Kevin Sofen, Director of Innovation at W.S. Darley & Company, explains the importance of technology and innovation to emergency response. He delves into the significance of listening, user-centered problem-solving and a change management mindset in the adoption of technology. 


Craig Weaver: Welcome to Response Leadership, a podcast featuring the top minds in emergency response being brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. My name is Craig Weaver. And I work here at TEEX in Marketing and Communications. Also joining me from TEEX today is Dr. Jason Moats, who is the Director of the TEEX Testing and Innovation Center and a colleague and collaborator, if you will, of our guest today, Mr. Kevin Sofen, who is the Director of Motivate and W.S. Darley & Co. And before I keep reading information about you, I’ll say thank you to both of you for being on here and welcome. 

Kevin Sofen: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me here. 

Craig Weaver: Why don’t you tell us instead of me reading things about you, why don’t you tell us a little bit about, a little bit about what you do and who you are? 

Kevin Sofen: Yeah. And again, thanks. Thanks for the opportunity to be here on this platform. And then huge fan and always loved everything that TEEX have done over the years and, myself, my name’s Kevin Sofen, I live in Chicago Illinois. This April is actually my 11-year anniversary with Darley company. I’ve been with them starting off commercializing a range of different products on the disaster response side, disaster preparedness side, doing some work on the water treatment and packaged water. And then the past five years, it’s pivoted to a little bit of some of the new smarter tech looking at autonomous drone solutions, immersive learning, virtual reality training, and then some other things with biometrics and wearables and tracking devices. So, a lot of people have been listening to the market and kind of seeing as the technology continues to move very fast, seeing where technology can integrate to really bring value to the fire service. Of course, the fire service has a rich tradition in a way of doing things. So, it’s definitely a process with how we can sort of crawl, walk, run, bringing technology integration to the public safety over time. And then it was around, I think it was 2017 or so where Casey Grant, Nest and NFPA wrote this great report called The Roadmap to the Future of Smart Firefighting. 

This is an awesome report. I think it’s like 300 pages. And it’s one of those things where and I thought I was like, Man, I got to read this cover to cover. I’ve read it multiple times. It’s sort of been a North Star Bible for me, but I kind of was stuck thinking, well, okay, this is a great report, but what next? How do we keep this ball bouncing? And so that’s when working with some of our colleagues at Darley, Mike and Matt and Peter, we thought, hey, how could we just build a community, build it, build a website where we just bring people together to talk about innovation and public safety? So just on the back of that idea, we created this website in a lot of the engagements been through these podcasts and roundtables where I’ve bucketed the different stakeholders in the public safety and the four key buckets. 

One is the entrepreneur, the startup, the Hustler, the Grinder, someone kind of from a different industry trying to bring technology into public safety. And it has good intentions. The second are some of these institutional players which would be.govs,. orgs,Edu’s, the TEEX of the world, the ISTI of the world, UL NFPA, groups like that. The third is some of these existing channel partners that would be like Darley, TFT, a pierce, groups like that that already know the market and have existing distribution and sales and presence. And then the fourth, the most important are the first responders, public safety members, really people who are actually the beneficiaries of some of this technology. 

And the idea is how do we create a vibrant community that brings these different stakeholders together and just talk, learn. Firefighting is a free and independent, inclusive community, and it always will be free and inclusive where we want to just offer opportunities for people doing great stuff and public safety to come together and learn. So, I think we can all agree that it definitely takes a village. There’s a lot of opportunity here, there’s a lot of problems. And right now, it’s just continuing to grow and get traction and momentum. And frankly, it’s just a pleasure and honor to continue to be a piece of the puzzle as we look to integrate technology within the work of public safety. 

Craig Weaver: While doing this podcast, dealing with leadership, it seems like you are doing a lot with technology and innovation, and this seems like a huge question, but what do you see as true innovation?  

Kevin Sofen: Innovation comes in many shapes and sizes, and I think oftentimes people are kind of blinded by the sexy widget or the fancy software dashboard. And yes, there’s aspects of innovation in there for sure. But instead of kind of looking at how technology can kind of save us and kind of just like, you know, solve all our problems, I think we need to look at it’s not about technology necessarily. It’s not necessarily about innovation. Personally, I care about progress. I care about getting better, whether that’s less injuries, less line of duty deaths, the fire disaster prevented. So, this progress comes in many forms, that could be in the form of a new method of education that we’re using in a community of risk reduction programs. For example, Kurt McKenzie did a really cool example of capturing a 360 video of when you see the siren pull to the right and it created this really cool video. They put it on YouTube. Enable 360 video with that and then got some sponsors to fund these cardboard VR headsets and then use that as a public outreach campaign to educate people about when you see the sirens pullover, don’t be that guy or girl that’s in the way because the seconds matter. And for me, I looked at that, I was like, wow, that’s such a cool way of leveraging low-cost tech with some funding to really do something that can drive the needle on something that public safety. And other kind of simple forms, examples, I look at example like a tablet command where like they, you know, kind of taking paper and putting stuff on an iPad and just making it digital. 

