SimpleSense: From Hardware to Information Sharing

An Erie Fire Department iPad displays shares basic incident information with first responders as part of a pilot in Erie, Pa.

SimpleSense and emergency information go together like cell phones and data plans, but the synonymity between the company and its product wasn’t always so clear. Initially, the company built thermal detection occupancy sensors, tools that were created to help emergency personnel identify where people are in a given building. The idea was compelling, and it worked, slashing search times by 25% for two different teams of firefighters during simulations in Reno, Nevada, and Erie, Pa.

The problem was, the sensors didn’t address a more significant pain point that first responders face. Through extensive research and several hundred interviews with subject matter experts, SimpleSense discovered that the real issue was not creating new data, but instead sharing the data that already exists in the first 5 minutes of an emergency. 

The real SimpleSense breakthrough was understanding that data already exists with the potential to improve emergency operations by 10X, but only if it’s connected to the right person at the right time. To understand how SimpleSense transitioned from thermal sensors to decentralized data, we have to start at the beginning, when the company was still just a seed of an idea.

Digital Signage and Shelf Space

Back in 2017, Co-founders Eric Kanagy and Alexander Brickner froze their respective projects to pursue SimpleSense. Kanagy’s project, RedPost, aimed to collect and organize data for retailers who were interested in better insights into shopper behavior. Brickner’s startup, BluBoard, dealt primarily with ePaper and digital signage.

Building on their previous experience building products without enough customers, the co-founders reached out to over 1500 companies, talking to around 400 about the types of technologies they believed were still missing in the marketplace.

Out of this discovery process, the co-founders saw a need for simple sensors that accurately measure human presence in commercial spaces.

From Retail to Emergency Response

Originally, it seemed like this kind of information would be more valuable to retailers, similar to Kanagy’s RedPost wherein the idea was to install sensors along the shelf edge to map the paths of consumers. SimpleSense seemed like it was poised to discover the Holy Grail of retail data.

However, what they found was that, even with the heaps of information that they could provide retailers, most businesses in the industry didn’t know what to do with the additional data. Fortunately, shortly thereafter, the company won a government contract through SOFWERX, an opportunity that their now-CTO, Adam Markham, facilitated. This experience refocused the company on public sector problems, specifically how new data sources can be useful to standardize and streamline emergency response.

To gather more information on what the market needed, Brickner set off on a two-week tour across the country, visiting over 100 fire and police departments. He found that these departments didn’t have open access to basic information. Furthermore, many emergency service providers were still using paper and, all were relying on radio.

“I hear stories about how firefighters respond to incidents with literal sheets of paper bound by a binder,” Brickner recalls. “They’re flipping through a binder while a building is on fire to find key hazard information. It didn’t make any sense to us.”

Making SimpleSense of Emergency Service

To make emergency response make sense, the co-founders set out to improve the operations of first responders. In this new mission, they found a sense of real purpose in their work—work that could save millions of lives a year. “We thought we could make a technology device that would solve some of the problems firefighters were facing while doing what is called a ‘primary search,’” Brickner says. The primary search is essentially the first pass through a building to find people and see who needs help during a major event.

Accordingly, SimpleSense built a sensor that showed first responders the location of people in a building through occupancy sensing. However, the company faced a new barrier: just because the information was now in existence, didn’t mean 911 could efficiently distribute it. The root of the problem was not a lack of data; in fact, there was too much data—and no way for emergency service providers to communicate, utilize, and analyze most of it.

Overloaded Dispatchers

The cornerstone of the emergency service conundrum is that the current (and outdated) 9-1-1 system relies on dispatchers to distribute voluminous amounts of information in seconds, mostly over the radio. It’s an unrealistic expectation that creates grueling, high-stress situations that not only contribute to understaffed public safety answering points (PSAPs) but also miscommunication and delays between first responders and any onsite emergency personnel, such as campus police or medical technicians.

“The problem is that dispatch is a central node of all information that flows to first responders, and they’re already overworked.” – Alex Brickner

The 9-1-1 system is dangerously outdated and doesn’t allow 911 dispatchers and call takers to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. For instance, in the time it takes dispatchers to communicate location information they could be issuing life-saving, pre-arrival instructions (e.g., apply pressure to the wound, open the airway, or commence CPR).

