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Can AI & VR solve the challenges of our first responders?

As we accelerate into a digital-first future, there are some jobs that can never be replaced. Emergencies happen all the time and the first responders are crucial players in controlling the damage and saving lives. Ambulance workers, firefighters, police officers; all these workers are needed in extraordinary times. And they are people, the same as the ones they’re saving. So who is helping them?

We are still developing new technologies that take advantage of artificial intelligence and virtual reality and finding ways this technology can assist existing professions. First responders must be first in line to get this help, as their numbers deplete throughout injuries and irreplaceable positions. In order to keep the current responders going strong and encourage more to join the efforts, we should look to these integrated technology solutions on how they can assist first responders in the line of duty.

What AI & VR bring to the field?

AI can be used to detect changes in the environment not noticeable to humans, assist in finding and supporting rescue efforts, plan around various disaster scenarios to determine the safest decisions to make, and direct rescue equipment through dangerous zones. VR and AR technology can be used to provide interpersonal assistance via remote viewing, offer special conditional training that is otherwise difficult to replicate through fixed resources, and offer simulations out of danger to practice critical decision making.

These are all important aspects of the first response service network that can keep responders from direct harm as they collaborate with the technology and handlers to maximize their efforts across different fields. However, integrating this new technology can prove troublesome at first, as it requires a trained technician to keep up with all of it – especially when it comes to devices.

Things like drones or robotic walking platforms aren’t things that can just be plugged in and easily run, especially in an emergency zone. Fires can knock down drones with updrafts or break the delicate circuits from the sheer heat. Drones can be deployed with extinguishers for out of reach areas or to navigate inside unstable buildings to spot-douse fires deep inside, but it’s all dependent on highly sensitive wiring and wireless connections standing up to the danger as well. Same thing with robotic walkers. These “Dogs” can carry plenty of weight and can even carry people and navigate rugged terrain, but they are slow and may be toppled or crushed by falling debris.

Integration is important, but replacement is impossible. These tasks can only really be handled by human beings. Humans are already highly versatile machines, and professional first responders are some of the best trained there are. But humans can break down easily. They can get in danger and get hurt. Losing first responders on the scene of an emergency likely means losing the people they were sent to save as well.

Drones equipped with automatic sensors can detect hot zones in a fire with 3D mapping to give firefighters clear routes through a building, and with even more adaptive sensors will be able to senseless extreme but distinct signatures of people in distress. These same sensors can potentially be used to see through areas completely clouded in smoke to give firefighters even more direction. The major component tying all this together relies on consistent communication technology that can stand up to the heat.

With first aid and ambulance technicians, technology to assess health at a glance can monitor pulse, breathing, and muscular response rates all from a glance with AR displays. These can be used to monitor health even at a distance for individuals who still need assistance and how much assistance they need, allowing easier on-the-spot prioritization of injured victims so that the most in need can get care the fastest.

The downsides of AI & VR

First response rescue is a job involving saving humans, and there is a lot of emotional component and human instinct at play when dire decisions have to be made. Things a computer can’t exactly simulate or handle. No matter how much training a responder undergoes, there are some events which will trigger an immediate response and alter the course of their mission. AI cannot factor human fault into all of its decision-making parameters. That human element, which is essential for those in the field who care enough to put themselves at risk, is a blank spot in most AI routines.

First responders also have limited access to formalised training. There are training facilities, but fire fighting companies or EMTs in training have not had the level of exposure to extreme situations as their seniors have due to pandemic restrictions. Simulations can only give a basic understanding of what their missions will be like when dispatched. Training and preparation can only do so much when a real emergency situation presents itself. Those involved will still rely on their own best judgment to handle each situation.

AI-controlled tools can help divide the load by carrying the equipment needed to take the burden off existing responders, who can then spend their time caring for others, but the equipment itself will be expensive. Any responder unit that is struggling financially as it stands will likely not see these new gadgets for years to come, even after they are publicly available. Not to mention training and storage, maintenance, and implementation into a team structure or unit – it will be a barricade keeping many smaller units in towns or outside of cities from fully utilising their strengths. Any interruption in connection with a network will render these automated tools useless as well.

As it stands, the jobs of first responders can become more manageable, which may incentivise more people to take up dangerous lines of work. However, the drive to help others in times of danger is always the foremost quality of a first responder. Once the technology catches up to the demands, we may see a new and simpler era of human-directed intelligent technology that can help people save lives.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EENA. Articles do not represent an endorsement by EENA of any organisation.

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