5G could mean the difference between night and day for firefighters.

With smoke, flames and a claustrophobic mask on, running into a burning building is a leap of faith. Firefighters are taught never to leave the wall, because they could become disoriented, run out of air and die.

“The way we used to look for people was almost as if you were blind,” said Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District.

That could change with technology like Qwake’s C-Thru. The augmented reality helmet uses thermal imaging so the wearer can see through smoke and darkness and rapidly locate victims. In the future, an artificial intelligence assistant could filter through the noise of screams, sirens and crackling flames, and provide only the information firefighters need.

While the AR helmet exists now, it’s one of a myriad of tools used by first responders that could get a big boost from 5G. The new, super-fast wireless technology is here, and it’s not just for smartphones. As these networks roll out into new areas, everything from drones to connected ambulances could help emergency workers deal with fires, hurricanes, bombings, active shootings and medical emergencies.

VerizonAT&TSprint and T-Mobile have launched their 5G services in the US, and 5G networks are available in Australiaparts of Europe and across Seoul. First responders are looking to take advantage of the faster speeds, higher capacity and lower latency, or the lag time between when you ping the network and when you get a response.

Once 5G is nationwide, emergency responders will be able to do more and work faster at the scene of a disaster. They’re using 4G LTE and Wi-Fi now, but those networks are slower and less reliable. They become congested easily, especially during an emergency when everyone is using their phones. When 5G arrives in earnest, it will be able to connect a multitude of devices without a logjam — and it can let machines crunch the data fast enough to make life-saving decisions.

Here are just some of the ways first responders will tap into 5G.

Augmented reality firefighting helmets

“It can be pitch black in broad daylight inside a home with all the lights on,” said Kirk McKinzie, captain and technologist for Cosumnes Fire Department 73-C in Elk Grove, just south of California’s capital of Sacramento. “I’ve been unable to see my hand in front of my face many times.”

That’s where San Francisco-based startup Qwake comes in. Its technology lets firefighters see through smoke, toxic gases and darkness to find victims and comrades, and spot falling objects and holes in floors that would otherwise be invisible.

It’s an idea born out of a volcano. Sam Cossman, CEO and co-founder of Qwake, wanted a tool to navigate more safely on his expeditions through smoke-filled volcanic craters, but it didn’t exist. So he pulled together a team to build it himself.

Traditionally, firefighters and volcanic explorers have carried thermal cameras to see the outlines of shapes via infrared sensing. Qwake moved that handheld camera to eye level, paired it with augmented reality and a tiny computer — the same used by self-driving cars, Cossman said — and integrated it all into a single piece of firefighting equipment: the helmet. It named the system C-Thru.

Looking through it, firefighters see the silhouettes of otherwise indiscernible objects and people in a smoke-filled room outlined in bright green.

McKinzie and Schapelhouman were the first to try C-Thru during test burns in 2017.

“Where there is darkness, C-Thru brings light,” McKinzie said. “The comparison equivalent is like night and day.”

The Qwake C-Thru mask shows green outlines around people and objects in a dark, smoky room.
The green outlines show people and objects that would otherwise be invisible in a smoke-filled room.

Roger Cheng/CNET

“Firefighter after firefighter, from older firefighters in our organization to some of the newer [and] youngest, all looked through that system and went ‘wow,'” Schapelhouman added. “This is it, this is what we’ve been looking for.”

C-Thru needs 5G for the next round of updates. Qwake is preparing for the wireless technology by using a test network inside Verizon’s 5G First Responder Lab in Washington DC With Verizon’s 5G network still in its infancy — it’s only live in parts of Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, WashingtonChicago, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Providence, Rhode Island. — the lab provides access to 5G for startups.

The first startups allowed into the lab worked on things that can be done with 4G “but not very well,” said Nick Nilan, Verizon director of public sector development. When you add 5G into the mix, it supercharges everything from video feeds and sensors to real-time data analysis.

C-Thru could not only be a firefighter’s companion on the front line, but also stream real-time video back to commanders on the outside. 5G edge computing processes the data produced by smart devices closer to where it is being created, rather than sending it to the cloud and back.

Qwake also plans to add location tracking to the system, so firefighters leave a digital “breadcrumb trail” for a clear escape route if they become disoriented. Location tracking can be done to a certain extent using 4G, Cossman said, but it will be far more accurate using 5G.

“Each firefighter is essentially becoming a human sensor, mapping this complex environment that’s dynamically changing in real time,” he said.

Adding 5G to drones

5G could potentially bring a lot to the drone world, too. Drones are already being used in emergency situations, like conducting searches for missing people, delivering medical equipment to remote areas and patrolling during high-risk search warrant entries.

Schapelhouman also uses drones when he works with the Coast Guard, crediting them with preventing what could have been a body recovery. They could even be used for bomb disposals, said Lieutenant Dan Donelli of Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

DJI says its drones have helped rescue 257 people in 117 incidents around the globe since 2013.

“It’s a game changer for law and fire and for keeping people safe,” Donelli said. “As an organization, it just makes sense as far as saving time, saving money, but also mainly saving lives.”

During 2018’s deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California, DJI flew more than 500 drone missions to map the entire fire zone. It fed 360-degree views to first responders during the battle to help fight the blaze, and produced before and after images of the destruction.