SimpleSense’s core innovation is a new standard of emergency response information-sharing that contextualizes data to make it useful for dispatchers, first responders, and private security teams. Ultimately, this opens the door for AI to augment emergency response, not only to alert the appropriate parties but also to lend in-depth insights into the emergency itself. “That’s more versions 3.0 and 4.0,” states Brickner. “We’re still working with version 1.0.”

Data Visualization

In a situation where time equates to lives saved, every second counts. Like dispatchers, first responders are bogged down with data as well. They’re not only expected to tend to the emergency but also are required to synthesize a significant amount of information before they arrive. According to Brickner, it takes about four minutes for first responders to parse the volumes of emergency information that’s distributed from dispatchers in order to determine what pertains to the emergency and their intervention strategy.

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With that in mind, SimpleSense has created a platform that delivers at-a-glance digestibility through a better, simpler display that becomes more intelligent over time, sorting information by relevance and frequency of use. “First responders and enterprise security teams are able to basically filter through data really fast, and we’ve been able to reduce some of the cognitive load,” explains Brickner.

Bridging the Gap Between Public and Private

Until SimpleSense, few companies have focused exclusively on the gap between public emergency services and enterprise security teams.

“First responders hit the ground running,” Brickner says. “They know where to go, who to talk to, and what the exact emergency is.” Rather than having competing systems, SimpleSense allows existing private and public systems to work together. To truly understand the utility of emergency information sharing, it’s helpful to contextualize it in two scenarios.

Malinda works at a large pharmaceutical manufacturer. She arrives at work in the morning after dealing with some treacherous California traffic. As she’s late for a meeting, Malinda starts sprinting across his company’s sprawling Bay Area campus, when she suddenly has a heart attack. A fellow employee close by sees what is happening and calls 911 immediately.

Emergency Without SimpleSense:

  • The problem is 911 only has one address in the computer system for the entire campus, which is on the opposite end of campus, miles away from where Malinda is. The dispatchers send an ambulance, yet, all the while, campus security still has no idea the emergency is even taking place.
  • Furthermore, the ambulance goes to the main entrance of campus, the one listed in their database. It adds nearly three miles to the trip and an additional 10 minutes to arrive at the scene.

With SimpleSense:

  • Campus emergency personnel are notified as soon as the emergency is dispatched. Malinda receives CPR and is defibrillated within two minutes.
  • First responders gain access to a preconfigured geofence of the campus map through SimpleSense’s platform, which alerts them to the exact location of the emergency as well as a closer entrance.
  • Malinda is in stable condition before 911 even arrives. Moreover, the campus emergency team are able to assist 911 by showing the ambulance a faster path to leave campus and get John to the hospital.

In essence, SimpleSense minimizes information silos between 911 and enterprise security teams by securely decentralizing data. Whether it’s a floor plan or it’s a list of occupants with disabilities, they highlight the information that first responders need to see, well, first.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

There is one cold, hard fact about the current state of the 9-1-1 infrastructure: it’s overloaded. The volume of incidents places too much data on a system with one point of failure; meaning that, critical information slipping through the cracks delays response, resulting in more serious injury or even death.

Furthermore, the 1960’s architecture isn’t built to handle the volumes of potentially life-saving data now available, especially with the vast majority of calls being made from mobile devices. That’s precisely why SimpleSense is taking a proactive approach to emergency data and disseminating it to emergency teams who need it most.

To be clear: the current 9-1-1 system itself is flawed, not the incredible individuals who work tirelessly to keep it running and save lives. There is no longer a question of whether or not we have enough data—we do. Today, it’s about developing a practical means of collection, analysis, and presentation, in real time, using the latest technology to augment human decision-making.

SimpleSense is creating a platform that transforms critical, disparate data sources into precise, actionable, at-a-glance operations for first responders. This information sharing platform, built on simple, focused user interfaces, helps eliminate information silos between public and private emergency, fire, and security services.

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