Q & A: Tracking Company Aims for More Than Knowing Who is Where

Image of a woman in a fire service uniform during training

The fire service and military share many common traits. Chief among those is putting humans in harm’s way and trying to reduce the risk to those humans in those environments. Not surprising, there are tech solutions for that.

Alex Gorsuch, is co-founder and chief technology officer Ascent Integrated Tech, one of those tech companies trying to reduce that risk. He talked with us about the challenges, capabilities of that tech, as well as his moon-shot aspirations for it.

What inspired your initial idea?

Gorsuch: When we started Ascent, we never set out to build the “unifying dashboard for high-intensity small-unit tactics.” As we were both second time founders in the defense industry, we decided to focus on the most important (and often discounted) part of modern tech entrepreneurship: go talk to a bunch of folks, understand the operational pains to solve, and understand the transactional barriers to find a problem that would not only be worth it and make a meaningful difference, but also be enjoyable to solve. So, we did exactly that — talk to over 2,000 firefighters and warfighters across the United States to understand the operational pain of a lack of insight on the health and location of human assets in the austere, chaotic battlespace.

How did that idea evolve into what we see today?

We started at one of our dining room tables, hacking together stuff for a USSOCOM solicitation. Since then, the team has grown to build hardware and focus on building a Common Operational Picture (COP) software, a dashboard designed to provide objective insights about the operator’s experience, thereby enhancing the interoperability and survivability of personnel. Thus, it reduces reliance on subjective verbal communications at the edge of human performance.

What did you learn from early failures?

When we started, we focused on informing the operator themselves of hazards and location. Through mission discovery, we learned the more pressing pain is that incident commanders use a dry erase board and radio to command something as complicated as a structural fire. Thus, we started working on COPs, which allow for shared consciousness among those on the outside of the incident to enhance the survivability of those inside.

What have you learned from taking your product into the hazmat market?

There is a dire need to provide objective insight to command, in order to help deploy human assets more effectively — this would increase the interoperability, survivability and mission effectiveness of hazmat personnel.

What has been the most profound story you have heard from a customer or beta tester?

I believe a lot of us think of firefighters dying during an incident as the most profound deaths. Of course, they are tragic, and death during duty should not be acceptable on any level. Yet, when I think of the most profound stories, they are about the individuals who survived 20-plus years fighting fires and then are taken away from their families in a slow, painful and inevitable death due to cancer.

We were speaking with a department in Arizona, getting some feedback on our platform and what it could do for the department. The assistant chief began to tell me that Arizona had adopted a presumptive cancer law for firefighters, which is a huge step in the right direction for the fire industry. However, as one would assume, there were many hurdles in proving that the individual with the cancer that presumptively came from their career’s risks, was very difficult. There were fire chiefs digging through filing cabinets to track down the incident that the individual responded to, with hopes of proving that they were there. They had two active cancer patients during our brief conversation. One was a younger gentleman in his early 30s and the other a soon-to-be retired battalion chief.

We began to discuss that our platform is hoping to be able to take a proactive step in the prevention of cancer. We’ll do this by tracking the environment and placing time stamps with identifiable markers that link it to an individual. 

Potentially this could make suggestions about after-action care based on the toxins or carcinogens they were exposed to. It could also determine that exposure time should be shortened from the industry standard due to the high toxicity in the air. This could have a huge impact on the overall survivability of a firefighter and the years in retirement.

All this would make the burden of proof on the department and the individual much less. Treatment could start sooner. And the even larger burden of paying for it would not be the firefighter’s responsibility. 

While it may not sound as profound as a firefighter rushing into a burning warehouse to save those inside, cancer is a reality of the job. It’s one that could be hurting recruitment and killing our firefighters long before their end of shift.

What’s the biggest misconception about Ascent Integrated Tech’s role in emergency response?

That our tech could cause the firefighter to be relieved of duty because of the data we captured. While I can’t speak for lawyers and unions, I can tell you that our number-one goal is to keep firefighters in the fight. We want to encourage firefighters to wear our device to track the individual’s biometrics. After all, cardiac arrest is a huge risk after the incident. We want to be able to monitor the environment to determine exposure and best predict how that environment will change and how it will affect the firefighter in the environment.

When you think specifically of hazmat, think the train derailment in Ohio in February 2023. The first responders on scene were exposed to a highly toxic environment. The EPA did not get people out to test the air quality until the firefighters had already left the scene.

This leaves one to assume that the exposure incurred by the firefighter was much greater than what was reported days later. We won’t know the effects on their lives for years to come. 

However, if they were equipped with our tech, maybe we would have a better understanding of the environment. Getting the crews that responded on a treatment plan now could not only save their lives, but reduce the cost of a lengthy, painful battle of a cancer they discover a decade later.

What’s the biggest barrier to entry into Ascent’s tools?

For a hazmat team, the biggest challenge to adoption for Ascent is the buy-in from the firefighter. They have been doing things a certain way for generations, and it works. Yet, when you introduce technology into the picture, people are always hesitant to adopt early because they do not know the repercussions yet.

Ascent could have all the lab data in the world to say our platform could save lives and reduce risk while improving survivability. We can track the environment to determine what exactly the individual was exposed to and at what PPM. 

We could set them up for proactive health care to prevent and detect the early stages of cancer. It is no different than decades of research on exercise and wellness. The data is there to support that exercise can ward off many diseases throughout life. Yet, we still aren’t exercising enough.

We need the buy-in from firefighters to know that our tech won’t take them out of the job they love, that our tech won’t infringe on their right to privacy. However, they need to know our tech will help them live long, fulfilling lives and that starts with their health. They need to know our tech will allow them to perform the job they care so much about with vigor and courage, and not wonder when the cancer will set in.

What problem keeps you up at night?

As the capacity to pass information in an austere, chaotic environment increases with technology like GoTenna and Wickr, technologists must be mindful that data’s toxicity increases faster than its usefulness. Therefore, we must focus on bundling data with context in order to provide wisdom, not just information.

What does the near-term future look like for your company?

Excellent, we just obtained our third AFWERX D2P2 Small Business Innovation Research contract, in total we have obtained over $3.7 million. The contracts are in collaboration with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center and the 96th Civil Engineer Eglin Air Force Base and the Air Force Civil Engineer Center and focus on GNSS-denied localization and mapping, readiness and toxicity monitoring, and fire dynamics modeling.

What does the long-term future look like for your company?

We continue to grow the team; we are up to 25 now. We are also working on holistic incident command across Air Force bases by providing GNSS-denied tracking and health insights of Ground Security Forces and Explosive Ordnance Disposal personnel through a COP.

What’s your boldest prediction for Ascent’s future role in hazmat and emergency response?

We see a world where all firefighters, SWAT, warfighters, et cetera all use the shared consciousness of our COP, which provides objective insight on the health and location of the operator while mapping the battlespace. Ascent will redefine how the industry deploys human assets in the chaotic, austere battlespace, by providing objective insight to command.

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