The United States Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has pulled out its crystal ball to look 20 years into the future. In this case, the ball is made of focus groups and the future is that of technologies available to first responders a generation from now. The idea is to anticipate the needs of first responders to make sure that the appropriate technology is available to meet future disasters and terrorist attacks.

An interesting intellectual pastime is looking back at old science fiction stories or predictions by pundits about the sort of gadgets the future would hold and seeing how well (or poorly) their vision of the 21st century tallies with reality. At the Homeland Security Studies & Analysis Institute (HSSAI) Resilience and Emergency Preparedness/Response Branch in Arlington, Virginia, S&T employs futurists to turn that idea on its head by envisioning the world of the future and attempt to foresee what technology will be required.

The results, as summed up in a report called Project Responder 3, are an interesting mix of blue-sky thinking. By 2032, police are expected to be wearing "augmented reality" eyeglasses or wrist phones that they can use to instantly pull up data on a suspect while looking at them, identify terrorists in a crowd or finding weapons. The point of this is that law enforcement will be actively linked to a homeland-security network that they can use to anticipate crimes rather than responding to those already committed.

This same access to information will allow paramedics to perform difficult diagnoses in the field as well as performing advanced procedures. Smartphones will be able to automatically send emergency calls in the event of an accident and coach samaritans on the scene in how to administer first aid until professionals arrive. Once there, paramedics will use devices similar to Star Trek’s tricorder to assess the victim’s condition and they’ll have artificial blood on hand for transfusions. If the patient needs moving, the paramedics will have powered exoskeletons to do the lifting.

Meanwhile, firefighters will have robots to deal with debris and to go into hazardous environments. They’ll also have a host of sensors, smoke-penetrating goggles and headgear that will feed them a steady stream of data, such as maps, warnings and oxygen levels in the immediate area.

Even the multi-threat protective clothing worn by responders will be high tech. It will be trim and lightweight like any good set of futuristic clothing should be, but will also have a long-lasting oxygen supply and sensors to seek out victims, tell which ones need care first and warn if it isn't possible to reach them safely. Along with the clothing will be universal translators, so language will no longer be a barrier in delivering aid.

Even cities will be geared to help in a disaster with networks of sensors to help emergency managers respond quickly and appropriately and there will be new learning software to help responders do their jobs better and adapt to the unexpected.

The purpose of all these predictions is part of an examination of how police, firefighters and paramedics will operate 20 years from now in a world that has become more interconnected. S&T wanted to know how this interconnectedness would make energy, water, food and cyberspace more vulnerable and what technologies would be available to counteract attacks against them.

The Project Responder 3 report is based on data from four focus groups convened in 2011 made up of law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and emergency managers. Their responses were ranked according to need and subjected to factor analysis, a statistical method used to detect correlations and set priorities.

S&T admits that the predictions are not perfect and that they raise legal and ethical questions about access to patient information or the liability of an artificial intelligence. And, of course, the report doesn’t even mention jetpacks once, which any good prediction of the future must have.