• United States



Better Gear for First Responders

Dec 01, 20033 mins
Physical Security

Disciplines such as materials science and industrial design are coming to the rescue, so to speak.

By definition, “first responders”—firefighters, police and other emergency and rescue workers—often work in rotten conditions. One of first responders’ most vexing challenges, which they share with military personnel in combat, is that the gear they carry to protect themselves is often so heavy and awkward that it makes their work more difficult. A recent study of emergency response workers by Rand (funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) highlighted a number of specific problems and weaknesses in protective gear and communications equipment. Another report from the Council on Foreign Relations in June 2003, “Emergency Responders: Drastically Underfunded, Dangerously Unprepared,” addresses the budget restrictions that contribute to the lack of appropriate equipment as well.

Disciplines such as materials science and industrial design are coming to the rescue, so to speak. The U.S. military is working on a project called Future Combat Systems, which employs industrial design companies such as Crye Associates to create a combat uniform that can withstand various hazardous conditions (dust, extreme temperatures and so on) while not encumbering soldiers. (A detailed account of this project is written up in the September/October issue of design magazine I.D.) MIT also recently held its first Soldier Design Competition, with a panel of judges that included senior military personnel combing through the students’ ideas.

The MIT event was sponsored by deep-pocketed private-sector companies including DuPont and Dow Corning, which raises the point that products and technologies developed for the military have a long history of finding their way into lower-cost versions for commercial and even consumer applications (see: Hummer). In the area of communications specifically, a product already available is NetworkAnatomy’s CommanderPack, an 11-pound backpack that includes multiple communications modes (satellite, cell and radio frequency), redundant power sources including battery and solar, a tablet PC and other goodies. Doug Linman, the company’s CEO and principal designer, served in the military and provided communications consulting following the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. “I talked with fire and police people who had survived, the chief of the American Rescue Team International and others, and they all talked about the stuff they had that didn’t work, like cell phones, because the cell networks were down,” he says. Those issues ultimately led to the development of the CommanderPack. While NetworkAnatomy developed the electronic components, Linman says he turned to two other companies for their particular areas of industrial design expertiseStryker by Design for suspension and weight distribution systems, and Watershed for waterproofing.

While the CommanderPack is aimed principally at first responders, eventually everyone from night watchmen to bodyguards will benefit from the application of design principles to create more portable and intelligent networked gear.