And frankly, if you can find efficiencies in certain ways where you save $1,000,000, that’s amazing. If you could save someone $5 a week, that’s even better. And so, yes, it can be in the form of autonomous drone solutions that are, drone as a first responder and you’re getting eyes in the sky immediately. It could be a virtual reality training that’s finding a way to offer more sets of reps for high-risk situations like lithium-ion car battery fires, or that could be new educational programs that allow people to talk about mental health, because there are the challenges with mental health and public safety is all there. And frankly, I think this this whole concept of innovation and what is it. It does start from the top, and that’s a leadership play in terms of, being able to embrace that and say, hey the fire service is one of the best brother and sister hoods in the world. Having said that, we have issues. And so, I think it’s embracing that. What we have is amazing, but we need to acknowledge that we need to evolve. 

We need to get better because there are alarming stats with cancer, with heart attacks, with suicide, that frankly, those are the things that that get me up in the morning and kind of upset me in a way that motivates me to keep driving forward. So, I think, again, I guess the final thing with innovation is that you don’t necessarily need to build something brand new. Sometimes innovation comes in the form where you can take something that already exists, repurpose it in another format and deliver value in a new manner. And I think that’s something to everyone where you think you have to be a Mark Zuckerberg or an Elon Musk, and no doubt those two in particular are incredible entrepreneurs. But innovation can be just finding a way and putting a new spin on it and delivering value in a new way to a new audience.  

Jason Moats: I was just going to jump in, I think one of the things that really struck me about what you’re saying is, you know, it’s not about the technology. Innovation really is about leadership. And leaders need to be able to make those connecting points. So, it’s not just, hey, here’s the newest widget, here’s the sexiest thing that we’ve got, but it’s also here’s how to use it and here’s how it makes your job better. Here’s how it helps you do better. 

Kevin Sofen: Yep. And Dr. Lori Moore told me this when I was with her at the INTERFET show in Germany. She mentioned it isn’t about tech. And frankly, we have the tech and one piece of technology by itself doesn’t really do much, but technology integrated in adopted from progressive leaders that understand the change management process. That’s where you can get systematic positive change. And so those are some of the things that I’ve seen from Doc Lori Moore’s message and her kind of idea of one voice that really inspires me. It is about how we can take different pieces of technology, pull it together, deliver it in a new form of value, and ultimately, like you said, Jason, it does come from the top in having that change management mindset from a leadership to actually deliver and bring something that’s actually going to bring value to public safety members. 

Craig Weaver: I wanted to touch on a few things that you feel are important. Talk about the importance of listening as leaders. 

Kevin Sofen: This was something that Dr. Lori Moore talked about on my podcast, and I’ve always believed that empathy is a superpower and truly putting your shoes yourself in the shoes of someone else gives you the ability to really understand what are their problems, what are their challenges? And if you’re just sort of assuming that you know what their problems are, that’s a slippery slope and you’re probably going to end up wasting a lot of time and money. And one of my biggest frustrations, I’ve seen with some innovators and entrepreneurs in public safety, is they do just that. They read books; they walked in YouTube videos. They sit in front of a whiteboard and start spending money and designing stuff without actually going into a fire station and talking to a firefighter, talking to a fire chief, talking to a captain, going to show and interact with industry stakeholders. And if you’re not actually talking with your customer, you’re just guessing. Live a day in your life in someone else’s shoes, is hard to actually do. You can never have 100% true real deployed empathy because you can’t actually be that person. But you can have some coffee with them. You could, you know, get beer with them, you could talk with them and really see what keeps you up at night? What are the things that most excite you when, when you watch TV, when you watch, you listen to podcasts, what do you watch? And I think those are some of the kinds of the sense making in small data and in qualitative stuff that really allow you to kind of understand the nuances of what’s going to work here, what actually is going to sort of resonate with you. 

And then you can kind of get into the UI and the actual design and how big should this button be and what color should it be, where should we place it and stuff like that. But if you’re building in the house of cards and not, you know, truly listening to the end user, you’re going to waste money. And that’s been one of my biggest drivers with, is connecting the dots between entrepreneurs that have good intentions with first responder industry stakeholders. And Dr. Moats has been a great resource where we’ve introduced some startups too, and Jason’s giving feedback of, hey don’t like that, hey this this would be helpful. And obviously then there’s a whole extensive TEEX program, which is a whole another thing. But I think that’s just sort of an important message to anyone that’s thinking about innovating is spend some time doing your problem training. Really ask why until you can it can’t ask why anymore and then go from there. 

