The first-responder demographic represents an important, and often under-appreciated, market opportunity for AV integrators. What is a first responder? A first responder can be anyone who answers an emergency call and, often, she or he’s the first person dispatched to a scene. Most of the time, the term “first responder” is applied to the three most well-known disciplines: law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical services. There are many other specialties and disciplines in the field, including emergency dispatch, emergency managers and the National Guard.
From a first responder’s perspective, there are incredibly important reasons for getting the right equipment in the field—from training new recruits at the academy or home station, to addressing communication limitations on a scene. These organizations have capability gaps in communications, both audio and video. A capability gap is simply the difference between what you must be able to do and what you cannot do well, or cannot do at all, with existing resources. Agencies describe their resource needs in terms of “gaps” because it helps to narrow down exactly which mission problems must be addressed. Taking each gap at a time allows an agency to work toward a total solution.
All too often, agencies try to get by with what little equipment they have. It amazes me to what extent personnel will jury rig equipment to try to address their needs. Some agencies will purchase AV equipment at Best Buy or another consumer retailer—often because of the cost—without understanding the need for investment in commercial-grade resources. And, often, when they do this, they are looking at solving one piece of their overall gap, rather than taking a holistic view. That often leads to many small purchases over time, mixed equipment that is not integrated, frustration for the department and communications challenges that are potentially dangerous.
The opportunity for AV integration companies is not a small one. For example, the most recent data (2013) from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) indicate that there are more than 12,000 local police agencies1 and, at the county level, another 3,000-plus sheriff’s departments2. For fire departments, the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) estimated there were more than 27,000 fire departments in 20153. That does not include the local and state Emergency Management Agencies (EMA), training facilities and academies, or dispatch offices. There are nationwide agencies that dispatch mutual aid in the event of a large disaster, and they might have to assist in managing a scene from hundreds of miles away. One example is the National Wildland Coordinating Group4.
Large gaps in AV can be found in incident command centers and training facilities. Often, mobile incident command vehicles do not have the proper equipment for leaders to see, in near real time, the incident as it progresses, and to make the right decisions quickly. With today’s proliferation of drones, based on the changes to FAA rules last year, the capability to receive video of an incident scene at a command post is an emerging need for the field.
In training centers, much as in the university market, collaboration and interaction with students, as well as studying their responses to scenarios, are critical to keeping our first responders efficient, effective and safe. In discussions with Riley Land, the EMA Director for the Columbus GA region, he highlighted a training problem for departments with multiple stations. He offered that, for personnel to attend mandatory, interactive training, the crew must go “out of service” and travel to the training site; therefore, they are unable to respond to calls. As a result, videoconferencing or other capabilities are needed.
Integrators do not have to be big companies that have a lot of resources to be successful. However, there are some important considerations for any integrator that wants to enter the first-responder market. First, the manner of “doing business” is different in terms of funding projects. Many people who read this article will likely think that this market doesn’t have much money to afford a systems integrator and get the right equipment. Although it is true that many municipalities do not fund first-responder agencies very well, many—in particular, volunteer fire departments—are eligible for grant money. Additionally, through At the Ready’s online efforts, many departments have been encouraged to set up a non-profit organization (NPO) whose specific purpose is training and equipment acquisition. Through the NPO, they can take gifts and bequests that tax-funded organizations cannot take directly. An excellent example can be seen in Houston TX5. You can download the 2016 and 2017 cost allocation for its police and fire departments from the internet. That money comes from a foundation, not from taxes. Grants and foundation donations are one way for agencies to fund their AV projects.
Another consideration might be the business-development costs involved in becoming eligible to get integration projects awarded. The idea of registering for contract eligibility and searching for business opportunities might make the idea of serving this market unpalatable. The processes, however, are very straightforward. First-responder agencies serve at different levels of government: local municipality, county, state and federal. Each level has its own rules about submitting proposals and receiving awards. At the local municipal and county levels, there might not be any registration or other requirements to become an “approved vendor.” For some larger departments—for example, the New York Police Department (NYPD)—integration companies must submit a short application that asks about business history, products and services. Once you’re approved by the agency, you can bid.
With respect to business contracts at higher echelons of government, such as at the state and federal levels, integration companies are frequently required to be registered to be considered for contracts that exceed a certain dollar amount6. For projects under the dollar threshold, state agencies can purchase goods and services directly.
Once it has registered, an integrator is eligible to submit a proposal, just as it would for any other project. One nice thing about many state business opportunities for integration companies is, often, they publish their planned contract awards for each fiscal year.
At the federal level, there is an annual registration process into the System for Awards Management. It is an online process and it requires a DUNS number7 (you can receive it for free); then, companies are assigned an individual “CAGE code.” Once registered for the first time, a company can update annually. AV integrators do not need to be approved through the General Services Administration (GSA), or go through any audit process, to be registered to bid or win awards.
There is a real need in the first-responder market for professional AV integration. At the Ready is working hard to educate the field on available capabilities and the need to acquire the right AV technologies for the long term. Getting commercial-grade equipment installed correctly, with planned upgrades, would make a huge difference in agencies’ capability to train, respond and serve in their communities, potentially saving lives and preserving property.