Ninety-six firefighters died in the line of duty in 2020. Though the reasons for death vary, the No. 1 cause remains consistent year over year. Overexertion, stress, and medical issues contribute to most firefighter deaths.
Other factors leading to death include the hazards of the job: heat and smoke inhalation, explosions, falling objects, structural collapse, falls and electrocution.
Smart personal protective equipment (PPE) aims to reduce firefighter deaths by sending critical information that can keep them alive to incident commanders.
Companies pattern smart PPE after smartphones, smart watches and FitBit-style devices, which already deliver powerful insights about health and performance. These devices typically include a myriad of Internet of Things (IoT) sensor technology such as gyroscopes, GPS, accelerometers, barometric pressure readers, and heart rate monitors. Each provides valuable insights about the user.
- Gyroscope data can share when the wearer falls or hits the floor, prompting an inquiry into their condition.
- GPS accurately shows the user’s location. If used in smart PPE, commanders could see where firefighters are to direct backup or emergency assistance.
- Accelerometers provides clues about the wearer’s speed. Should it change rapidly, commanders can investigate why.
- Barometers provide information about the wearer’s altitude. If used in PPE, commanders can tell whether a firefighter is on the first or third floor. They will know where to direct backup or whom to call out.
- Heart rate sensors indicate fatigue, overheating and overexertion.
But the challenge is making sensor technology available to wearer’s in a heated environment filled with smoke and toxic fumes. The average FitBit, smartphone or smart watch cannot withstand the conditions firefighters face on the job.
IoT advances surmount these challenges. It is now possible to create rugged sensors for smart PPE that share pertinent data with incident commanders over the cloud.
“Technology advancements and cloud hosting capabilities make it possible to deliver smart PPE to firefighters. Now there are wearable gas sensors that clip to PPE and monitor gas levels. And firefighters wear our product underneath their PPE to measure how their PPE affects them,” says Zack Braun, cofounder and CEO of FireHUD, which manufactures easy-to-use group monitoring technology that improves situational awareness.
He predicts, “Someday smart PPE will refer to sensors embedded in the PPE itself.”
WHAT IS SMART PPE?
Manufacturers define smart PPE or smart wearable technology as PPE that uses IoT sensors to collect information and connects to the Internet and other devices, like smartphones, tablets, or PCs, to deliver real-time safety information.
A long-range radio gateway connects smart PPE with other devices to offer real-time alerts. FireHUD’s smart BioTrac PPE connects to a gateway on fire trucks. Commanders can check any internet enabled device for real-time vital signs on members. Smart PPE improves situational awareness as it collects data, sends notifications, and adjusts to internal and external conditions. It benefits frontline personnel by tracking their location and health condition and dispatching the data to authorized officials.
Wearable smart technology provides detailed information on the wearer’s core body temperature, heart rate, exertion and more. When technology keeps track of each member’s biometrics, members can worry less about their health and focus on the mission at hand.
SMART PPE TRENDS
Smart PPE is making its way into communications devices, such as helmets and face masks, to aid communication in low visibility and loud environments. It’s also connecting to cooling and heating elements that lower body temperatures in hot environments. And environmental sensors in clothing now monitor gas, chemicals, heat, sound impacts and more, and notify lead personnel when signs of trouble appear.
The advances led the mining, oil, gas, manufacturing, and transportation industries to embrace the technology. Now smart PPE is making its way to firefighting.
FireHUD is one technology making a big splash. This technology originated while Braun attended Georgia Tech, when he and his peers set out to enhance firefighter situational awareness with a heads-up display. The team received funding from the National Science Foundation in 2018 and built 30 heads-up displays for fire departments to trial.
“We were trying to solve one of the biggest problems facing firefighters, which is a lack of situational awareness on scene. These scenes are chaotic with people arriving at different times, loud and smoky, and it’s hard to communicate,” he says.
Braun says they realized the heads-up display that was attached to firefighter’s face masks was more than they required. But they also realized the information the displays collected had value.
