Locator Systems, PPE, Technology, Turnout Gear

Real-Time Physiological Monitoring for Firefighters Coming

Issue 11 and Volume 17.

Alan M. Petrillo

Two projects that could provide fireground commanders with physiological data on their firefighters battling fires are nearing completion and might be fielded within a year.

Both projects-Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform (WASP) and Physiological Health Assessment System for Emergency Responders (PHASER)-are funded in part by the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) along with a number of fire industry manufacturing and technology companies.

PHASER’s primary objective is to develop a low-cost, secure, and networked platform for emergency responder physiological monitoring and risk mitigation, while WASP adds an emergency responder 3D locator system along with physiological monitoring of firefighters.

Coordinating Components

Putting all of the elements necessary into a reliable system is a bit like assembling a big puzzle, says Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe Manufacturing Inc., which is responsible for the management, product development, manufacturing, and distribution of the WASP product.

Other companies involved in WASP are Zephyr Technology Corp., developing the physiological monitoring technology; TRX Systems Inc., providing the location and tracking technology; Skidmore College’s (NY) Health and Exercise Sciences Department, doing the physiology science; and Propel LLC, textile development. The United States Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center Funding manages the program. “WASP is an integrated system of physiological monitoring and location tracking,” Mordecai says, “where the common elements are radio transmission and base station laptops. It’s a big technology puzzle combining a flame-resistant shirt incorporating sensors, transmission equipment, software, and a graphical user interface for interpreting the data.”

Mordecai envisions the WASP platform as offering versions that have only the physiological monitoring part of the system, the location tracking part, or both, depending on a user’s needs. If a department chooses a single-function system, it would be expandable and upgradeable, he notes. “Firefighters face one of the highest rates of on-duty cardiac events of any profession,” he says. “In fact, heart attacks are the number one killer of firefighters. In developing WASP, we knew it would be all about wearability, so WASP needs to be something firefighters can wear every day on calls.”

WASP’s Core

The heart of the WASP system lies in the sensor-laden shirt a firefighter would wear. “The body-worn electronics must be next to the skin,” Mordecai points out. “It can’t be in the turnout gear lining or outerwear. The sensors have to be in the right position, and we’re building the base layer shirt that has moisture management and positions the sensors in the right position so it can be worn for an extended period of time.”

Mordecai says the WASP shirt will be able to be worn either as an undershirt or exposed for station wear. He expects multiple versions of the shirt to be offered in different styles and in long- and short-sleeve models. “We have to meet the needs of firefighters in a wide range of weather conditions,” Mordecai observes. “And, our target is for the shirt to be usable for 100 wash-dry cycles.”

Communicating Data

Heart rate, respirations, and temperature can be monitored by the WASP system, as well as the position of the firefighter and whether or not he is moving or stationary. “All the sensors are located in a puck in the underarm-chest area of the shirt,” Mordecai says. “They transmit data via Bluetooth® to a location tracking device on the belt, which sends that data to the firefighter’s Motorola portable radio.”

The Motorola APX 7000 series portable radio being used has a Bluetooth receiver and digital side channel but is programmed for voice priority so the digital side channel doesn’t interfere with voice transmissions. “The Bluetooth receiver on the APX will only pair with one device, which is our location tracking unit,” Mordecai notes, “which is why the puck sends its signals to the tracking unit.”

Although the WASP team believes the most practical method of data transmission is through the radio’s digital side channel, Mordecai says the system also is capable of using Android cell phones as transmission devices. “Android cell phones may be an application in some cases,” he adds, especially because the cell phone has a larger bandwidth than a digital side channel.

The WASP system has undergone four field trials thus far-at the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI), at Fairfax County (VA) Fire Department, at the Annapolis (MD) Fire Department, and at the Atlanta (GA) Fire Department. Two more field trials are expected to be conducted by the end of the year. “A lot of the feedback we’ve been getting involves technology readiness issues, testing of the transmission devices, and on the graphical user interface,” Mordecai says. “We made some modifications, especially to the interface, to make it clearer and easier to use so you can see the physiological monitoring and the location tracking at the same time.”

Mordecai says the WASP project is coming down to a deployable format after it completes field testing and trials. “This project will be wrapping up in a few months and is all about the path to commercialization,” he says. “We want to take WASP to a deployable tool for firefighters.”

PHASER’s Origin

Created by DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, the PHASER program is led by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) David Geffen School of Medicine and the UCLA Engineering Institute for Technology Advancement. Other partners include NASA, the United States Army Natick Soldier Ridge Center, United States Fire Administration (USFA), Globe Manufacturing, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Varner says the development stages of PHASER were done in collaboration with the Redondo Beach (CA) Fire Department. In the spring of 2012, PHASER was deployed during live fire training exercises at the North Las Vegas (NV) Fire Department and currently is undergoing testing deployment at the Glendale (AZ) Fire Department and the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department.

Although PHASER doesn’t include location tracking, its physiological monitoring seeks to provide firefighters and commanders with risk identification, prioritization, and intervention.

PHASER’s goal is to build a network that supports physiological data acquisition and analysis at various points of opportunity, such as during a baseline assessment, training, fire suppression, search and rescue operations, and rehabilitation, says Bruce Varner, a retired chief of the Santa Rosa (CA) Fire Department and a PHASER consultant, as well as to provide individualized feedback and guidance toward risk reduction for the firefighter.

“PHASER makes use of a bio harness that is worn next to the skin under the breast line around the midsection,” Varner says. “The data gathered by the bio harness, which is made by Zephyr Technology Corp., one of our project partners, transmits its data to a smart phone and then to a secure server at UCLA.”

Multiple Players

Other makers of fire service personal protective equipment (PPE) are in the early stages of physiological monitoring.

Honeywell First Responder Products is in early research phases of creating an integrated vital sign monitor, says Lourdes Pena, a Honeywell spokesperson. “Our focus is currently to monitor body temperature,” she says. “Heat stress/stroke is one of the most important factors to determine the health of a firefighter during a fire and up to an hour after he has worked a fire since it can lead to heart attacks. Our goal is to help fire departments determine early on if a firefighter is in danger of potentially crossing that temperature threshold.”

In a separate project, Honeywell is developing the Global Locating and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER) with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. GLANSER is able to track and locate firefighters within multistory buildings, indicating the room they are in, the floor they are on, and if they need assistance.

Pena says any Honeywell vital sign monitoring it develops would be separate from GLANSER.

Lion’s director of products Karen Lehtonen says Lion is looking into the options available to it for physiological monitoring and is working with a couple of partners to determine what type of garment works best for the application. “We’re in the developmental stage and looking at both physiological monitoring and location tracking,” Lehtonen says. “Collecting the information is the first task, and then transmitting and interpreting the data come into play. It’s a big nut to crack because there are a lot of moving pieces in a project like this.”

At Fire-Dex, Abby Lehman, director of marketing, says her company is doing research on physiological monitoring but is not developing a product yet.

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.