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Automation of Emergency Warning Devices

Issue 5 and Volume 25.

Fire Apparatus Manufacturers’ Association (FAMA) member companies are dedicated to producing safety products that automate processes used in the industry that truly simplify and create a safer working environment.

FAMA, the Fire Department Safety Officers Association, and other safety associations have been promoting more and more classes at their conferences that teach the science of automation in this new digitally connected world we live in.

WHAT IS AUTOMATION?

What’s all this automation stuff anyhow? Automation is all around us in everyday products we use, work, and interact with. It has become so second nature in life that automation has become somewhat invisible and seamless. So, what is automation? The definition of automation is “a process that executes a task with little or no human assistance.” Automation is a perfect solution for repetitive remedial tasks that people perform. With that in mind, let’s look at some things we all use every day that use automation.


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In the past, one would place some bread over a wood-burning oven and keep watching it until one side looked done then flip the bread and do the same on the other side. Sometimes the bread was light, and sometimes the bread was burnt. Never mind having to continuously watch the bread toast while needing to do other tasks in the kitchen. The modern toaster, which I know we all take for granted, can evenly toast one or more slices of bread with just a spin of a dial and a click of a button. The “open-loop” automation is performed by applying electrical power to heating elements that surround the bread and setting a variable timer with a dial to pop up the toast when done. The term open loop means that there is no output-to-input feedback needed to adjust this operation. This open-loop automation is also found in microwave ovens, refrigerators, and ice makers.

Examples of “closed-loop” automation, which requires output-to-input feedback, are HVAC systems, washing machines, and the automotive cruise control. Automotive cruise control uses a feedback loop detecting the speed of the vehicle. If the speed is lower than the desired set speed, the engine throttle commands the vehicle to accelerate. When the set speed equals the vehicle speed, the throttle backs off. This feedback loop continually adjusts the throttle to maintain the proper set speed. Since the inception of the basic cruise control feature, more feedback loops have been designed into the system that sense other vehicles or objects and will slow down or stop the automobile to increase safety further.

Another example of automation is your car infotainment system, GPS, or smart phone. If the display brightness is set to maximum brightness, it is sometimes hard to see the screen in the bright sun and can be overwhelming to the eyes at night. These systems use a light sensor to apply feedback to the LCD screen controller to automatically dim the screen brightness when the ambient light is low—i.e., nighttime. More intelligent automation continuously adjusts the screen brightness as the background light intensity changes.

FIRE AND EMS APPARATUS

Now, how does automation find its way into fire and emergency medical services (EMS) apparatus? It’s all around you every day, and it is continuing to advance with added features in more and more products. For example, the simple concept of adding a sensor to the outside cabinet door of a fire apparatus turns the cabinet light on when the door is open, automatically turning the light off when the door is closed.

Another example is power management or load shedding. The fire apparatus monitors the battery voltage, and when the electrical system power load starts draining the batteries, which is primarily because of lighting products, the system automatically starts turning off noncritical lighting in programmed steps to maintain proper apparatus operation.

Traffic signal preemption is automation that helps enhance safety traveling through intersections. The emergency apparatus projects a signal to the traffic light, which takes control over the intersection, automatically turning the traffic light green for the approaching apparatus and changing the crossing traffic light to red. This automation helps keep the traffic flowing, offering a safer route for the responding emergency apparatus through the intersection.

AUTOMATING EMERGENCY LIGHTING

Both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and emergency warning lights are used to alert the motoring public. Depending on the emergency lighting package used, automation can help enhance the DOT lights. This added safety feature is done by automatically changing the emergency warning lights to a slower pattern, reducing the light intensity, or reducing the number of rear warning lights to meet the minimum National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1901, Standard for Automotive Fire Apparatus/NFPA 1906, Standard for Wildland Fire Apparatus, standards when the DOT lights are active. This is synonymous with the automotive industry that is automatically turning off the daytime running light next to the turn signal when activated.

A new automation concept, which is being discussed in the fire and EMS industry, is an enhancement of the emergency warning light system at night or in low ambient light conditions. The NFPA studied data collected at a demonstration at FDIC 1992 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and determined the minimum flash energy of warning power needed in eight individual zones around the apparatus. The maximum accumulative flash energy was determined to be measured in Cd-Sec-Min, and the total electrical power not to exceed 40 amps of current from the batteries. These intensity values were determined primarily with halogen flashers and rotating beacons that typically produced slow single flash patterns. The minimum flash energy values have not changed in 28 years.

In the past 10 or so years, LED technology has almost completely replaced the halogen light source for warning devices. During this time, LEDs have increased intensity practically tenfold. This news is excellent when the emergency lights must compete with the bright daytime sun but does not offer the same benefits to oncoming traffic and EMS workers around the apparatus or in low ambient light conditions. Another useful feature of the LED is that it can flash, or strobe, very quickly and can produce multiflash patterns, which can be a very conspicuous warning signal. By detecting the transmission and parking brake, the multiplex system can automatically put the emergency warning lights in the “Blocking Right of Way” mode. Using a photocell light sensor to detect a low ambient light condition—i.e., nighttime—the system could further the automation with the following operations:

  1. Dim the warning lights to the minimum requirements of NFPA 1901/NFPA 1906.
  2. Change the flash pattern from a multiflash to a single-flash pattern.
  3. Change the flashing sequence from random to a synchronized alternating sequence.
  4. Remove the stroboscopic edges of each flash.

This automation reduces the onscene glare to oncoming traffic, helping the motoring public further see first responders around the apparatus, and reduces eye strain of first responders working around the incident scene. These automation changes in the emergency warning lighting system can be implemented today, as they are entirely within the requirements of NFPA 1901 (2016 ed.) and NFPA 1906 (2016 ed.).

The future is very bright for more automation to be used in the fire and EMS markets with the use of GPS satellites; 5G cellular networks; dedicated short-range communication; chassis diagnostics (ODBII); and V2V and V2X communications, which are driving the autonomous vehicle technologies. The world is moving quickly to a digitally connected environment. All these changes that use automation—past, present, and future—continue to offer a safer environment for the fire and EMS professionals and the motoring public. Remember, if you find yourself doing the same steps over and over again at your job, THINK AUTOMATION.

FAMA is committed to the manufacture and sale of safe, efficient emergency response vehicles and equipment. FAMA urges fire departments to evaluate the full range of safety features offered by its member companies.

JAMES STOPAworks in product management for Whelen Engineering Company, Inc., where he has been employed since 1975. He managed the electronic design team creating emergency warning products and is credited with 18 patents. He is now responsible for safety products for the fire and EMS markets at Whelen.