When Academia Meets Public Safety

Mar 15, 2011

Can a local university make a significant difference in regional first responder and homeland security efforts? The answer is yes – if done right. Universities often have the reputation (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) of being intellectually and physically distant from the surrounding community, the classic “ivory tower” analogy. This is somewhat understandable since the historical dual-pronged mission of higher education institutions is to first, educate our post-secondary students, and second, contribute to the continuously expanding body of scholarly knowledge. But universities are also magnificent repositories of untapped transferable skills, knowledge, and technology.

Increasingly, they are expected to engage more with their communities. In some sectors, such as medicine, nursing, and law, the possibilities seem obvious. Less obvious, however, are ways to contribute to regional security and public safety concerns. This article profiles one highly successful effort by a university to engage with its community at this level. A number of “lessons learned” are also discussed.

San Diego County, located in Southern California, is home to about three ­million people. From a 1st responder and homeland security perspective, San Diego is somewhat unique. The region has experienced a number of critical incidents in the recent past, including the Cedar Fire in 2003. The fire, the largest in California’s history at that time, burned 2,820 buildings and killed a number of people in its 280,278-acre path. An even larger wildfire occurred in 2007, burning over 325,000 acres and forcing the evacuation of ½ million people. San Diego is also subject to significant earth movements, which can be a “swarm” of smaller earthquakes, or a high magnitude event with aftershocks. Adding to the security mosaic are the area’s large defense presence and its major port for both commercial and Navy operations. Finally, San Diego County is home to the world’s busiest international land border crossing – along the U.S. I-5 highway into Tijuana, Mexico. The border situation is of particular concern with the high incidence of human smuggling and the ever increasing violence associated with drug cartel activity.

As a major metropolitan region, San Diego is home to several universities, with San Diego State University being the oldest and largest in the region. In 1999, a collaborative partnership was formed between San Diego State University (SDSU), the University of California San Diego, SPAWAR Systems Center in San Diego, and a local defense contractor, ORINCON Corporation, with the objective of bringing highly advanced technology developed in regional academic, government, and small business laboratories to the first responder and homeland security market place. Named the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT), initial funding from the U.S. Congress was received in 2001. This was the start of a broader effort by San Diego State University to support regional 1st responder, public safety, and homeland security efforts that has now spanned a decade.

Today, San Diego State University’s effort, combined with significant support from other partners and sponsors, has resulted in four major university-based support efforts for the public safety and homeland security communities: an expanded CCAT mission, a Regional Technology Center, a graduate degree program in Homeland Security, and an Immersive Visualization Center.

Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT)
SDSU’s CCAT, founded in 2001 is considered the grandfather of the university’s major engagement effort with the 1st responder and homeland security community. Originally supported by the Office of Naval Research with Congressional funding, the core model of CCAT was to take highly advanced technology developed by small business, university laboratories, and government laboratories for national defense purposes, or under government national defense grants, and assist in the commercialization of these technologies for the broader 1st responder market. This involved offering competitive grant funding to assist in technology development as well as providing market research and commercialization plans for the grant-awarded CCAT clients. While the mission of CCAT has expanded over the years, this primary mission and use of competitive solicitations and grant funding for technology development still remains.

One important key to CCAT is its ­public-private partnerships. This includes the SDSU Research Foundation which is responsible for program management; the SDSU Entrepreneurial Management Center which is responsible for market research and business plans for CCAT clients; San Diego’s “Connect” organization which is responsible for business development, ­mentoring, and angel/venture capital funding contacts for CCAT clients; the University of California San Diego’s von Liebig Center for engineering advice, SPAWAR Systems Center-Pacific for program management, contracting, and technology transition services; and a network of other agencies and groups, such as the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, that provide specialized research and consulting to CCAT clients on a contract basis.

