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Watchtower mobile application being accessed via an Android smartphone displaying the location tracking feature.

When first responders are on a mission, being able to quickly and easily track the location of their fellow responders can be challenging, especially in situations where the team is spread out.

Oftentimes responders are only able to coordinate their locations by radioing each other or the command post and providing a very detailed message on their exact location. This can be time consuming and can change every second if they are in an emergency situation or on a call.

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Recognizing this limitation, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) funded the development of the Watchtower mobile application, which – as of this past February 27 – is available for free for all public safety users. The app allows users to track and report their location using the GPS already built into a smartphone.

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The Watchtower app also tracks critical vitals, such as heart rates and oxygen levels, during routine and strenuous situations, potentially saving lives. It connects body-worn and other physiological-monitoring sensors using a smartphone’s Bluetooth to a dashboard, allowing users to track vitals and make informed decisions. Through this dashboard, if a responder’s vital signs indicate trouble, the responder can be evacuated and receive medical attention.

The Watchtower app allows users to:
• Identify other Watchtower users and display identities on the operational dashboard
• View and report locations to other Watchtower users and display locations on the operational dashboard
• Continuously update the user’s location
• View other responders’ locations, incidents, vehicle locations and static GIS info (i.e., Command Control trailer, etc.) on a map
• View their physiological sensor information from available sensors

“Responders across the nation face numerous on-the-job challenges. At DHS S&T, we make it our mission to look for solutions to these challenges – such as the ones this free app addresses – to help make responders as safe as we possibly can,” said DHS S&T Program Manager Cuong Luu.

The app was initially tested on various smartphones during the June 2017 Next Generation First Responder Spiral 2 Technology Experiment in Grant County, Washington. The test included the FirstNet-enabled Sonim phones (a smartphone commonly used by most responders), Grant County-issued smartphones and first responders’ personal smartphones.

Based on user feedback from the Grant County exercise, DHS S&T made improvements to the mobile app and developed the software into an open source code.

Public safety organizations can obtain a copy of the Watchtower software to customize for its environment using the Github download site.

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