Carnegie Mellon University

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December 15, 2011

Class Aids First Responders in Silicon Valley

By Sylvia Leong

First responders have so much to do in so little time.

To gather information during an emergency, they often have to rely on pencil and paper and making phone calls to pass that information along. The system can be very slow and prone to errors.

"In an emergency situation, time is critical," said Patricia Collins, an assistant professor of the practice at CMU's Silicon Valley campus.

Collins wants to help with mobile software technology. Her class, Requirements Engineering, worked to understand emergency medical service needs.

"Each year we pick a topic and they investigate," Collins said. "I teamed with our Disaster Management Initiative (DMI) to create a project for our students that met the very real needs of first responders in disaster situations. The result was quite a success for the stakeholders, as well as for the students."

This year, Collins worked with Sean Lanthier, a 31-year veteran firefighter and paramedic, who is starting a company to create technologies tailored for first responders. He presented his idea to Martin Griss, director of CMU Silicon Valley and associate dean of the College of Engineering, and other attendants at the weekly DMI meeting. Each Monday experts meet to bounce ideas back and forth for about two hours.

"I think Martin Griss really has something going on here," Lanthier
said. "It's a big issue for how to combine the worlds of technology, communication, education, firefighters and first responders."

Lanthier said firefighters often still rely on push-to-talk radios during emergencies, which have limited capabilities. He is working to create a  coat for firefighters with a smartphone adapted for rugged conditions attached to the wrist.

"Lanthier happens to have a lot of ideas in this area. He was particularly eager to have a venue to talk about these ideas and encourage the students,"
Collins said.

Students visited fire stations in California and other states. They went on numerous emergency responder
calls, ate dinner at firehouses and asked questions.

"They got out of their normal classroom experience in conducting the interviews," she said. "We used a highly interdisciplinary approach to gather and validate the requirements."

"I think they liked the idea that there was a potential for real life-saving. I kept saying to them this could actually save lives," Lanthier said. "They took that to heart and it was a good motivator.

"Patricia has been incredible in how involved she is with her students, and she filled the gap for me in a lot of the problems I was addressing" Lanthier said. "Her solid input, honesty and integrity have been incredible."

The data that was collected is now being used by the DMI to inform decisions about technologies that the DMI is creating. Collins said DMI affiliates also can use the information to create open source solutions to other emergency medical service problems.

Some of the applied research was displayed and discussed at Pacific Endeavor 2011 in Singapore, where emergency responders and international humanitarian groups from more than 20 Asia-Pacific countries met. CMU Silicon Valley is the only non-military academic institution involved in Pacific Endeavor and was represented by Griss and DMI member Patrick Lanthier, Sean's brother.

The course is offered in the spring, and Collins said the upcoming version will work on a similar focus.

"The students just got so excited," Collins said.

Collins recently delivered a paper on the way the class approached the problem at the second annual ICST Conference on Wireless Mobile Communication and Health Care in Kos, Greece, where she also co-chaired a session.