Understanding and Designing Fire-based Emergency Medical Services

Understanding the Present and Designing the Future of Data-Intensive “Risk Work” in Emergency Medical Services in Fire Departments

Active project
Sponsor: National Science Foundation
Partner: Fire departments in the US

Most U.S. cities are served by all-hazards fire departments, staffed by fire personnel who provide a range of services to address and prevent medical, community health, safety, and fire emergencies. Traditionally, fire personnel rely on a combination of expert systems, organizational processes, and professional intuition honed through experience to identify and mitigate the risks they are tasked with handling. As ICTs with expanded capabilities for data collection, storage, and advanced analytics become widely available, the risk-work – defined as working practices framed by risk – done by emergency services will evolve and transform. Emerging data-intensive IT offers the potential to advance this risk-work by augmenting practices of identifying risks, translating risk knowledge, and managing risks at the individual, organizational, and institutional level, but the tools and sociotechnical practices necessary to do so have been slow to come; such tools and practices must further be designed with careful attention to potentially-negative, unintended consequences for work practice (e.g. increased data work), workers (e.g., increased disparities in risk knowledge), and communities (e.g., intensified surveillance of already surveilled populations). This project has multiple goals to be achieved through three phases. First, we will document current practices of “risk-work” and risk-relevant data resources using in-depth ethnographic research in three fire departments in different contexts across the U.S. Second, we will co-design speculative prototypes for data-intensive sociotechnical risk-work tools and practices with our field sites. Third, we will bring design prototypes to a broad emergency services audience at a national conference to gather feedback and understand how our prototypes shift visions of the future for emergency services personnel.


  • Ethnography
  • Participatory design
  • Speculative design
  • Design Futures
  • Research through design
  • Case study research