Monitored on the job

Advances in technology are helping to bring real-time physiological data analysis to firefighter training safety. This in turn is being used to improve performance. Mark Dye reports

Monitored on the job
For those within the fire service the safety of officers has always been paramount, beginning back at the station with rigorous, intensive training and assessment on an ongoing basis.

Much time is spent in the creation of realistic scenarios to test both man and equipment, and their response to being exposed to extremes of temperatures in the region of 150-200°C where their skin is known to reach 42°C inside protective suits.

However, until recently much analysis was done in paper format, with those involved documenting being exposed to hot environments during training and noting any ill effects from heat following it.

‘We’d also undertake a 12-month health assessment with our occupational-health unit but there was no live monitoring on how our bodies were coping with the heat,’ explains Dan Martin, watch manager in the training department, Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service (CFRS).

This changed in February, when they introduced a physiological monitoring system from Hildago using smart-sensor technology to keep an eye on instructors during the prolonged periods they spend wearing breathing apparatus and associated protective clothing in hot training environments.

Using the new system, data can be viewed in real time as well as being collected for analysis later. The EQ01 LifeMonitor is worn beside the skin by firefighters, with key physiological data being transferred wirelessly away from the device via class one Bluetooth while also being simultaneously recorded via SD card within the smart sensor on-board memory.

Parameters measured include heart rate, respiratory rate and effort, temperature and biomechanical data on activity and movement, which rather than being used singularly is used to understand overall heat/stress levels and fatigue status.

The Equivital Sensor Electronics Module (SEM) which weighs just 75g, is waterproof and is currently the only medically approved, multi-parameter, ambulatory monitoring system capable of measuring core body temperature.

‘What we looked at when buying this was the maximum number of fire instructors wearing the BA [behaviour analysis device] at the same time, and following our risk assessment we decided this would be three,’ adds Martin.

Martin says CFRS went for three units, buying one belt per instructor as well as purchasing a micro SD-card to be allocated to each individual instructor for storing analysis data.

‘Costs came in at around £6500 with two days training from Hildago themselves,’ he adds.

To transmit the data live to a laptop during training sessions the CFRS uses Panasonic Toughbooks.

According to Martin, the only slight drawback for the team comes when fire-fighters get deep inside the training facilities and then their Bluetooth signal is lost.

‘At this point the vital statistics are continuing to be recorded via the micro SD card, meaning all activity can be easily analysed following the training,’ he says.

Of course, working within metal environments can present its own set of unique challenges in terms of signal transmission.

‘To solve this we’re working on Hildago installing units within the facility that are heat resistant and act as boosters,’ he adds.

‘What we’re doing is working to try and find a way of providing additional coverage within this challenging environment and extend it further within the within the fire training area itself,’ explains Robert Harvey, spokesperson for Hildago.

‘You have to have a way of getting the information from the firefighter in the middle of a fire back to the control vehicle and that’s an extension of the problems with the Bluetooth coverage,’ he says.

Harvey says Hildago sees Bluetooth’s benefits in terms of acting as a gateway to other technologies.

‘So for example we have a relay device that can take the Bluetooth information and send it out over GPRS, 3G, GSM which means you can monitor anyone anywhere globally where you’ve got a mobile phone signal,’ he adds.

‘We already know our system will work successfully with TETRA, but this is work in progress at the moment. The thing is that even if you can communicate with a firefighter in a fire ground you can’t always accurately determine his position as GPS doesn’t work inside buildings, and this is something everyone is struggling with at the moment.’

Certainly, the extreme training scenarios are difficult to deal with and may seem tough for some outsiders to comprehend.

Indeed, trainers can be exposed to wearing the gear in high temperatures several times a week. Harvey notes one occasion where he a particular trainer has been into the fire chambers up to nine times in one day.

Right now, Harvey says that once firefighters are deep inside the training buildings, the way in which the training environment is used is within the logged mode where data is archived and then monitored retrospectively – in order to record all trends in their physiological welfare over a period of time.

‘In a live environment things are different. And that’s the target,’ he says. For Martin the benefits are already pretty clear however.

‘We’ve always been curious as to how our bodies are coping with the temperatures experienced in training,’ he adds. ‘Now we can actually look and analyse that in real-time. We can build up a picture of how were bearing up by comparing them to the data on the temperature graphs that we get from the training area itself, aswell as those corresponding to that of the individual.’

While this technology has already been used for multiple applications in the military, industrial and health sectors, Hildago is hard at work trying to find the answers in this sector.

‘With unknown building layouts there is a real challenge to all fire ground communications,’ adds Harvey.

‘There are a whole load of people working on addressing this and we would be happy to work with any of these to integrate our physiological data with their other communications.’
Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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