“Once everybody saw the data that we were able to gather in the amount of time that it took, it’s almost a no-brainer to have this as part of your response team,” said Romeo Durscher, DJI director of public safety integration.

DJI drone photos show before and after scenes of the Camp Fire
Before and after images of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, mapped by DJI over the course of more than 500 drone missions.

Butte County

There are “a lot of grand ideas” about what 5G will bring to drones, Durscher said. That includes flying them higher and farther, and downloading drone data much faster.

“We will see a big impact once the whole network is set up, and once we have the ability to really get that amount of data,” Durscher said. “That will then enable … much better and faster decisions.”

But a PwC expert warned 5G may not help drones fly much farther than the treetops.

“There’s a dirty little secret about drones and cellular networks no one talks about,” said Dan Hays, US partner for telecommunications corporate strategy at the consulting firm. “Cellular networks are designed for connectivity on the ground … They don’t provide good connectivity beyond a few hundred feet.”

Those limits aren’t stopping public safety agencies from looking at drones and 5G. For instance, the new wireless networks could allow multiple drones to be controlled at once, said Chris Smith, vice president of technology for AT&T’s global public sector.

Artificial intelligence: A life-saving assistant

Throw artificial intelligence into the mix of first responder tech, and 5G’s faster speeds, shorter load times and higher capacity are vital.

The Cosumnes Fire Department and Qwake have been working with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate to train an AI platform being developed by NASA.

The Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction and Synthesis (Audrey) is learning how to keep firefighters safe, using data ranging from how fast a fire develops to how a building’s contents can affect the growth and heat of the fire. It can predict and give advice on how much time firefighters have left before a building is too dangerous to survive, or whether a backdraft is coming.

qwake helmet
An AI assistant like Audrey could be added to Qwake’s AR helmets.

Roger Cheng/CNET

Audrey needs 5G. Combining video, audio and sensor data with machine learning technology to predict what a fire will do next requires a lot of bandwidth.

One recent test burn alone produced a terabyte of data, McKinzie said. “That’s where the 5G is — we need to be able to push big datasets.”

5G-connected officers and vehicles

First responders are getting hooked up to more and more smart devices. In fire departments, there are plans to connect temperature gauges to the internet to provide information on buildings and individuals; link heart and respiration rate monitors to detect any changes in a firefighter; and connect sensors to monitor how much oxygen is left in a pack. Vital stats could be retrieved in the middle of fighting fires, AT&T’s Smith said, so commanders could see if heatstroke is a risk.

Ambulances, fire trucks and police cars are already being equipped with their own routers, Nilan said. They’re moving hotspots that power things like dash cams, license plate recognition, ticketing and telemedicine systems.

Just wait until they tap into 5G.

“5G first is going to give much greater speed … to support the plethora of devices,” Nilan said.

Now playing: 5G means more than just fast downloads to your phone

One city already working on 5G ambulances is Barcelona. The Spanish government of Catalonia showed off the smart vehicles at Mobile World Congress earlier this year.

The vehicles use 5G for data speeds of up to 5Gbps, sending data back to the hospitals. They receive remote support from doctors in real-time HD video, and will soon connect to surrounding infrastructure so they can hit every green light.

“From car to crisis is something that we’re very focused on,” Smith said.

Connecting so many devices comes with the need to analyze information quickly. The sheer volume of data requires higher bandwidth, as well as shorter load times to examine it as quickly as possible and allow for quick decisions.

Luckily, those are hallmarks of 5G.

In the future, 5G connections could enable digital floorplans to be integrated into AR equipment so first responders know where to go and how to shut off elevator systems. Or as soon as someone dials 911, a 3D map could be shared on their phone via 5G to help them escape, McKinzie added.

“So much more is [possible] than we’re doing just now,” McKinzie said.

Giving first responders a slice of the 5G network

5G networks can carve out individual slices of spectrum to offer specific devices or customers the kind of connection they need, another aspect that could be a boon to first responders.

A carrier could allocate certain airwaves for first responder use only, preventing the network from being crowded by non-emergency devices.

During an emergency, cellular networks often get so crowded they often slow down to the point of being unusable. It’s like trying to send an Instagram during a concert at a stadium, but worse.

“The first thing that happens when something bad goes on — everyone picks up their cellphones and calls 911, and then the next thing is FaceTime, or Twitter Live, or Facebook,” Warren Shepard, Georgia Emergency Management Agency and Homeland Security manager of critical infrastructure and key resource unit, told CNET sister site TechRepublic earlier this year. “They’re trying to stream all this data.”

Streaming data from the C-Thru helmet to command and control would use a serious amount of data.


One solution is 5G’s ability to guarantee capacity for critical communication. Barcelona will add 5G radios to its ambulances to ensure that they get their own free internet lane during emergencies.

AT&T and Verizon both say they’re looking into slicing out a portion of 5G networks for emergencies. But the specifics still need to be hammered out. Nilan said the options are to give a slice to all first responders, or more granular slicing for each separate capability as and when it’s needed.

From AR firefighter masks to drones and AI, 5G has the potential to provide first responders with a lot of backup.

“Technology is the only thing I see, frankly, that can make the greatest humanitarian gain in the precious few moments when time is fleeting and decisions are critical,” McKinzie said.