Mutual Aid: App Developers and Public Safety Experts Collaborating

By Mark Reddish

It’s no surprise that public safety apps are better when developed with input from public safety experts.  What’s surprising, or at least exciting, is that professionals from two different worlds can work so well together when they’re practically speaking different languages.  Great things happen when developers and public safety professionals collaborate and help each other understand terms like stacks, Git, the cloud, PSAP, AED, trauma-code, and – fittingly – mutual aid.

October 17-18, I participated in a public safety app hackathon hosted by AT&T at its Foundry in Atlanta, Georgia.  Developers had 24 hours to build apps from scratch that would improve public safety and emergency response.  APCO assisted by inviting public safety professionals to serve as mentors and by providing “hackathon guidance” that described basic considerations for public safety operations, use case examples, and suggestions to inspire the developers.

“It’s just amazing to see what can happen when you get public safety experts and computer experts together…”

The hackathon began with presentations from the event’s sponsors, who described the development tools they were providing, and experienced public safety professionals, who described the important role new technologies can play in supporting public safety communications and emergency response. When I had a chance to address the developers, I encouraged them to take advantage of the law enforcement, EMS, fire, and 9-1-1 professionals in attendance and emphasized the value of designing apps based on advice from the experts.  The mentors included former APCO President Dick Mirgon, Dia Gainor, Executive Director of the National Association of State EMS Officials, Ray Lehr, Maryland’s Interoperability Director and FirstNet Point of Contact (who has experience guiding app developers, as this FirstNet blog describes), and APCO members from the Georgia Chapter: Executive Council member Angie Bowen and dispatcher Cory Hayes.

As with prior hackathons, developers had the opportunity to address the audience and describe their programming skills and ideas in order to seek teammates.  The string of developers was broken, however, when Matt Hinds-Aldrich from Atlanta Fire Rescue stood up and said, “I don’t know how to program, but I know public safety.  And I have an idea.”  Within 24 hours, Matt had joined with two developers – Haider Khan and Kevin Coleman – who turned the idea into a tool that won the award for Best Public Safety App.

The app, “Safety Net,” is a mobile and web-based interface for tracking personnel in real time.  Employing tools like WebRTC, it enables users to call one another by tapping dots on the map that represent other users and can also be used to log location-related events like fire prevention visits.  Dispatcher Cory Hayes presented the award for Best Public Safety App to this team.  “It’s just amazing to see what can happen when you get public safety experts and computer experts together in the same room for 24 hours or less,” he said.  “The computer experts may not know anything about public safety, and the public safety experts may not know anything about computers, but at the end of the Hackathon, we all learned something from each other and these apps were created to help our responders and citizens.”

Dispatcher Cory Hayes with the Safety Net team.

Bringing public safety professionals and developers together has been our mission since launching AppComm.  Not only is advice from the public safety experts valuable to developers, but as Angie Bowen said, “APCO’s work with apps is very important to its leadership role in public safety communications.”  APCO has participated in hackathons, created resources like the Key Attributes of Effective Apps for Public Safety and Emergency Response, and held several app-related sessions at its events, including an app security workshop with NIST and FirstNet.  We’ve been calling on public safety professionals to join APCO’s efforts to ensure public safety apps are as effective as possible.  And it’s great to see APCO members answering the call.

Aside from being a fun competition and great opportunity for developers and public safety professionals to connect, this event represents broader progress toward creating the best tools possible for public safety and emergency response.  AT&T will hold another public safety app hackathon on December 12 in Silicon Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you can register to attend or send your ideas to [email protected].

 APCO’s Angie Bowen and Cory Hayes look on as the developers prepare to hack away.