It’s probably safe to say that people want their firefighters, EMT, law enforcement and other emergency responders to be as best-equipped for their jobs as possible, so that they can be successful and well-protected, too.

Semantic technology can have a hand in making sure that happens. Deborah McGuinness, Tetherless World Senior Constellation Professor and Director of Web Science Operations John Erickson. both of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) , are spearheading an effort, thanks to some funding from the National Institute of Standards and Technology(NIST) under program manager William G. Billotte, to use semantic technology and social media to help that organization better understand what requirements should be for these heroes.

“In this setting NIST is interested in gathering requirements to allow them to fund people to make things that will make first responders safer,” she says. NIST wants to be precise about requirements – for better fire extinguishers or more effective flame-retardant clothing under certain conditions, for instance – “and who better to get that [information] from than the responders,” she says.

The grant is entitled, “Responder Requirements Methodology: A roadmap for using social media to gather first responder requirements,” according to Billotte. The roadmap “can be used by agencies to achieve a solution enabling the responder community to more effectively dialogue with key stakeholders,” he says.

The team at RPI is putting together a semantically-enabled, lightweight technology infrastructure to support gathering those requirements from online social communities, as well as create one for parties to participate in. Some of the existing first responder social networks are open, and the work involves building an example portal that will have open sections as well as sections where communities  can  restrict who sees the information. Understandably, firefighters don’t want to deal with a ton of sales pitches when their focus is on discussing what equipment is best to take to battle a chemical fire, for instance.

“What we think we will be able to do is connect with at least some of the social networks they already have so they don’t have to log into yet another one, though some work there is required,” McGuinness says. “We also want this to serve as models for other kinds of requirements-gathering situations that also have concerns about privacy and anonymity.”

McGuinness says a prototype is being developed. “Part of the additional semantics remains to be seen,” she noted. But there’s a role for trying to clarify how the community articulates itself. As any other industry, firefighting has its jargons, such as the word ‘can’ for ‘fire-extinguisher,’ she notes. “They have different jargon for things they bring with them. So if you look for cans that shoot a certain distance or have certain properties vs. looking at fire extinguishers, you will miss some requirements,” she says.

“You don’t have to understand all the jargon or their full breadth, but if you just make a bit of a difference you can get more requirements than you did before and in a more timely manner,” she adds. “And you can facilitate conversations, because one of the better ways to get requirements is to have a couple of people knowledgeable about a topic discuss and refine them.”