Over the years, the sponsoring agencies and partners for CCAT has expanded to include the Office of Secretary of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security’s TechSolutions, various private equity funding groups such as Tech Coast Angels and Chart Investments that formally consider investing in selected CCAT clients’ development efforts, outreach activities provided by First Link and the DoD Tech Match programs, and government technology licensing agencies such as Tech Link located at the University of Montana. In all, the combination of CCAT sponsors and partners create a “one-stop shopping” for funding and services required to accelerate technology development for the 1st responder, public safety and homeland security communities. In addition, a second CCAT sister effort was established in 2002 at the California State University in San Bernardino to service the greater Los Angeles and Inland Empire region of Southern California. Currently, SDSU’s CCAT has three major efforts:

  • To accelerate the fielding of cutting edge technology to military personnel in ­support of homeland defense and U.S. Department of Defense-defined requirements;
  • To promote the multi-use development of technology for use in emergencies, ­critical incidents and disasters of mass proportions; and
  • To provide a competitive opportunity and comprehensive approach to fast-track the commercialization into the healthcare and public safety markets of Department of Defense sponsored technological advances from academia, industry, and government.

To facilitate these efforts, several programs are underway at CCAT. One program is in collaboration with the Office of Naval Research Technology Transfer (T2) initiative. The key objectives of CCAT’s T2 program are to facilitate the licensing of government-sponsored technologies, expedite the transition of advances in technology to government and commercial market places, and promote economic development and recovery through the establishment of new companies and commercial products. This process is accomplished by nationwide solicitations for grant funding in particular focus areas. Competitive grant funding of up to $150,000 is offered to accelerate the development of the technology, as well as market research and business assistance if required. More than simply funding, the acceleration effort is enhanced by CCATs close management of the development process, and being able to call upon the various engineering, private equity funding, and research support partners as needed. CCAT strives to take a promising 1st responder technology from the laboratory to the customer within 12 to 18 months.

Another program at CCAT is in collaboration with the Department of Defense Preparedness Support (DPS) initiative of the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs. Initiated in 2008, the CCAT’s DPS program defines first responder capabilities and technology gaps, conducts nationwide solicitations for technology solutions, facilitates testing and evaluations for selected technologies, and provides detailed recommendations to facilitate the transition of viable technologies to the first responder marketplace. Another CCAT effort is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program. Founded in 2010, CCAT’s DHS program is designed to specifically identify, fund, and accelerate existing near term technology enhancements for specific 1st responder needs.

Since 2001 SDSU’s CCAT has sponsored over thirty nationwide solicitations and evaluated almost 1,000 applications. Over 120 technologies from private industry, universities and government laboratories have received close to $25 million in awards and services to facilitate technology commercialization. Because of this effort, CCAT’s clients have achieved over $200 million of technology sales and 3rd party investments, with many more technologies currently at near market stages. In addition, thirteen technologies from academia and government laboratories have been licensed and eight new startup companies have been formed. Examples of CCATs current support for 1st responder technologies include Pixon Imaging and a personal dead reckoning location system from the University of Michigan.

Pixon Imaging offers a high performance processor for improved video for security surveillance. The technology provides real time improved quality of video in fog, haze, and smoke. CCAT funded the miniaturization of the technology to fit into security cameras, fire fighter helmets, and helicopters. The development was completed in 2009, and the new product, called the PX-40B, has been integrated with Hitachi security camera and is being marketing into border and port security applications.

The University of Michigan is assisting in developing a personal dead reckoning location identification system for 1st responders. Currently designed for soldiers, the system uses accelerometers and gyros to identify a person’s location to off-site supervisors. The system works well when walking forwards, backwards, sideways, jogging, running, and hopping and is currently integrated into the heal of a soldier’s boot. However, the system does not currently work well when crawling on hands and knees, an important strategy for fire fighters. In addition, an in-heel solution for firefighter boots is more problematic because of the need for protection against puncture and extreme heat. CCAT is funding enhancement of the technology to allow integration into firefighter boots.

