If the COVID-19 pandemic showed anything, it was the power of the internet to aggregate as well as verify data, build dashboards, and deliver highly-effective visualizations of complex information for professionals and laypeople alike. Those products were developed by people all around the world often from the comfort of their own homes, and they demonstrate how crowds can quickly draft serious labor to help respond to crises as they crop up.

Jonathan Sury, project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said that “COVID has really blown so much of what we think about out of the water.” With so many ways to collaborate online right now, “that’s what I would say is very exciting … and also practical and empowering.”

Clark-Ginsberg of RAND calls it the “next frontier of disaster management.” He argues that “if you can use technology to broaden the number of people who can participate in disaster management and respond to disasters,” then we might be reaching an entirely new paradigm for what effective disaster response will look like. “Formal structures [for professional frontline workers] have strengthened and that has saved lives and resources, but our ability to engage with everyday responders is still something to work on.”

Many of the tools that underpin these crowdsourced efforts don’t even focus on disasters. Sury pointed to Tableau and data visualization platform Flourish as examples of the kinds of tools that remote, lay first responders are using. There are now quite robust tools for tabular data, but we’re still relatively early in the development of tools for handling mapping data — obviously critical in the crisis context. Unfolded.ai, which I profiled earlier this year, is working on building scalable geospatial analytics in the browser. A lot more can be done here.

Oftentimes there are ways to coordinate the coordinators. Develop for Good, which I looked at late last year, is a non-profit designed to connect enterprising computer science students to software and data projects at non-profits and agencies that needed help during the pandemic. Sometimes these coordinators are non-profit orgs, and sometimes, just very active Twitter accounts. There’s a lot more experimentation possible on how to coordinate efforts in a decentralized way while still engaging with professional first responders and the public sector.

Speaking of decentralization, it’s even possible that blockchain could play a role in disaster and crisis response. Many of these opportunities rest on using blockchain for evidence collection or for identity. For example, earlier this week Leigh Cuen took a careful look at an at-home sexual assault evidence collection kit from Leda Health that uses the blockchain to establish a clear time for when a sample was collected.

There is a lot more potential to harness the power of crowdsourcing and decentralization, and many of these projects have applications far outside disaster management itself. These tools not only solve real problems — they provide real community to people who may not be related to the disaster itself, but are enthusiastic to do their part to help others.

The black swans of black swans

In terms of startups, the three markets I identified — better training, better mental health, and better crowdsourcing collaboration tools, particularly around data — collectively represent a very compelling set of markets that will not only be valuable for founders, but can rapidly improve lives.

In his book Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow talks about how an increasing level of complexity and coupledness in our modern technical systems all but guarantee disasters to occur. Add in a warming world as well as the intensity, frequency, and just plain unusualness of disasters arriving each year, and we are increasingly seeing entirely novel forms of emergencies we have never responded to before. Take most recently the ultra-frigid conditions in Texas that sapped power from its grid, leading to statewide blackouts for hours and days in some parts of the state.

Clark-Ginsberg said, “We are seeing these risks emerge that aren’t just typical wildfires — where we have a response structure that we can easily setup and manage the hazard, [we’re] very good at managing these typical disasters. There are more of these atypical disasters cropping up, and we have a very hard time setting up structures for this — the pandemic is a great example of that.”

He describes these challenges as “trans-boundary risk management,” disasters that cross bureaucratic lines, professions, societies, and means of action. “It takes a certain agility and the ability to move quickly and the ability to work in ways outside typical bureaucratic structures, and that is just challenging full stop,” he said.

The Future of Technology and Disaster Response

Even as we begin to have better point solutions to the individual problems that disasters and their responses require, we can’t be remiss in neglecting the more systematic challenges that these emergencies are bringing to the fore. We have to start thinking about bringing humans together faster and in more novel ways to be the most effective, while coupling them flexibly and with agility to the best tools that meet their needs in the moment. That’s probably not literally “a startup,” but more a way of thinking about what it means to construct a disaster response fresh given the information available.

Amanda Levin, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that “even if we mitigate, there are huge pressures and huge impacts today from a warming world … even if we stop emissions today, [they] will still persist.” As one of my interviewees in government service who asked to go unnamed noted about disaster response, “You always are coming up short somewhere.” The problems are only getting harder, and we humans need much better tools to match the man-made trials we created for ourselves. That’s the challenge — and opportunity — for a tough century ahead.

May
08
2021
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When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working

The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.

What happens when the machine stops though?

It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.

Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.

So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.

While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.

Wireless resilience as the world burns

Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.

Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.

Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.

Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”

AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.

Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet One dirigible to offer internet access from the air for first responders. Image Credits: AT&T/FirstNet

Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.

As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.

Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.

The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines

While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.

Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.

Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.

Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.

Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”

The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.

That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.

FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.

Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.

With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.

That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.

Five, Gee

We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.

Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.

Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.

That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”

Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”

Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”

5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.

Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.

The Future of Technology and Disaster Response

Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.

Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.

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