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As Bailey Farren helped evacuate her mother from Santa Rosa during the chaos and devastation of the Tubbs Fire in 2017, she quickly realized there were big problems with the way information was being shared with the public.
She was working for a machine learning company in Sunnyvale at the time and had to rush from the heart of Silicon Valley to the North Bay with just the barest idea of what she was heading into.
“I had a ton of exposure to what is considered high tech in Silicon Valley but when we were evacuated, we had no access to technology of any kind when I needed it most,” Farren said.
Thus did a seed of an idea begin to germinate, an idea that led to the 2019 founding of Perimeter, a small Berkeley-based start-up that is building a data platform to help first responders quickly and effectively disseminate critical information among and between public safety agencies and the public.
“That was where everything started, however it really didn’t become clear that Perimeter needed to be a company until the Camp Fire in 2018,” Farren said.
“We heard horror stories about firefighters not being able to communicate, not knowing where spot fires were, not knowing which roads were closed,” she said.
Perimeter is billed as being able to deliver “situational awareness in one centralized platform” that leverages agencies’ existing geospatial tools and users’ mobile devices.
Perimeter allows first responders to input real-time observations and share them via an interactive map that is accessible to personnel from different agencies as well as the general public.
Farren said that while governments spend billions of dollars on disaster response technology, much of it is earmarked for the latest hardware or for sophisticated software systems like geospatial data collection and modeling tools that often require a high level of technical expertise to use effectively.
“Even though (a public safety agency) may have that data, that doesn’t mean that most firefighters can access it. So, what we plan to do is integrate with the system they already work with to make that information more available,” Farren said.
For first responders, it means having access to real-time information from people on the front lines of a quickly changing emergency.
It also means members of the public could use the maps and location markers generated by the Perimeter platform to more easily understand things like evacuation orders and routes.
Farren and her team are also looking into ways the public might be able to contribute real-time information — potentially through some kind of a vetting process — during a wildfire or other disaster.
“We don’t want to have a system that will publish anything that anyone says, there’s Twitter for that. We don’t want to be a social media platform for disasters,” she said.
From college to company
Farren, whose father is a retired firefighter and whose mother is a retired paramedic, started the company as a research project with co-founder Noah Wu (now Perimeter’s chief technology officer) and a handful of other friends while they were all students at University of California at Berkeley.
So far, they have raised more than $1.2 million in pre-seed money and recently won a $15,000 contract with the California National Guard to help improve communications and information sharing between federal and civilian public safety agencies.
The company is also partnering with the city of Palo Alto on a research and development project focused on using its platform across multiple agencies to enhance situational awareness during a wildfire, better collect and process data and help manage personnel, including emergency services volunteers, during a disaster.
“We don’t want to have a system that will publish anything that anyone says, there’s Twitter for that. We don’t want to be a social media platform for disasters.”Bailey Farren, Perimeter CEO
“Most governments don’t have much appetite for risk, much less innovation, but especially in the context of wildland fires, our existing tools are inadequate,” said Kenneth Dueker, Palo Alto’s Director of Emergency Services.
Part of Perimeter’s value lays in the fact that the platform isn’t intended to replace an agency’s existing geographic information system mapping tools, Dueker said.
Rather, it can serve as a portal or “unified access system” that complements such tools, he said.
Still, the arena in which Perimeter hopes to flourish has traditionally been a challenging environment for start-up tech companies because products designed for government agencies don’t usually attract a ton of venture capital.
Willing to take the risk
Government sales cycles tend to be long, risk-averse agencies are typically slow to adopt new technologies and, even when they do, their budgets are often tight.
“That’s a risk we’re willing to take,” said Parade Ventures’ Managing Director Shawn Merani, who led Perimeter’s initial round of funding.
“I think Bailey is a force of nature,” Merani said. “She’s a special person and so is Noah, their co-founder.”
Merani also sees market potential emerging from the fact that front-line first responders are still using paper maps and hand-held radios.
“We found out that the infrastructure and the quote, unquote technology is very archaic and old school,” he said.
“We think there’s a big enough market here. We think firefighting is just the beginning,” Merani said.
Dueker hopes Perimeter will eventually become widely adopted since the more public safety agencies that use the platform, the more useful it can be.
“We’re hoping Perimeter will get massive success, because the problems they’re trying solve have been intractable and seemingly impossible to solve,” Dueker said.
“We certainly want to encourage innovation in public safety because frankly there’s not a lot of it,” he said.