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Nationwide coding challenge appeals to innovators and public safety

September 17, 2019

September is National Preparedness Month, and this year innovation for first responders is on the forefront. The First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority), an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), is collaborating with the DOC National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research Division (PSCR) on the Tech to Protect Challenge, a groundbreaking coding project. This national innovative challenge introduces coding contests designed to foster communications technology solutions that will aid emergency responders in serving and protecting communities nationwide. Participants will compete for cash prizes from a pool of $2.2 million.

With a series of 10 regional code-a-thon events in-person coding events and an online contest, the Tech to Protect Challenge encourages widespread participation from a diverse community of innovators: students, researchers, inventors, entrepreneurs, technologists, programmers, software developers and more. Public safety experts are also needed. Tech to Protect invites public safety personnel to participate by submitting their own solutions to the coding contests or serving as a knowledge resource for participants or a reviewer of participant solutions at code-a-thons near them.

Tech to Protect is gearing up for two rounds of in-person code-a-thons, with the first round taking place from September 27-29 in:

  • Chicago
  • College Station, Texas
  • Denver 
  • Washington D.C.

A second round of code-a-thons will be held November 1-3 in:

  • Los Angeles
  • Miami,
  • New York City
  • Pittsburgh
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle

Participants can submit projects under 10 contests or categories, each focused on a different technical area. The FirstNet Authority is pleased that technical subject matter experts from our organization are leading three of these contests. We had an opportunity to speak with each of them about their contest areas and how the contests will benefit emergency responders:

CONTEST 003// Looking Under the Hood: Using Augmented Reality to Help Save Trapped Passengers, led by FirstNet Authority Senior Apps UX Architect Shawn Shahidi

1. How will this augmented reality contest benefit emergency responders and the communities they serve and protect?  

“Every second counts when first responders are trying to rescue passengers trapped inside a vehicle after an accident to get them to safety and provide the medical care they need.

This contest will create dynamic and easy-to-navigate interfaces that give first responders quick access to valuable up-to-date information about the vehicle design and construction.  This helps first responders find the safest and most efficient way to rescue the passengers, save the victims’ lives, and prevent injury to first responders during the extrication process.”

2. In your opinion, what makes the augmented reality contest unique or different from other Tech to Protect contests?

“Besides being the only contest focused on saving lives during a vehicle accident, leveraging augmented reality to create a dynamic, configurable, and easy-to-navigate interface for first responders to access and view information quickly on the scene of the incident makes this contest unique. This could be the start of a wave of practical new applications designed specifically for public safety using advanced user interface technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality.”

CONTEST 006// Voice Commands to Virtual Assistants: Hands Free Device Control, led by FirstNet Authority Senior Device Engineer Barry Leitch

1. How will Voice Commands to Virtual Assistants: Hands Free Device Control benefit emergency responders and the communities they serve and protect?  

“Heads up – hands free technologies have been touted as capabilities needed for first responders to be more effective in a wide range of operational scenarios. The use of voice commands to control devices or to access information has been discussed in different articles or at conferences as a potential user interface advancement to provide this needed capability. These discussions have not yet progressed to any significant development of this capability for public safety use. The goal of this contest is to bring attention to the potential benefit of this voice command capability for the first responder community and to kick start development of products and solutions incorporating this advanced user interface technology.”   

2. In your opinion, what makes Virtual Assistants: Hands Free Device Control unique or different from other Tech to Protect contests?

“This contest is unique from the other Tech to Protect challenges due to its direct alignment to the development of advanced User Interface/User Experience (UI/UX) technologies for the benefit of public safety personnel.  UI/UX research is one of the key areas for PSCR’s public safety research efforts and the goal of this contest is to bring attention to the need for this type of development across the public safety industry and with research organizations. Enabling voice command capability together with artificial intelligence support could be a game changer for developing highly effective hands-free user interface technology for our first responders.”

CONTEST 007// Sensor Integration: Monitoring Emergency Responders’ Health, led by FirstNet Authority Senior Public Safety Advisor Bill Schrier

1. How will "Sensor Integration" benefit emergency responders and the communities they serve and protect?  

“Firefighters, law enforcement officers, and paramedics are among the most dangerous professions one can undertake. But most people don't realize that the stress and physical demands can cause as many deaths and injuries as the actual job requirements. Today, many of us walk around with a smart device (phone, watch, armband, etc.) that can monitor our health and physical activity. But public safety officers operate in extremely hazardous environments without the benefit of such capabilities built into their emergency response tools. Building the equipment and software to support this critical need will enhance operations while helping to protect those who sacrifice so much to keep our communities safe.”

2. In your opinion, what makes "Sensor Integration" unique or different from other Tech to Protect contests?

“This contest is designed to help protect those who protect us. It's accepted that first responders do dangerous work when called into action, but that shouldn't include suffering physical ailments that can be easily monitored and even prevented. This challenge will ultimately help save the lives of our responders by advancing technology to monitor their physical condition during very stressful situations.”

For more information about Tech-to-Protect challenge and how to participate visit: or email

For more information on the FirstNet Authority’s public safety programs visit