SDSU Regional Technology Center

Regional Technology Center (RTC)
SDSU’s RTC was created in 2003 and functions as a 3rd party support organization to the region’s public safety agencies. The stated mission of the SDSU RTC is to be a “neutral organization” working in partnership with San Diego’s regional public safety community to provide expertise in various technology need areas. Unlike CCAT, which has a technology commercialization mission, the RTC has a clear regional “support” focus, and thus its governance structure has become an important part of defining the RTC’s success. The regional governance structure affecting SDSU’s RTC is the Regional Technology Partnership made up of members of the region’s 1st responder and emergency service agencies, including Fire Chiefs, Police Chiefs, the Director of the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services, and the Director of the San Diego County Office of Homeland Security. The Director of SDSU’s RTC is also a member of the RTP. The RTP advises various governmental policy committees, but also defines the scope and priorities for SDSU’s RTC including developing a “Regional Strategic Technology Plan.” The Regional Strategic Technology Plan defines the key technology related issues and needs for the region. For San Diego, this includes the following five technology need areas that have become the core mission of the SDSU RTC.  

Interoperable Communications. The SDSU RTC has evaluated and recommended suitable wireless technologies for the region and assisted with the development and implemented new regional communications systems including 3Cs, P25 radio systems and mobile data systems.

Geographic Information Systems. The SDSU RTC has been a major force in establishing the San Diego Regional Emergency Geospatial Information Network (SDREGIN). The SDREGIN offers a standardized homeland security data and geospatial model repository. The SDSU RTC also conducts regional special mapping projects, and prepares grant requests for development of GIS data and applications.

Regional Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Interoperability. There are currently about 15 CAD systems across the San Diego region, with interoperability between systems accomplished primarily by phone with little ability for digital sharing. The RTC has developed a five phase project to integrate these systems to provide a more complete common operational picture within the region.

Regional Technology Clearinghouse. The SDSU RTC is specifically designed to maintain awareness of new technologies available on the market that may be useful to the region’s Public Safety agencies. The SDSU RTC also responds to community or vendor requests — about 150 relevant technologies have been analyzed in response to these requests. Detailed information about relevant technologies is maintained in a Technology Assist Database which is available to the San Diego Public Safety community via a protected internet access. Non-San Diego communities can access this information upon approval.

Homeland Security Science and Technology Testbed. This focus area was implemented in 2008, with a mission of testing new technologies under various field conditions. The SDSU RTC, in ­partnership with SPAWAR-Pacific, Walsh Analytics, and the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, operates the testbed. To date, several different technologies have been tested in real life emergency applications; the results of these tests are being used to both verify their usefulness, and provide recommendations for appropriate technical modifications for successful commercialization in the Public Safety marketplace.

The SDSU Graduate Program in Homeland Security (HSEC)
Established in 2003, the mission of the SDSU graduate program in Homeland Security is, “to produce leaders from a variety of educational and professional backgrounds who can effectively and efficiently identify, design, and mobilize the appropriate community resources to prevent, deter, preempt, defend against, and respond to terrorist attacks and/or other critical incidents and emergencies on the local, regional, national and international levels.” Over the years, the program has trained and placed graduate students in numerous local, national, and international agencies. Currently the HSEC program has international programs in Baja California Norte in Mexico; Warsaw in Poland; and Chennai, Tamil Nadu in India. Specializations within the Homeland Security graduate program at SDSU include, a) border security and governance, b) information security, c) infrastructure and homeland security, d) law and homeland security, and e) terrorism and irregular warfare.

Immersive Visualization Center. ­Associated with the HSEC Program, the SDSU Immersive Visualization (Viz) Center is similar to a “war room” environment providing real-time data collection, management, and analysis; sensors; data fusion; visualization; communication; and decision support for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and homeland security.

Emergency related data sources into the Viz Center includes military and civilian aircraft reconnaissance information, satellite imaging, remotely piloted high altitude low-speed drone and low altitude high-speed UAV videos, synthetic aperture radar data, hyperspectral and infrared filtered data, various 3-D mapping technologies, specialized emergency related software that interpret the data as needed, and even data from individual 1st responder hand-held GPS devices.

