In 2012, the U.S. Fire Administration reported that nearly 50 percent of U.S. firefighter deaths were caused by heart attacks. Wearable health-monitoring devices and other personal tech could help prevent some of these attacks, say experts, but for a variety of reasons—technological, economic, and social—they haven’t been adopted. Now might be the time, say several technology suppliers. Like all consumers, firefighters are starting to adopt wearable tech in their personal lives, and that’s paving the way for wearables in their work.
“We’re basically seeing an explosion of wearables, not just in consumer markets but also in our core markets, like public safety,” says Bert Van Der Zaag, senior manager of interaction design at Motorola Solutions, in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Possibly the first to make inroads will be Globe Manufacturing Co.’s Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform. WASP is a flame-resistant T-shirt with an embedded adjustable strap that has a removable physiological sensor. Secured to a waist belt is a device (made by TRX Systems) that uses accelerometers, a compass, and other sensors to locate firefighters relative to a fixed point, even inside buildings. Mark Mordecai, director of business development at Pittsfield, N.H.–based Globe, says that this fall three firefighter-training academies in the United States will start instructing students in the use of the WASP system. He estimates that within the next year, thousands of firefighters will be training with WASP.
“If we really want to make a difference, we have to go beyond just creating the protective envelope around the firefighters and really take it to the next level by monitoring how they’re doing and where they are,” says Mordecai.
Motorola had that in mind when its team of engineers envisioned a high-tech firefighter suit, which is part of a prototype concept called Next Generation Fireground Communications. It incorporates a host of wearable technologies, including a helmet-mounted camera, a head-up display on the breathing mask, an environmental sensor, a strap that monitors vital signs, indoor location tracking, and a rugged radio.
For Motorola, keeping the system hands free was critical. “If you look specifically at firefighters, when they run into a building, they never run into a building empty handed,” says Van Der Zaag, whose team runs into blazing buildings alongside firefighters during training drills. So if they want to access critical stats, such as a heart rate, “they can’t really pull out a smartphone in the middle of a building to get that information.” The head-up display shows firefighters when battery levels, oxygen supplies, and even their own heart rates are reaching critical levels.
Although the visual display helps firefighters keep their eyes up and hands free, there’s a fine line between providing vital information and mucking up the ability to navigate through dangerous obstacles. “You don’t want to put anything in there that you don’t need at a moment’s notice,” Van Der Zaag says.
It will take some time before it’s clear whether firefighters really warm to wearables. Even a few years ago, such systems never made it past the prototype phase. ProeTEX, which started as a multiuniversity research project, also integrated heart rate, breathing rate, and internal temperature sensors into a firefighter’s inner garment. But according to Nicholas Walker, the former project manager of ProeTEX, not much has happened with the technology since the last prototype was completed in 2010.
What has happened since then is that the market and culture for wearable technology has shifted. “Sensors are getting smaller. Things like head-up displays are becoming accessible,” says Van Der Zaag. “So you see firefighters experimenting with it. You see them creating their own apps to solve some of the problems that they’re having. So it has really accelerated the adoption of and acceptance of these types of technologies.”
This article originally appeared in print as “Firefighters Get Life-Saving Wearables.”