Jason Moats: Yeah. You know, one of the things that comes to mind is I have a good friend of mine here at Texas A&M that likes to remind me about, it’s all about the solution and how many times we’ve had solutions that go looking for problems? And the reality is we need to start with the problem and build toward solving that problem. So that’s a really important point given about it. You’ve got to listen. That user centered design to speak in terms of the engineer, it starts there. It starts with listening, and you know, the five whys exercise and peeling back everything to understand the root of the issue so that you can build toward something that’s a viable solution. 

Kevin Sofen: Yeah. And I know talking with first responders, sometimes they’ll get a kick when they look at something. They’re like, I never I would never use that. That’s a bad thing. That’s just a matter of having those conversations and understanding well okay well what problem are you really seeking to solve? And just know that if you’re going to get first responders to actually use something, it needs to integrate with some of their existing SOP. And if it’s going to be super transformational, that’s amazing. But what change management needs to occur? And as you mentioned, both Craig and Jason before, it’s we don’t really have a technology issue and we don’t have a funding issue. I think we’re looking at the challenges applying the right technology to the right problems and getting the right top-down leadership buy in to implement these new technology and best practices to continue to drive these incremental and exponential opportunities for impact. 

Craig Weaver: I think we’ve all probably been in our life associated with something that either products or policy’ that we can immediately tell this was built or implemented by someone who does this and knows what they’re doing and has had some years at it. And it’s always the best stuff. 

Kevin Sofen: Yeah, and that’s the stuff that’s super tasteful and authentic and it’s like you open up the box, you see it in it. There’s simplicity in the design. And of course, I say like when you open up the, the apple phone and you know what Steve Jobs did with kind of creating this exceptional experience or kind of what Amazon has done now with making everything so incredibly convenient, I think there’s aspects of inspiration from those. And again, you don’t have to be Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos, but you can use little aspects of their psyche to make sure you really understand the customer and your problem before you seek to actually solve it. 

Craig Weaver: There are another couple of things I wanted to ask you about that we’ve spoken about and written to each other about. I want you to define and talk about a risk averse environment. 

Kevin Sofen: Yeah, I mean, incorporating innovation into risk adverse environments is hard. I mean, you see there’s a lot of stuff going on in industrial safety. There’s a lot of stuff going on in municipal safety. And I think TEEX testing does a great job of kind of understanding, hey, if you’re going to buy a product for this risk averse environment, we’re going to make sure that it does what it says it’s going to do. And I think it’s easy to say, hey, we’re going to have some new technology that’s going to solve the challenge of electrical car fires, or we’re going to have something that’s going to help suppress fires more effectively during construction projects. And so, I mean, I guess a lot of it kind of comes back to the power of listening, of truly doing an audit of what’s being done now, what could be done better, and in making sure you have the different people at the at the table. And I think for that it’s having the safety coordinators there, having the risk managers there, the fire chiefs, the CEOs, the school principals, the mayors, and really kind of looking at, well, what’s the cost of what’s happening now and what’s the cost of inaction and then starting to reverse engineer with the from the problem of what solutions make sense. 

And then, of course, you don’t want to deploy a solution that is potentially going to make the situation worse. And frankly, that’s why groups like TEEX and other organizations are so important because as great as intentions these entrepreneurs have, we’re talking about the worst of the worst situations. And yeah, a Boy Scout quote of expect the best, prepare for the worst. You need to design for the lowest common denominator. Because when you’re talking about first responders that are on the job and it’s three in the morning and it’s freezing cold and they’re going out and if your device doesn’t work, then what the heck? And I think, you know, something I think about a lot is within this whole aspect of wanting to bring innovation, the public safety is one of the challenges that technology is moving so fast, but the fire service can only concurrently move so fast. And there are the NFPA standards, and you know, there’s all these other aspects of kind of things you need to keep in mind. 

But when thinking of how to incorporate innovation into this risk averse environment, you need patients, and my mom and that you can always told me this is. Kevin, it’s not a revolution, it’s an evolution and you want to move fast. And we need to be mindful of the fact that stuff takes time. You need to have patience. You need to go through the testing, you need to go through the conversations. The market and policy unfortunately move so fast. And frankly, we do need some innovation to continue to move the policy stuff and the testing stuff. But again, I think it kind of comes down to the fact that we need institutional partners in play. We need the nonprofits in conversations, we need entrepreneurs at the table, we need CEOs at the table. And by continuing to do that, it’s not going to happen overnight. But I think anything worth wanting and innovation takes time, and we just need to keep pushing forward. 

