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Unlocking the Potential of Wi-Fi: An Always-On Public-Safety Platform

The ubiquity of Wi-Fi networks and the prevalence of consumer smart devices make Wi-Fi an ideal underlying backbone to provide immediate scale to nearly all buildings.
By James Wu
Feb 19, 2020

Last November, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) quietly held an active-shooter exercise in Virginia that is poised to have a widespread impact on public safety. Teams of first-responders descended on a 10,000-seat arena at George Mason University to test how several state-of-the-art technologies could help better prepare cities for large-scale emergency situations. This collaboration, the first of its kind, was part of a DHS-funded smart-cities initiative led by the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) for the State of Virginia.

Locating Citizens, Directing First-Responders
In any emergency situation, be it medical, a fire or a scenario requiring rapid evacuation, like a shooting, the need to locate citizens and direct first-responders is of utmost importance. These days, that is incredibly difficult.

To locate and evacuate people, first-responders sweep buildings and direct individuals within their view. Even when someone calls 911, the location service available to the 911 operator via the telecom provider often only provides the building location via GPS. But GPS technology doesn't work indoors, which means that in a large building like a shopping mall or an office tower, emergency responders are limited in how quickly they can find someone who may be on the 5th or 23rd floor.

Another problem facing emergency responders is that the communication between fire, police and specialized forces is disjointed. When first responders arrive at an active scene, they use radios and dedicated frequencies available only to their particular rescue teams. They have difficulty communicating in real time, limiting their ability to coordinate and strategize. Being able to provide a universal view of the location of people and all first-responders within a building would mean that the command-and-control teams can provide directives and situational awareness to first-responders in the field in a coordinated way.

A New Frontier for Wi-Fi
In this exercise, supporting first-responders and improving response outcomes was critical. But a key consideration for the program was scalability; whatever solution was created, it needed to be viable for rapid deployment across public spaces and government and corporate office buildings. The obvious choice was to use Wi-Fi.

The ubiquity of Wi-Fi networks and the prevalence of consumer smart devices make Wi-Fi an ideal underlying backbone to provide immediate scale to nearly all buildings. Proving that Wi-Fi could be used to accurately locate citizens and first-responders would be no easy feat, but it was understood as the best path forward to scale across the smart-city initiative.

Historically, indoor location data has been difficult to deploy at scale or with sufficient accuracy to be useful. Using Wi-Fi data to calculate location has not been accurate enough to be useful, particularly in critical situations like emergency-response scenarios. The alternative is to install specialized hardware in every building. Neither is particularly useful, and both are certainly not scalable for a city-wide public-safety initiative.

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