The Goal That Keeps Equipment Manufacturers Up at Night

by Patrick Call

First responder safety is the immediate goal when approaching and operating in an emergency response scenario. Not only does keeping personnel safe keep experts up at night, it is a priority for equipment manufacturers responsible for the design, function, and purpose of responder tools used in dangerous situations and environments.

Equipment manufacturers have a responsibility to understand and maintain responsiveness to the challenges routinely encountered by first responders. For suppliers of field-ready chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives (CBRNE) sensors, the three critical areas of focus to keep operators safe during emergency response missions are operator training, user interface, and integrated command and control.

Operator Training

Training is of paramount importance with respect to the proper implementation of technology, particularly in a high-consequence deployment. The primary emphasis for effective training is broken into two key areas including understanding the basic functionality of the instrumentation and the context of operation (CONXOPS).

Effective training relies on developing a deep understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of equipment operation. As an equipment operator becomes familiar with the operation and limitations of the technology, better decisions can be made in real-time operational scenarios to maximize effectiveness. For example, some radiation detection andentification products employ common on-device and web-based user interfaces, terminology, and operational processes such as menu structure and data retrieval functions. The unified approach results in faster and more efficient training programs applicable to a range of instruments. Instant familiarity across instruments enables the operator to focus on the mission and not the instrument.

CONXOPS is defined as the application of additional information, whether environmental or sensor related, to give a more substantial assessment of the situation. This concept can be used in conjunction with the standard agency concept of operations (CONOPS) to enable more effective response relative to a specific instrument. CONOPS are often preset by the agency and require the users to operate in a very specific manner, while CONXOPS are often dynamic based on the current situation.

For example, the CONOPS might dictate that the responder perform a task based on the standard drawdown plan relevant to the specific situation. However, applying CONXOPS and understanding all the elements of the situation including environmental considerations enables the operator to optimize the approach. With respect to training, manufacturers should not attempt to influence or modify the agency CONOPS, but rather they should actively train the users to apply all available information to optimize the safety and effectiveness of the action.

User Interface

The simplicity and uniformity of the user interface must be emphasized as a key design element across multiple disciplines of sensors. The motivation for an easy and uniform user interface is directly related to maintaining operator proficiency. Deployment models range from instruments that require operation nearly every shift, to instrumentation that is used in rare but highly consequential instances. In the latter deployment scenarios, staff turnover or time gaps between training and operation amplify the need for simple and intuitive interface design.

For example, on-screen prompts for explosives trace detectors could walk users through each step of the operation. Even if the operator has not used the system in a few weeks or a few months, the on-screen guided commands enable the user to quickly execute a mission without any additional training.  Technology advances have also enabled on-device video training giving users access to 24/7 training tools. The interface can be used to conduct a self-guided refresher training at any time by working through each step in the operation and maintenance of the instrument from a simple menu structure on the instrument.

Integrated Command & Control

Next-generation operational effectiveness will depend on broad integration of information from multiple sensors in a deployment. Sensor data will need to be integrated with readings and information related to location and general environmental factors to provide greater situational awareness for the operator. As technology continues to advance, there will be less emphasis on individual users working with isolated sensor data and more emphasis on integrating information from multiple sensors and disciplines to achieve much higher operational effectiveness.

In some cases, iPhone and Android mobile apps already deliver reach-back capability through Bluetooth. This allows the frontline responder to share information from the emergency site with partner responders. The ability to instantly communicate threats remotely provides responders with advanced warning, enhances situational awareness, and enhances the capacity to perform real-time support analysis and verification. These communication features also support interagency communications between first on-scene firefighters, hazardous material response specialists, law enforcement, and forensic specialists.

First responder safety is the immediate goal. It keeps everyone in the chain up at night. As such, equipment manufacturers are focused on the areas of operator training, user interface, and integrated command and control to improve emergency response missions.

Patrick Call has been in the hazmat industry since 1997. He was an original employee of MesoSystems Technology Inc., a company focused on developing biological threat sampling and detection products for the first responder community. While there, he authored 12 United States patents related to bioaerosol collection. His contributions led to an R&D 100 Award for one of the 100 most significant inventions of 2004. MesoSystems was acquired by ICx Technologies and more recently FLIR Systems Inc. He is currently a regional manager for the CBRNE Detection division of FLIR Systems Inc., which has createdentiFINDER R-series radiation products and the Fido X2 explosives trace detector.