Jason Moats: One of the things I would add to that too Kevin is, you know, there’s going to be failures along the way. There’s going to be times that it’s not going to work as either sold or as intended. And we have to be a little willing to accept that as part of this because we’re pushing you know, we’re in a world right now where fractions of a second make a difference. And I have seen situations where you’ve got people waiting for the perfect solution to answer everything where they could have incrementally, like you said, during the evolution, inclemently started taking on something and, you know, implementing here and then understanding that there’s a path forward. And I think as we work through the risk averse environment and build things like that, I think that that’s a really, really important piece to remember.  Not everything is going to work, and we’ve got to be willing to accept that and work on it. 

Kevin Sofen: In this innovation sometimes it’s okay to be incremental, it’s okay to be baby step, as some of these entrepreneurs I talked to want to light the world on fire figuratively in the best way possible. You got to have a thousand conversations. You got to fail 100 times. You got to do all these different little things to be able to bring something that’s going to solve a real problem for a real person and not just focused on raising money to look good and have some title on your Instagram to showcase how you’re helping first responders and not saying, that’s everyone. 

But I do want to just really caution anyone that, empathy and talk to your customers and have patience because anything significant, there’s no hack there’s no shortcut, there’s no cutting corners. It is you need to talk to a thousand firefighters. You need to make a hundred different in-person visits. And by doing that, that’s when you understand, oh, you know, what your actions are like in a risk averse environment. What are your movements like? What are you thinking? And of course, the other thing that just came to mind is what your cognitive load is like and when you’re in that situation and all of sudden, you’ve got 100 things going on. I always think of the movie Inside Out, and you have all these emotions going on. You got fear, anger, sadness, and they’re all just part of our human DNA. But especially when fight or flight mode comes up like you are just tunnel laser focused. And again, the whole idea of we need to practice how we play, and we need to design how technology is actually going to be used in the field. That comes from really understanding the emotional dynamic of how first responders live their life, how they interact when they’re at the station, and how they are operating when they’re actually on the job 

Craig Weaver: Do you see that in terms of all those things that sound like healthy ways to collaborate and design and implement, do you see the industry going more towards that way, has it changed a lot to get better? Is it being it getting better? 

Kevin Sofen: Yeah, I like to think of myself as an eternal optimist and the glass is half full. And frankly, yes, absolutely. I’ve been in the industry for going on 11 years now. And I will definitely say from just what I see at trade shows to what I’ve been involved with, it’s really inspiring and exciting to see all of the different cross collaborations happening. And frankly, even in the past 12 months from what I’ve seen, and I credit a lot as to Dr. Lori Moore, she has really driven, it starts from the top and this is one voice. Whether it’s the National Volunteer Fire Council, whether it’s the International Association of Firefighters International Association of Fire Chiefs, TEEX, all these groups are important. 

You all serve a role, but let’s put our egos at the door and let’s come together to talk about these problems. I like bringing people that are way smarter than me that know what they’re talking about. And this is my take is bringing people together to talk about stakeholders, document best practices, share, connect the dots, bring people together, and just keep doing that, because there is there is a strong hunger amongst emerging leaders within public safety to get better. And again, innovation doesn’t mean you need to spend 2 million bucks on a new software program, like innovation can be use free tools like Cory Claiborne on the podcast, did gave a whole thing talking about using Google tools and Google Mind Maps for incident command planning just to have something and I think kind of getting past that idea of using excuses for inaction and that is unacceptable. You’re just making excuses to do nothing when really there’s actually quite a bit of resources. To your most recent question, I just I’m very hopeful and excited because I do think there’s this one voice mentality happening across all stakeholders. And of course, companies have their desires to make profits and we live in a capitalistic society and that’s just the inherent nature. 

But I also encourage continued collaboration and licensing and partnership opportunities because at the end of the day, we all want the same thing. And I know first responders mostly all want the same thing and that they want to go out and do their job, help and help those in need, come home and be with their families. We can all agree that we want to continue to help and support that mission. And there’s a lot of ways to go about it. This kind of work cannot happen in a silo and it’s going to take it’s going to take everyone. 

Craig Weaver: Kevin, thank you so much for joining us and for giving us your time and your knowledge. It’s great to have you on here today. 

Kevin Sofen: It’s a pleasure, Craig. I really admire all the work that you and Jason and Vita and everyone at TEEX is doing and just want to say keep up the good work and I am excited to continue to keep collaborating with TEEX. 

Craig Weaver: Absolutely. And Dr. Motes, thank you as always for being on here and adding your legitimacy to this podcast. And I want to thank you for listening to Response Leadership. Brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. New episodes will be released on the fourth Tuesday of every month, and we’re asking that you follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Or visit us at 

Back to top