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Advancing Emergency Communications in a Fast-Paced Technology Landscape


The Tech to Protect Challenge is a nationwide coding contest aimed at advancing public safety communications, taking place online and in 10 U.S. cities this September and November. 


Fast and reliable communications are vital to the work of emergency services professionals. From apps to software programs, there are increasing opportunities to create technologies to ensure emergency personnel – including emergency medical personnel and firefighters – can work safely and effectively to protect communities nationwide.

Kevin McGinnis, MPS, understands the critical need for these advancements in technology. A pioneer in the development of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), the dedicated broadband network for emergency responders, he has devoted his career to advocating for public safety broadband communications and building EMS systems that can thrive in it.

A supporter of the Tech to Protect Challenge, a national open innovation contest aimed at improving emergency responder communications, McGinnis shares how the development of these technologies can be achieved and the impact it can have on improving emergency response for both providers and the public they serve.

JEMS: Why do you think public safety communications technology isn’t progressing at the same rate as current consumer technology?

McGinnis: The largest reason is due to the hurdles we face in our industry to get communications companies to invest in technologies designed specifically for emergency response. The requirements for an app that is built for emergency personnel differ greatly than the requirements for consumer-based apps related to e-commerce and transportation services. Our requirements are rigorous and extreme because they need to match the emergency response conditions we operate in every single day. We need enhanced security for the data we send and receive, and we need to be able to depend on our communication channels in life-or-death situations.

In an era with heightened sensitivity to data privacy and security, it’s become difficult for companies who have the talent and ability to create these technologies to be approved to implement them. At the same time, EMS and other public safety professionals don’t know where to start and how to engage technologists to take on the challenge of creating them.

JEMS: As a FirstNet Board of Directors member, how do you think the creation of this technology can be fostered?

McGinnis: With the advent of FirstNet, we’ve built a dedicated and secure network for emergency services personnel to operate within and it’s gaining more wide-spread adoption. With that, it’s equally important to develop technologies that match the same level of priority and preemption it provides emergency responders.

That’s why the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and its Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division is hosting the Tech to Protect Challenge — to find people who will rise to the occasion of disrupting an industry that desperately needs to be disrupted. People from different perspectives are coming together nationwide to create solutions that will solve some of public safety’s most pressing challenges in the field—most of which were identified by emergency responders themselves.

JEMS: Who is NIST and what is their goal with hosting a coding program like the Tech to Protect Challenge?

McGinnis: NIST and its PSCR Division work to advance public safety communications technology through different research and development programs. PSCR scientists and researchers have been dedicated to this effort for more than a decade—initially developing the first land mobile radio systems and now adding broadband enabled systems to the focus of their expertise.

In 2012, legislation was passed giving PSCR $300 million to create innovative technology specifically for public safety. This is now helping to fund the Tech to Protect Challenge, a nationwide coding contest taking place in 10 U.S. cities during September and November with a series of regional codeathon events. Participants of diverse backgrounds will collaborate to create new technology solutions that will help emergency responders operate more efficiently and effectively.

JEMS: What are the types of new technologies that can be developed for emergency responders?

McGinnis: For example, with all of the new wearable tracking devices, there is an incredible opportunity not only for preventable health issues, but also for more immediate patient care. If a senior citizen is wearing a smart watch and it detects a fall or a cardiac irregularity, paramedics can be alerted minutes or hours sooner than they otherwise would have by the patient or a bystander calling 911.

There’s also an opportunity for technology to alert EMS if a person with diabetes goes into hypoglycemia in the middle of the night. New monitoring and alerting capabilities such as this are being created regularly. They have the potential to be woven into the fabric of EMS response to emergencies, as well as detecting and treating conditions that are rapidly evolving before they become emergencies.

Similarly, the Tech to Protect Challenge has created 10 unique coding contests that will be solved by participants, all with the goal of advancing emergency responder operations.

JEMS: How can the EMS community get involved in the Tech to Protect Challenge?

McGinnis: The Tech to Protect Challenge provides the opportunity for public safety to work side by side with technologists to develop these resources.

Emergency services professionals can be a resource for participants to provide context and help them understand what types of technologies can best support their work. They can also compete as a participant and submit their own solutions to any of the coding contests. More information can be found by visiting

With initiatives like the Tech to Protect Challenge, we will see the public and emergency response professionals come together to change public safety for the better.