Evolving Technologies Promise to Deliver Vital Safety Information for First Responders

Boston Fire Department Lt. Sandy Lasa has seen the future and he’s feeling optimistic.  As his teams have fought fires in recent months wearing sensors packed with electronic meters to track their vital signs, Lasa has come to believe that technology really can deliver safer working conditions.

Physical sensors and location monitors that can withstand firefighting conditions aren’t commercially available yet, experts say.  But once they hit the market in the near future, “it’ll definitely help the firefighters, as far as their safety goes,” Lasa said.

An evolving body of technologies promises to deliver vital safety information on first responders.  Some tools will track physical location with pinpoint precision.  Others will monitor heart rate, temperature and other factors, ringing warning bells when levels become dangerous.

We aren’t there yet, but researchers and vendors say some of the parts are in place.

DHS Drives Research

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate has been leading efforts to make these technologies viable.  They fall into two categories:

  • GLANSER: Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders.  This solution will be able to track first responders while they’re inside buildings, under rubble and even below ground.
  • PHASER: Physiological Health Assessment Sensor for Emergency Responders.  These technologies monitor vital physical measurements and use intelligent algorithms to send alarms when health conditions are emerging.

Both of these could greatly ensure first responder safety, said S&T Program Manager Jalal Mapar.  “You may think you are OK when really your adrenaline is running high.  This gives your commander a chance to say, ‘Maybe you should slow down a bit,’” he said. More than mere data, the figures are meant to generate that kind of specific response.  “It is all about saving lives.”

In a basic sense, these technologies already exist.  The question on the table is whether they can be adapted for use under first responder conditions.

"You can go to the doctor and they use a thermometer to take your temperature,” Mapar said.  “But with the first responder community, they don’t have the luxury of having a doctor follow them around all the time.”

In some cases, it’s a matter of researchers trying to fine-tune tools that have so far served only to deliver general information and only under optimal conditions.  While basic location tracking is commonly available as GPS, for example, Mapar is looking for something that gives more specific readings, even when GPS is unavailable.

It will likely take some combination of pedometers, altimeters and Doppler velocimeters to get the job done, along with the kinds of inertial measurement tools used in the aerospace community.  “All of those have to be pulled together in some form,” he said.  “It will have to be a cocktail solution.”

Health monitoring will also require multiple inputs from sensors and devices that already exist.

“What can we measure?  We’ve got a heart monitor; we can measure respiration, temperature.  We can measure how much work is being done, how much movement the firefighter is doing,” said researcher Denise Smith.  “We need to put them together.”

A professor of health and exercise sciences at Skidmore College, Smith has been working with the Boston firefighters to gather data that may drive the development of these tools.

Hurdles to Leap

Researchers and end-users are keenly aware that these potential life-saving tools will have to mesh seamlessly into the real world of emergency response.  They’ll have to integrate easily into the pace and flow of operations.  When it comes to such integration, researchers admit there are many unanswered questions.

What happens, for example, when geography intervenes, when the terrain is too rough or varied?  The National Institute of Justice has seen these questions arise in its work with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.  The area ranges from high desert to an inner city, which researchers suspect could generate challenges.

In some cases, emergency situations may unfold outside the reach of the necessary telecommunications infrastructure.  “I can go out and buy a [locator] garment that tells me exactly where I am, but I may not be able to transmit that information,” said Nancy Merritt, a senior policy adviser with the National Institute of Justice.  “You may have a technology that has been proven to be effective, but how is it going to be implemented?  We are trying to answer those ‘So what?’ questions.”

In Boston, Lasa has those same worries on an even more fundamental scale.  Suppose there are health sensors worn by a dozen firefighters that all feed back to a single base station.  “Now you are going to have someone monitor that thing the whole time, and who is going to do that?” he said.  “We are not all getting on scene at the same time.  So if you have a company that shows up first, who is going to monitor those guys, and when are we going to start monitoring?  There are a lot of things you can miss in five or six minutes.”

There already are vendors in the arena with solutions they say go a long way toward proving the technology and ensuring smooth implementation.  At Zephyr Technology, for example, Vice President of Business Development Steven Small describes an easy-to-read board that uses lights, colors and alarms to give commanders a thumbnail sketch of the first responder’s status.

“If you can look at heart rate and respiration at a glance, you can tell if this person is getting close to fatigue,” Small said.  “You can see that prior to their getting to the point where they actually have to stop what they are doing.”

The Real World

Zephyr’s products already are in use by hazardous materials units and other emergency teams.  The company offers a tool that monitors multiple personnel in real time and communicates the data over existing digital voice radios.  The technology can be worn as a strap or integrated into a shirt.

A similar product comes from Foster-Miller.  Its smart garment tracks heart and respiration rates and other factors, and also broadcasts GPS location data wirelessly to a remote display unit.

Much of this technology had its genesis in the world of sports.  Heart monitors, pedometers and other technologies have long been used by runners.  Their incorporation into high-end first responder equipment would seem a natural evolution.

Vendors say these technologies are ready for prime time, but researchers are skeptical.  The technology works, they acknowledge, but will it work when and where it’s needed most?

First responders worry that under the extreme real-world conditions they often encounter, the strain of their activities may outstrip the capability of today’s monitoring systems.  “We’re moving too fast,” Lasa said.  “When they are building the software portion, we may be doing things they don’t understand.”

Even supposing accurate data could be collected, it’s not clear the tools that exist today make sense of the information.  This question of interpretation is an essential one.  Data, after all, is only as good as meaning one can accurately ascribe to the information.

“We don’t just want to know what the guy’s heart rate is,” Smith said.  “We want that translated to an incident commander as meaningful information, so that they can say, ‘Hey, we need to do something different now.’”

End Game

Researchers are trying to account for all these variables as they seek viable products.  Mapar’s office began building prototypes three years ago and expects to gather data from the first responder community, especially firefighters, for at least the next few months.

After that, commercial production of ruggedized vital-sign sensors could begin in two years and location tracking in less than a year.

Much now depends on finding the right mix of measurements and the right algorithms.  “Do we need to measure heart rate, pulse rate, blood oxygen level, temperature, [electrocardiogram]? How many of these do we need?” Mapar said. “At the same time, we know that physiology in every individual is different, so we have to find a way of developing different base lines.”

Among these concerns, form factor stands out as a possible deal-breaker.  If it’s too big, clumsy or time-consuming to put on and use, first responders will shy away.  “We are approaching it with the idea that they don’t have to do anything.  They won’t even have to push a button,” Mapar said.  “They have enough to do already.  All they should have to do is turn it on, and that’s it.”

In the end, researchers have high hopes.

Mapar said the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire is always on his mind as he works toward effective location tracking and medical monitoring.  The fire began Dec. 3, 1999, in Worcester, Mass., when two homeless people who were living inside the warehouse knocked over a candle.  The fire raged for six days, eventually killing six firefighters.

“If these guys had these gadgets on them, we could have saved all six of them,” Mapar said.  “I can guarantee it.  We would have saved all those lives.”

by Adam Stone
Adam Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md.

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