First Responders Want High Tech But Lack Funding

August 13, 2021 by Victoria Turner
First Responders Want High Tech But Lack Funding
The Communication Center for the City of Fremont, Calif., police department.

An in-depth study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology based on interviews and surveys of first responders – Communications Center Services (911 call centers), Emergency Medical Services, Fire Services and Law Enforcement – show they want new technology, but the tech has to fit their needs. Specifically, the NIST study hones in on existing devices first responders do not have that would be helpful in their day-to-day work, as well as futuristic devices and even virtual reality.

Most of these technologies in the“futuristic” part of the survey exist today but are not ubiquitous. A barrier to accessibility consistently touted across all four groups — that already believe they are underfunded — is cost.

Throughout the study, survey respondents pointed to work-issued smartphones as useful for their day-to-day activities. Due to the costs of maintenance and data plans, they would prefer not to use their personal smartphones – privacy issues were also mentioned.

However, many first response offices don’t have the funding for them.


“So right now the only communication device that the department supplies is the radio,” according to a law enforcement respondent interviewed. 

Surprisingly enough, besides smartphones, respondents pointed to desktop computers as essential but not always available in their day-to-day work.

At least 20% of participants in the surveyed groups of firefighters, EMS and law enforcement said they did not have critical public safety communication devices such as laptop computers, mobile data terminals or mobile data computers, portable radios, tablets, vehicle radios, or work-issued wireless earpieces.

But each discipline has its own priorities. Law enforcement wants fingerprint scanners and license plate readers, with some identifying body cameras; while firefighters want thermal imaging cameras, and the 911 call centers need better headsets.

Some of the items listed as “futuristic” in the survey were selected from the wish lists of all four public responder groups of desired but existing technology. The one item in this category that over 50% of respondents in each group coveted was “one login”- instead of many different usernames and passwords across all their devices or platforms. Single sign-on remains uncommon for first responder use.


“I need to purchase an app just to remember all of the ID’s and passwords I need for each program I need to use,” one firefighter claimed.

All four disciplines identified three technologies they would like to have access to: real-time on-scene video, indoor mapping, and voice controls for hands-free input. The percentages varied across the disciplines per their needs, but real-time on-scene video came second to SSO across all four groups. 

Firefighters and 911 call centers valued indoor mapping more than their EMS and law enforcement counterparts. It makes sense when you think about navigating a smoke-filled building or virtually assisting on-scene responders with directions. 

The top futuristic technologies identified by law enforcement, firefighters and EMS disciplines were drones, heads-up displays and first responder health monitoring technology. Despite all those interviewed showing high interest in drones for day-to-day use, this technology seemed more useful to firefighters and law enforcement than EMS. But firefighters saw HUDs as the most useful.

Virtual reality, on the other hand, was treated by all four first responder groups as more of a toy than a technology. Less than 7% in each discipline thought VR would be useful in their day-to-day work, but all agreed it would be beneficial for training. 

Automating the pinpointing of location was high on the wishlists of communication centers, EMS and firefighters surveyed. 

Automatic caller location was cited as the most beneficial in day-to-day activities by 71% of 911 respondents. The 911 call centers want to know how quickly the on-scene first responder will be there, so first responder tracking was also popular by 60.5%.


For the EMS group, almost 40% thought automatic vehicle location – which helps the 911 call centers dispatch the vehicle closest to the actual incident – is a must-have technology of the future. However, more than half of the group thought automatic transmission of patient vitals and information would be useful to their everyday work, and another near 40% identified patient’s health and vitals monitoring.

For law enforcement, who need to identify suspects on a daily basis, factual recognition software seemed to be the crowd favorite at 38.7%.

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