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Let’s Talk Smart Firefighting

ESO Staff

What is Smart Firefighting? 

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, in 2015, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated 365,500 home structure fires that caused 2,560 deaths, 11,075 civilian injuries, and $7 billion in direct damage. Recently, those on the forefront of safety research are turning their site on improvements that can be made in the field of firefighting, helping fire fighters do their jobs more efficiently and safely by leveraging the emerging technologies currently being employed in military, health care, manufacturing, and other commercial settings.  

Just like the first SCBAs were built off the concept of underwater breathing equipment from scuba diving, many of today’s “cyber-physical sciences” that connect humans seamlessly with real-world data can also offer firefighters a more complete view of the incidents to which they are responding. By receiving and prioritizing important information quickly and easily, better decisions can be made to preserve property and life in emergency situations. 

Today, data intelligence is being added to everything in civilian life – from watches to vehicles to home security systems. Similarly, the concept of “Smart Firefighting” entails integrating new technologies to common tasks and settings in innovative ways to add more useful data for better decisions. Recently, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) published an extensive compilation of abstracts called Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting, outlining numerous topics including how Smart Firefighting and smart fire protection in the future will employ a wide range of sensors and software tools.  

According to the researchers, a key goal of creating a Smart Firefighting environment is to improve situational awareness (SA) during incidents. Optimal situational awareness on the firefield means combining knowledge of past events with present circumstances in context, and then anticipating future events to improve efficiencies and safety for all involved. It requires a high degree of communication and coordination throughout the chain of command, from fire fighters, to company officers, the incident command (IC) and dispatchers. 

Technology can help minimalize the factors working against situation awareness, such as incomplete, inaccurate, or uncertain information; absence of information prioritization; difficulty using the radio with breathing apparatus; many fire fighters simultaneously using the same radio channel, and more. Smart firefighting helps overcome some of these hurdles by automating the relay of useful information. For example: 

  • GPS tracking of team member locations when deployed to a fire 
  • Physiological monitoring of vital signs from fire fighters 
  • Overlays of structural information to help navigate a situation more safely 
  • Visualization of the setting – from drones or other technology – to offer alternative routing 
  • Infrared imagery to give more insight into what is happening inside walls, or to help locate signs of life in search and rescue settings 
  • Monitoring of heat flux measurements to predict flashover conditions 
  • Personal safety systems that can monitor for exposure to dangerous chemicals, during both fire incidents and afterwards, during overhaul phase 

Smart Firefighting is not without its challenges. It is possible to receive too much information and data, overwhelming IC and firefighters on the ground. Researchers are looking for ways to store, share, and prioritize information in the most effective ways without creating “task saturation” for those receiving the data. Additionally, new technology must be properly miniaturized so that it does not add weight to the already-heave PPE system with which fire fighters work, often already reaching the range of 100 lbs. Considerations must also be made into how these technologies can be powered and maintained while encountering some of the most extreme conditions on earth.  

Additionally, the value of the new technology, and any associated learning curves, must be proven to be worth it to the fire fighters and officers themselves, with proper training and explanation to ensure they will begin to adopt the new SAPs. Just as when the first portable computers were introduced, it took time for teams to stop relying on their old, tried and true paper-based ways of operating.  

Considerations must also be made into the cultural factors and limitations that differ in fire stations across the country; departments in larger, more affluent communities are more likely to explore – and be able to afford – new technologies that can improve efficiency and safety for firefighters. Departments in smaller communities with less financial resources must first meet their basic requirements before looking at new technologies and equipment. 

Finally, firefighting – unlike other fields employing smart technology – lacks a centralized body focused specifically on researching, developing, and deploying new smart firefighting technologies. Participants working on the NIST paper represented fire departments and academic institutions from across the U.S. Many agreed that firefighting would benefit from a centralized effort in researching and deploying new technologies designed specifically for firefighting and first response. 

So while the development and adoption curves may be slower than other fields, it is obvious that emerging smart technologies – deployed in the proper ways with the correct considerations – have the potential to preserve property and life by offering more useful data on-the-scene. It will be interesting to see the path that firefighting takes in the decades to come as the skill and knowledge of crew members and officers is amplified by more available information in any given situation. 

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