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When disaster strikes and our buildings become hostile environments, data from the numerous building sensors are largely ignored. Recently, however, a number of startups and initiatives have been working to seize this missed safety-opportunity by enabling emergency services with life-saving building data and connected equipment.

Every day, in major cities around the world, firefighters charge into burning buildings to find trapped occupants and search for the heart of the fire to extinguish it. They use their instincts, and risk their lives to make sure they save as many people as possible. In the smart burning building, sensors know where everyone is, their potential escape routes, potentially even where the fire is hottest – and much more information that would revolutionize the job of a firefighter.

One firm leading the way to this goal is RapidSOS, who develop smart buildings software for public safety agencies, connected device and app companies. “I think the building should call 911, and the first responders should know that there are 36 people trapped in the northwest corner,” said RapidSOS CEO, Michael Martin. “They should know that the smoke density is ‘X,’ the temperature is ‘Y,’ and they should know the hazards in the facility. We’re thinking about that convergence of all this information and how do we put that directly into the hands of 911 and first responders.”

The New York City-based firm has raised $55 million in funding to further develop the project – $25 million at the close of a funding round announced last week in addition to $30 million in a round last year. Currently known for supplying 911 centers with enhanced location information about emergency callers using cellular phones, RapidSOS already has cooperative agreements with major firms like Apple, Google, and Uber.

After the latest funding round, the startup will expand its relationship with multiple partners, such as utilities, to supply public safety and other useful information from building sensors, health monitors and wearable technology.

“This round was led by Energy Impact Partners, which is the largest energy-technology fund and represents over 50 utilities globally,” said Martin. “We’re doing a lot of work with utilities to think about disaster response, smart grid, facilities’ safety, and lone-worker safety. As you think about the connected, smart ecosystem that’s continuing to evolve, our aim is to make sure all of that intelligence is immediately available to first responders when they need it most.”

This life-saving potential of smart building systems is not talked about enough. Just like traditional emergency lighting infrastructure, these systems can be forgotten but they just have to be there, reliably waiting to jump into action when an emergency occurs. Like traditional emergency lighting infrastructure, these systems should be a legal requirement for all buildings, enforced through regulatory and safety-review processes. When it comes to saving lives, the case for governments to drive technology development and adoption grows, as we are starting to see in Europe.

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has begun taking steps to develop a set of standards for the use of IoT applications in emergency situations. The organization released a report late last month — ETSI TR 103 582 — exploring how IoT devices can be used to enhance emergency communications. They identified emergency calling, mission-critical communications, public warning systems from authorities, and automated emergency response, analyzing use cases to find “potential” failures that could put safety at risk.

“Potential means to prevent these points of failure that are identified, the impact of these use cases on existing or future standards is assessed and recommendations for requirements against EMTEL [emergency telecommunications] existing specifications for each domain are provided,” ETSI said in the report. “It is worth remembering that the focus of existing specifications is very much communication between humans (individuals, emergency service personnel, authority operatives), and not communication with and between IoT devices.”

In Denmark, T-Systems, the German group that includes T-Mobile, is focusing on the safety of emergency responders themselves. In association with German wearable tech firm, Teiimo, T-Systems has developed a heat and perspiration-resistant, connected T-shirt. Worn under the uniform during emergency situations, the T-shirt is connected to the cloud, constantly sending data on the fireman’s heart rate and oxygen supply, while a highly accurate GPS tracks location and movement.

“The t-shirt is packed with sensors that, using machine learning, can recognize the fireman’s usual movements, thus reflecting when those movements deviate from the norm,” T-Systems says. “For example, if the fireman falls, something falls onto him, or if he is still for a long period of time, the sensors will detect it and send the data to an IoT platform in the cloud. A warning will alert the on-site commander, who can monitor the condition of the fireman’s vital organs, heart rate, pulse, body temperature and oxygen uptake. If those values drop too quickly, he can send help.”

The cloud works well in some emergency scenarios, but leaves dangerous gaps in others according to another report — Bridging the Cloud-to-Things Continuum — published by Tech Idea Research. The report, led by members of The OpenFog Consortium, proposes that fog-computing can fill those gaps in hostile-connectivity environments, highlighting that being internet-based, the cloud faces latency issues that worsen with the size of the data being transferred. The unpredictability of emergency situations demands that all potentially useful data be provided in real-time, and latency will use up critical seconds.

“On the fire-ground, each second matters and accurate data is highly desirable. To balance the trade-off between these two metrics, we envision applying a new computing model—fog computing—into the time-sensitive firefighting field,” states the report. “Fog computing is an emerging architecture that will perform the complex data processing and analysis in the proximity of the data source instead of on a remote cloud server. This will improve the system response time, conserve network bandwidth, and potentially address security concerns and privacy exposure.”

A system that sends initial information over the cloud and then more extensive access to building data and systems via fog-computing when first responders arrive on the scene, seems logical and likely. 5G deployments may also change the latency discussion. However, the most important thing right now is that this conversation is happening and that authorities are getting involved. Startup innovation is showing what is possible and it is for governments and regulators to encourage technological development and raise the level of safety in all buildings.

As companies like RapidSOS are demonstrating, the IoT has huge potential in fire safety and other emergency scenarios. The IoT can make building safety during emergency situations a higher priority for our smart building developments.