Meet the Irish startup fighting fire with data

As the cliché goes, you can’t fight fire with fire. In addition to high powered water hoses, it appears one of the best firefighting tools might be data.

However, amidst a long-lasting drought and a brutal wildfire season, first responders in the American state of California discovered, both water and data can be in short supply.

In a court filing last month about the American policy to end Net Neutrality, the chief of the Santa Clara County Fire Department Anthony Bowden accused his agency’s mobile network provider, Verizon, of throttling data during a massive wildfire. Bowden says that hampered their response. The filing touched a nerve, spreading like (pardon the pun) fire.

But that’s now how it is supposed to be. Researchers at an Irish startup say better infrastructure and smart prioritisation should mean first responders always get the data they need.

“It reinforces the need for first responders to have priority access and not to be treated as any other customer,” says Paul Sutton Ph.D. and co-founder of Cork-based Software Radio Systems.

Chief Bowden leads the firefighting efforts for 330+ square kilometres in the rural parts of Silicon Valley. That is a mountainous area where wildfires can be devastating and all too common. He says command trucks use the internet to coordinate crews, aircraft, and bulldozers. 

He says the internet is imperative for crews “tracking those resources and ensuring they get to the right place as quickly and safely as possible.”

However, when the fire agency went over the cap on their unlimited data plan, Chief Bowden says Verizon slowed data access down to 1/200th of the normal speed. That throttling meant important information was getting lost.

“Resources could be deployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of a fire, or fail to be deployed at all,” said Bowden. “Even small delays in response translate into devastating effects, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life.”

A customer service employee with Verizon told Bowden’s team they would have to upgrade to plan with a higher data cap at twice the cost. For Chief Bowden, the information is what mattered, especially with lives on the line, so they paid.

Since the filing became public, Verizon has apologised for throttling the data in the first place, pledging to lift any limits on Pacific Coast first responders in active emergencies.

“We didn’t live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line, battling a massive California wildfire,” Verizon Senior Vice President Mike Maiorana wrote in a statement. “For that, we are truly sorry. And we’re making every effort to ensure that it never happens again.”

Where Irish startups can help American first responders

At his office in Cork, Sutton’s team is helping create the building blocks for the future development of telecommunication networks. A Trinity College Dublin spinout, SRS is focused on modular code that helps translate data on mobile phones, like a photo or message, into analog signals that can be broadcast and translated back into a digital code on receiving towers.

While companies like Qualcomm focus on the hardware and software, SRS is aimed at giving the tools to researchers and companies building new radio software.

With his co-founder Ismael Gomez, SRS worked on big government programmes like with the European Space Agency as well as narrower projects for individual companies.

One of their more recent projects have been with the Public Safety Communications Research Division, an agency inside the United States Department of Commerce. The goal: help develop tools to improve research and development into using high speed broadband mobile signals to help first responders.

“The guys that are using our software are building the test networks.” says Sutton. “[They’re] deploying the test networks where they try out all these new LTE features before they get into the hands of the first responders.”

As for the throttling issue that led to a public relations nightmare for Verizon, it’s a sign that things aren’t working like they should, says Sutton.

The United States put a lot of money toward a mobile broadband network called FirstNet, aimed at getting first responders the data access they need. FirstNet runs on the same physical infrastructure as civilian’s data and mobile phones. However, it gives what’s called “ruthless preemption” to first responders: in the case of an emergency, firemen, police, and others get absolute top priority of the data access for a certain time.

After the filing, there are efforts in state houses and legislatures to mandate that sort of priority access for first responders.

It’s worth noting FirstNet operates on the AT&T network, so Chief Bowden’s team use of Verizon is a sign of network competition. Sometimes one network gets better coverage in certain places than other networks. Still, most consumers will accept temporary data restrictions so first responders can do their jobs.

“It’s a really tricky problem for providers,” says Sutton.

Sutton hopes that task will be less tricky in the future, if providers set the right guidelines (like Verizon promised to do in response to this filing) and if the right technologies maximise the data that can flow.

SRS is helping empower some of those new technologies. They recently joined the effort known as 5G-VINNI, the project to test and build a 5G telecommunication network across Europe.

Perhaps in the future, data will be on less thing for first responders to worry about.

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