The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate held a stakeholders conference last week in Los Angeles focused on first responders, with a heavy focus on technology. It was a excellent way to catch a glimpse into the future of the technology that will be used in the homeland environment.

Wired magazine had a reporter covering the conference, and he brought along a camera. Wired provides a good look at some of the individual technologies that vendors had on display but did not show the seriously “tricked out” incident command and control vans/trucks that were on hand. They were impressive in the capabilities they provided to on-the-scene responders.

But even with the new technologies which were on display, there is a lot of need still out there, including the ability to locate and track first responders when they are inside buildings, particularly during a crisis situation. DHS S&T Undersecretary Jay Cohen listed this as one of his top technology needs for 2007 and 2008.

Another technology Cohen’s directorate will be looking for is a new protective “wrap” for houses and other buildings in fire-prone areas. Showing pictures of entire blocks of homes which were destroyed in the Southern California wildfires this past year, Admiral Cohen noted that some houses survived because they had been able to coat their homes with foam or other protections that provided a barrier against the fires. Cohen noted that the cost was approximately $19,000 per home, an amount which is out of reach for many homeowners. (Suggestion to Admiral Cohen: See if you can find pictures from the Los Angeles Times rather than the New York Times when you are speaking at a conference in Los Angeles to an audience filled with first responders from California.)

Having DHS S&T look at technology that will assist local homeowners in the event of natural disasters may seem like heresy to those who believe that DHS should be solely focused on anti-terrorism programs, but I believe Cohen has it right. DHS was intended to be an all-hazards agency, and this is one of the first bits of evidence that S&T is serious about helping protect lives and property irrespective of the cause.

This may be an area where Cohen should create a public-private partnership to take advantage of the knowledge experts from entities such as the National Fire Protection Association and the property and casualty insurance industry. It might be advantageous for S&T to leverage their existing work in this area.

S&T has virtually shut out the private sector through its Capstone IPT structure (only government reps are permitted), and while it has not been shy about holding individual meetings with private sector companies or appearing at conferences where S&T officials will meet with private sector companies, there has been a seeming reluctance to leverage private sector research & development investment with the limited budget that Congress has given to S&T. Perhaps Congress should address this during the upcoming oversight hearings upon the release in February of the FY09 budget.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More