By Shannon Pieper
Published Sunday, May 20, 2012
| From the December 2012 Issue of FireRescue
“There’s an app for that.” By now, you’ve heard this clever little saying so many times that you’re probably annoyed every time it pops up. But it’s true—technology, specifically in the form of mobile applications, is transforming our lives. And it is poised to transform the fireground as well.
Smartphones and tablets can now provide a range of technologies that have application to the fireground—GPS tracking, video and audio recording, connection to department and dispatch records and preplans. The other day I read about two new apps, one that turns your phone into a portable Geiger counter to measure radiation, and another that can be used to test for the presence of eColi in water or food (granted, that one requires an equipment add-on—but still!). What we’ll be able to do with our phones in just a few years tests the limits of the imagination.
But there’s one problem with the smartphone or tablet as a delivery mechanism. There are a lot of them, and they run different operating systems. Sure, software developers can write multiple versions of code for their programs, but this takes time and resources.
That’s why Covia Labs thinks they’re onto something. The company has developed a software solution that enables applications to run on multiple platforms, without having to be tailored for the specific operating system. All that’s required is a piece of software (which Covia calls the Connector) installed on the phone.
There’s a huge potential consumer market for this technology, but recently, Covia has begun targeting the fire service as well. Why? The same technology that brings Angry Birds and calorie counters to our fingertips has the potential to provide firefighter heart-rate monitoring, indoor location, recording, etc. But the dissemination of these technologies to emergency responders will be much faster and cheaper if the developers can concentrate on developing their applications, and not on writing multiple versions of one program.
Recently, I spoke with David Kahn, Covia’s CEO, to learn more.
How It Works
Covia Labs is a young company, about three years old. Kahn says he had the idea for the technology when he was watching several fire departments respond to a fire in the South Bay of San Francisco. “I remember being a little bit surprised to see one fire department hand out walkie-talkies to the other responding departments, because the radios that the different agencies carried weren’t able to speak to one another,” Kahn says. “I remember thinking that it was really quite amazing that in 2008, this was the state of interoperability in the Silicon Valley for public safety.”
Kahn began thinking about how readily available technology could be used to improve interoperability. Not surprisingly, this led him to the smartphone. “There are a lot of people who make hardware or software systems that are meant to provide public safety advantages, tools for public safety—cameras, biometrics, heart rate monitors, RFID for tracking, etc.,” he says. “The people who make those products are experts on that particular technology. But it turns out that there’s a lot of infrastructure that each one of those companies has to deal with to make their system useful for people out in the real world. They may have to worry about encryption to protect the information, authentication, scalability, etc. My point: When you want to make something like this, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that people have to solve and re-solve to make the technology truly interoperable, to make it work between agencies.”
Covia’s solution: a platform that runs software across different devices while providing a secure, scalable system that can have hundreds of people from different departments using it. “Our piece of software is called the Connector,” Kahn says. “When you put this on the device—the LMR, the heart rate monitor, the cell phone, etc.—applications that are Connected Applications will be able to run on it.”
Public Safety & Cellular
With the nationwide public safety broadband network probably about 10 years away from operation, software like this is beginning to get attention. A group of NIST researchers in Boulder, Colo., is currently investigating how to move communications for public safety over to cellular. Covia Labs, along with many other companies, is involved in that testing.
At this point you’re probably thinking, “But I can hardly rely on my iPhone during fire attack, or search—it simply won’t withstand the environment.” That’s why Covia designed its system to work with the P25 radio you probably already carry. “P25 radios are really quite good at providing interoperable communication for voice between agencies, but they’re not very good for digital stuff because the data rates are too slow,” Kahn says. “The problem with cellular is that the transmitter on a cell phone is about a one-third of a watt, whereas on a P25 radio, it’s 5–6 watts. But they can work together.”
For instance, let’s say you carry a Motorola radio. Motorola would work with Covia to install the Connector software on the radio; it would also be installed on your smartphone. On the fireground, you would carry the smartphone on your person, inside the protective environment created by your PPE. You’d carry the P25 radio as you normally do, because it’s made to withstand the fire environment. But with the Covia software, the two are connected.
“P25 can act as a slow, yet high-powered uplink when you’re not able to reach the cell tower.” Kahn says. “You’ve got your mic, connected to P25 radio, connected by Bluetooth or wifi that’s on the cellphone, which is held inside the protective clothing.” When the system is able to use the cellphone for communications, it does, because that has the advantage that everything you say is geotagged and timestamped. “The knob on the top of the P25 radio, when it’s changing talk groups or channels on the P25, it also changes the channel on the cell,” Kahn says. “So you talk into the mic, your voice goes out via both broadband cell and P25, and when the cell is connected you also have the ability of the uplink of the biometric information, maps, etc.”
Covia has already deployed its software successfully within the law enforcement market, via a product called Alert & Respond. “We actually developed it as a software as a service (SAAS) for small departments,” Kahn says. “Rather than having their own IT infrastructure, they can use our servers, put the software on cell phones, and provide command and control in the field.”
Kahn says that as Covia worked with the Department of Homeland Security to develop Alert & Respond, DHS officials expressed that the technology could be applicable to the fire service as well, especially volunteer fire departments. “My impression had been that the fire service mostly just wanted reliable voice communication, wanted to stay on analog, so our focus hasn’t been on fire,” Kahn says. With the push for physiological monitoring, firefighter tracking, electronic preplans and real-time video at the scene, he realized that firefighters have just as much need for data as law enforcement—and the same budget shortfalls that make the relatively inexpensive smartphone an attractive communications device.
“We see a movement of fire and police trying to have a lot more information and passing more information to people in the field so they have situational awareness,” Kahn says. “And we think that our software is likely to be the glue that allows all those systems to work together, because otherwise the system that measures your heart rate will be different than the system that measures oxygenation of blood, etc. With the Connector, they’ll all be integrated on your cell phone.”
Whether this technology will take off, and where it will lead the fire service if it does, is anybody’s guess. But the bottom line as Kahn sees it: “The world of public safety is going through a transition from LMR to broadband—and we’re just waiting for what’s going to happen.”
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