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Sensors and the Future of Firefighting Equipment

ESO Staff

Very few other occupations on Earth result in immediate death if a worker’s personal protective equipment (PPE) is breached. Similar to astronauts or deep-sea divers, a firefighter’s safety equipment is often the only thing standing between him or her and certain death or extreme injury. The only difference is that there are over 1 million firefighters in the U.S., placing the use rate of personal safety equipment at an exponentially higher rate than other occupations working in long-exposure, deadly environments. Recently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published an extensive Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting, including a section on the history and future of firefighting PPE technology. 

In the early days of firefighting – the occupation can be traced all the way back to the Roman Empire – most work was focused on battling structure fires from the outside. Only in the last 100 years have firefighters had the PPE technology and innovations to venture further into a burning building. For example, a major technological innovation for fire fighting was the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), borrowing technology from equipment used by Naval divers required for underwater breathing equipment. Additionally, advances in thermal protection levels in clothing has increased thresholds for responders safer and allows them to move more freely in extreme temperatures. 

While advanced PPE helps firefighters more effectively preserve property and rescue trapped civilians, the ability to get deeper into a fire also greatly increases the firefighter’s exposure to extreme temperatures as well as the likelihood of arriving in a structurally compromised or rapidly decomposing situation. Researchers have been faced with the need of continuing to advance PPE to new levels to protect the lives of firefighters, and have begun leveraging sensors in firefighting environments, including: 

Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) technology:  Built on technology developed for defense operations, TIC technology was ruggedized for the fire field and can now be used to locate the source of a fire, find victims, and optimize the process of searching for fire extension in the void spaces in structure walls. 

Gas Dosimeter Systems: These systems help monitor a firefighter’s overall exposure to contaminants within the structure, and can pinpoint what chemicals should be considered when decontaminating PPE after an event. This is important in helping prevent sickness and disease like cancer that can result from exposure to specific chemicals released during a fire. It’s also useful to monitor exposure during the overhaul phase, where firefighters are most likely operating without their SCBAs. 

Heat Flux Measurement Gauges: One of the most important fire transition sensor systems helps monitor for potential flashover conditions by measuring the temperature in the upper layer of air. Typical flashover heat fluxes are in the 10 kW/m2 to 20 kW/m2 range, which is associated with an upper layer temperature of around 600°C. By monitoring the upper layer heat flux, it may be possible to predict impending flashover conditions. 

Personal Alert Safety Systems: One of the more commonly adopted sensor system is the personal alert safety system (PASS) device that detects firefighter motion, as well as an acoustic transmitter that acts as a beacon to locate the fire fighter when the sensing system detects that he or she has been immobile for a predetermined period of time. Researchers continue to develop the effectiveness of the beacon technology to make it easier to find incapacitated firefighters on the fire field. 

Researchers are continuing to explore new use cases for sensors to improve the safety of firefighters, both in the immediate need of a fire setting, to longer-terms health by preventing chemical exposure. Additionally, new technologies can help command track elevated physiological stress of firefighters during an incident, including monitoring red flags to prevent adverse effects like sudden cardiovascular events (the top cause of firefighter line-of-duty deaths). The list of possible indicators could include activity levels and physical stress, heart rate, skin temperature, and moisture. Portable personal monitoring systems may also soon include sensors to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide partial pressure, volume flow rate, heart rate, gas pressure, body temperature, and exposure to damaging acoustic environments that may damage hearing. 

Other emerging technologies may soon include heads-up displays (HUDs) similar to what is used in military settings, used to deliver large amounts of information in image form. This could include overlays of structural information, real-time environmental data, GPS, and location information for other members of the team. The use of voice-activated communication tools may also serve a key role in making a firefighter’s job safer and more effective. Finally, “e-textiles” that incorporate active component fibers or technologies into firefighter clothing are being developed to help monitor for chemical exposure, temperature, and pressure, while also improving reflection and the ability to be tracked in a low-visibility situation. 

By leveraging sensor technology and making it faster to process key data points, firefighters will be better-equipped to face some of the world’s deadliest situations, helping preserve life and property for both civilians and the firefighters themselves. For more insight into future PPE technologies, safety considerations, and standards, review Chapter 3 in the full NIST Smart Firefighting Report. 

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