The lab allows both scenario generation for HSEC students, and real-time visualization and disaster mapping of emerging critical incidents for 1st responders and public safety professionals throughout the United States. It provides an illuminating picture for emergency management supervisors who need to quickly pinpoint trouble spots, interpret fast-changing developments, and assess the effect of different strategies in mitigating critical incidents. For example, the SDSU Viz Center has generated geospatial imagery used by first responders and decision-makers during various wildfires.

Using a process of layered geographic mapping and satellite information combined with sophisticated data fusion software, the Viz Center can track in real-time flame height, fire temperatures, and whether vegetation is burned or not. It can then create different impact scenarios of wind direction changes and various suppression techniques. Critical information and GPS data – such as a fire moving up a unseen hill behind individual firefighters, a blaze splitting off that might threaten a house, or hot spots that have been missed and need additional suppression – can then be transmitted to on-site fire chiefs and individual fire fighters.

Disasters such as earthquakes and oil spills around the world can also be examined in real time. For example, the Viz Center provided three-dimensional imagery in the recent Haiti disaster for the U.S. Navy’s humanitarian efforts. The Viz Center has also hosted various homeland security training sessions including Coalition Warrior Interoperability demonstrations.

Lessons Learned and Best Practices
San Diego State University offers an interesting, and to date, successful effort for ­significant collaboration between an institution of higher learning and the 1st responder, homeland security, and emergency management communities. Given that this level of engagement has occurred over only 10 years, several lessons have been learned.

There is tremendous opportunity for productive and cost effective engagement between universities and the public safety community, however, the relationship must be carefully constructed and strategically planned.

Each region is unique. The model described in this article may not be appropriate for all regions. Different universities have different skills. Different regions have different public safety organizations, different formal and informal political structures, different levels of integration, different technology needs, and different funding opportunities. The key issue is to develop a university engagement process that fits the unique personality of each community.

Any successful university engagement process in the public safety arena must include significant public-private relationships supported by organizations from different sectors. Developing these relationships takes time and significant leadership talent.

When the university engagement involves a “support” function, the governance structure becomes critical in both defining the needs, and thus the core mission, for the support organizations as well as achieving the all-important “buy-in” from the local 1st responder and public safety communities.

To execute a strategy of support, the university must be in direct partnership with the relevant communities. Regional 1st responders, emergency management directors, public safety officials, and homeland security organizations need to tell the university what they need first. Then the university has to go through an iterative process of developing and testing, perhaps through several iterations until an acceptable support organization design is achieved.

Similarly, any technology development effort must be structured with a series of iterations which allows the 1st responder community to provide continuous input into the design process. This is required because the public safety and 1st responder community often doesn’t know what is possible from a technology stand point.

When the university engagement process involves the development of new product capabilities for first responders, the partner relationships also become important in order to create a “one-stop-shopping” process. Identifying high potential 1st responder technologies, obtaining funding for technology enhancements, beta testing technologies with 1st responders in field conditions, performing appropriate market research, mentoring the client as needed, selecting the right commercialization strategies, getting engineering support, and developing customer or licensee contacts are all important for the successful acceleration of 1st responder technologies. A successful technology development engagement needs to develop a package of partner relationships that can cover all needs. Not everything needs to be “in-house.” Many of these components can be developed in association with other organizations, such as CCAT or Techlink.

The target region needs to be large and populous enough to make the engagement effort cost effective. Smaller regions and rural areas should consider partnering with existing, well established organizations.

Universities often use student teams as resources for research and support. From experience, however, these teams need to be closely monitored and supervised by faculty members that are intimately familiar with the 1st responder and homeland security communities and the process of commercialization if the project involves elements of technology development.

If a local university is just beginning the process of engaging with the region’s 1st responder and homeland security communities, the directors should seek advice from universities that have experience in this area. There is, indeed, a steep learning curve in this area.

Craig S. Galbraith is with the Cameron School of Business at the University of North Carolina, in Wilmington.
Lou Kelly, with the San Diego State University Research Foundation, is also Chair of the Executive Board for the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology.
© FrontLine Security 2011