“The data we gathered was valuable to the health and safety officer or commander at the fire, but not necessarily to the firefighters themselves,” he explains.
After attending a National Fallen Firefighter Foundation event, FireHUD’s founders pivoted their technology away from situational awareness for firefighters to physiological monitoring of members for commanders. Barrow County (Georgia) Emergency Services Department tested all prototypes.
Their research created the BioTrac platform, which consists of an armband wearable device that observes the wearer’s physiological responses within a fire and a transmitter that sends data over a long-range and secure radio network to a gateway in the vehicle that beams data to the cloud for commanders to access in real-time.
“Our wearable device tracks heart rate, core body temperature, and overexertion,” says Braun. “These things are important to measure. PPE does a great job of protecting firefighters from a fire or the environment, but it also creates a microclimate where their body heat cannot dissipate fast enough, and they can overheat or overexert themselves.”
When you look at the bottom of an Apple watch or FitBit you see a flashing green light. As the light flashes, sensors measure the dynamic flow of the wearer’s blood through their veins and capillaries. The measurements provide information about the wearer’s heart rate and other vital functions.
“The BioTrac device measures the dynamic flow of blood to get a heart rate, but we also created algorithms based on the PPE being worn to calculate how the PPE and heart rate affect core body temperature,” Braun says. “We can tell when someone’s going to overheat and when they’re getting close to suffering from overexertion. The PPE that firefighter’s wear adds a lot of weight and doesn’t breathe well. When you’re running in a tank top and shorts, your body sweats to wick away heat and sweat evaporates off your skin. In turnout gear, your sweat doesn’t evaporate, and you can overheat.”
Commanders set alert thresholds for the devices. In recruit training, trainers can set heart rate or core body temperature thresholds and monitor how recruits acclimate to on-the-job stress. The U.S. Air Force uses BioTrac when training recruits in firefighter certification school. “They monitor 300 people in real-time to see how recruits handle the training,” Braun says.
In real-world scenarios, commanders can set core body temperature and exertion thresholds to reveal when a firefighter is in trouble. They might request an alert every time a member’s temperature rises above 102 degrees Fahrenheit, their heart rate goes over 80 BPM, or they hit 90% exertion. The system sends a text message to the commander’s phone when a member’s physiological data hits these predetermined thresholds.
When used both for training and in the field, the system develops a baseline to compare against incoming data. “The system considers historical data gathered in training and the wearer’s age, gender, height and weight to provide an easy-to-read, 0% to 100% scale of how they are doing,” he says.
SMART PPE CONSIDERATIONS
When selecting smart PPE for a fire environment, it’s important to look for tools that are rugged. Look for IP certification to determine ruggedness, says Braun.
The BioTrac device is certified as IP68. The “I” refers to ingress protection, the “6” represents dust proof, and the “8” means it survives submersion in water up to 1 meter for 30 minutes. It’s constructed of high-temperature plastic that doesn’t melt until 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than adequate since it is worn underneath turnout gear. For comparison, a typical FitBit’s operating temperature limit is 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
A rugged system rated at IP68 will stand up in a fire. It also cleans easily; just throw the BioTrac device into a washing machine and it comes out operational and clean.
Consider set-up and life-cycle costs as well. FireHUD employs personnel to set up the BioTrac. There is little else involved in terms of maintenance or repair once that’s complete. FireHUD representatives walk fire chiefs through gateway and device operation.
In future releases, the BioTrac device will include advanced safety certifications like intrinsic safety, as well as advanced features such as fall detection, heart rate variability (HRV) and location-based tracking (GPS). For those sensor capabilities that fall outside the scope of the BioTrac solution, the FireHUD team is also developing integration capabilities. These integrations, such as with gas detectors, allow for a more holistic understanding of a firefighter’s environment.
Smart PPE, like the BioTrac device, is changing how the fire industry views PPE. These devices present an opportunity to save lives, cut down on injury-related costs, and train more resilient firefighters.