My role

This was a design thinking project to explore the possibility of improved accountability on a fire scene. I was the lead designer/strategist for this project working with a junior industrial designer to develop this concept. I lead the opportunity analysis and creative process for this project.

The creative brief

When firefighters are called to a scene, there are very clear risks and dangers associated which require intense focus.  These men and women are highly trained to save people’s lives in the most hazardous situations. If at any point, a firefighter loses communication with others, it is immediately a life threatening condition where they may have seconds to call out before they are unreachable.

When firefighters arrive on scene, there is a complex system for tracking who is on-scene, a process called accountability. Since fire departments are all unique: city, county, volunteer, full-time, etc., each has its own processes and procedures. Although there are “best practices”, there is no SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for accountability that is common between every firehouse. It is currently an analog process with white boards and name tags, very similar to a chess board. An operator must manually move pieces on a board constantly in order to have full situational awareness.


Understanding the users

Firefighter & Incident Commander

The obvious users to identify in this scenario are the firefighters and incident commanders. They are at the forefront of the action and are the main people that need to be located. One of the ways that departments periodically check the status of their teams are through PAR checks (Personal Accountability Reports). These checks are primarily accomplished over the handheld radios and are done at any point the incident commander wants an update.

  1. The incident commander will request a PAR check over the radio.
  2. The firefighters will respond with their status and location.
  3. Incident commander updates his accountability board.

That was the ideal scenario.
In reality, this is what happens…

  1. The incident commander request a PAR check over the radio.
  2. The firefighters don’t hear the PAR request because:
    a.The environment is incredibly loud
    b. Other radio calls are being made with higher priority
    c. Static created by infrared interference
    d. A firefighter is injured and can’t respond
    e. Their radio is damaged
  3. The incident commander calls for PAR check again.
  4. This time the firefighter hears it and responds, but:
    a. The environment is loud and the incident commander can’t hear clearly
    b. A firefighter is suffering from smoke inhalation and can’t communicate clearly
    c. Static created by infrared interference.
    d. The radio channels are saturated and message can’t go over the air.
    e. Their radio is damaged in process.
  5.  The incident commander is frustrated and becomes concerned for firefighter well-being
  6. Incident commander may ask others to look for non-responsive firefighter — risks other lives to save the one.

Medical Personnel

There is a 3rd key user in this process that doesn’t usually appear until after the call has ended or an injury occurs. These are the medical personnel involved with the event: paramedic, doctors, nurses, administrators, and assistants.

Persona Development – Understanding the psychology and needs for the users

The main opportunity


The key to the opportunity statement is to take all of the research that was done prior to this point (100’s of interviews, customer visits, years of experience) and succinctly enunciate the opportunity that has the highest value to the users. This is a pretty loaded statement, so let’s unpack what the three core pillars mean:


  1. Unique to each fire fighter – not shared among others
  2. Customized with identifiable information for each fire fighter
  3. Create an emotional attachment to their personal safety


  1. Attached to individual fire fighters to ensure accountability
  2. Non-intentionally detachable from user
  3. Familiar, non-intrusive, desirable form factor


  1. Digitally readable from 100m to minimize need for PAR checks
  2. Digitally and physically contains personalized information
  3. Link to other smart devices to transmit signal to extend range

Ideate. Ideate. Ideate

After hundreds of concepts, I affinitized all of the ideas and a key concept came to the forefront. Sometimes, true innovation isn’t found in a completely new form factor or a website or an app. Great ideas can come by building off of existing ideas for different or similar purposes. The concept I settled on builds off of something that every active soldier wears today.


It’s not difficult to see where this is going — and that’s the beauty of it. When it is this simple,  this makes it easier for users to understand its purpose and use it without doubting its purpose. The concept involves embedding existing passive RF technology into the standard dog tag form factor to create a smart tag that can be used for passive tracking of firefighters on scene.

Design & Psychology

The chosen form factor is a standard dog tag which is immediately relatable to anyone as a form of identification. It can be easily recognized as a smart version of an analog device that is familiar — visibly and tangibly. The emotional tie between a dog tag and a soldier is very strong and this is helpful when a large percentage of firefighters are ex-military personnel as well. The learning curve of the tag should be minimal because it doesn’t not require any human intervention to use it and its purpose will be clear to the individual wearing it.

Technology Feasibility

Low energy electronics are very common in RF applications like Bluetooth LE, RFID, and NFC. Adding a battery to the device will improve battery life and read-range but if the reader is powerful enough, the battery isn’t as critical.

Embedding a small printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) is possible, although it may add marginal thickness to the overall form factor.

Customer Adoption/Acceptability

Early user tests have indicated high customer acceptance probabilities because it is a familiar product with enhanced features.

Other concepts have illustrated customized dog tags where the fire fighter’s company logo could be etched into the tag to further build on the emotional tie with the product.


This solution is not dependent on anything else the firefighter has to carry with them on a normal basis. The truck driver, rescue team, officer on scene, battalion chief all have different equipment based on their roles so it is not as simple as adding these electronics to an existing piece of equipment that only a subset of firefighters wear. This truly is a personal token that will be worn by each person on scene as a beacon.


Laser Etched Prototype

Black Oxide Stainless Steel and Standard Stainless Steel tags