By Shannon Pieper
See Globe Manufacturing Company in Product Connect
Published Friday, April 20, 2012
Neil Armstrong amazed the world when he walked on the moon during a live broadcast, and his words were instantly famous: “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The fire service may soon experience such a leap forward when a firefighter steps onto the fireground.
For years, manufacturers have been chasing the elusive goal of a system that tracks firefighters inside the fire building. At the same time, they’ve struggled with ways to better monitor firefighters’ vital signs to prevent heat stress and its sometimes tragic outcomes. Now, Globe Manufacturing says it isn’t far away from a product that can do both.
Convergence of Technologies
A group of fire service writers and bloggers caught a glimpse of this new technology at a special event Globe held last night at FDIC. Before the event, I caught up with Mark Mordecai, director of business development for Globe.
“This technology is so exciting because we keep thinking about these electronic sensors as being something many years in the future, and then it turns out we’re in the future right now,” Mordecai says.” We’ve been talking about it for years and years and years, and we’re finally at the point where we’re developing a practical system.”
The system, called WASP—which stands for wearable advanced sensor platform—is an integrated wearable electronic system that monitors physiological signs and the firefighter’s location. It consists of two sets of sensors. The first set is for physiological monitoring and is incorporated in a fire-resistant base-layer T-shirt. “You have to have next-to-skin contact for physiological monitoring, so WASP has sensors built into a shirt that can be worn on a 24-hour shift, every day,” Mordecai says.
Those sensors transmit information such as EKG, heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, activity level, exertion level and posture (lying down, standing, crawling, etc.) via a Bluetooth transmission to either a voice radio or an Android cell phone. “Motorola radios have a digital side channel for data that can receive it and transmit it through the mission-critical radio to the command station, where it’s analyzed,” Mordecai says.
The second set of sensors is contained in the location tracking unit, which is worn on the belt of the turnout pants. That unit also transmits via Bluetooth to the command station.
If you’ve been following developments in firefighter tracking, you’re probably familiar with systems that require firefighters to place repeaters or other devices around the fireground to enable the location system. WASP is different. “WASP is an infrastructure-free system,” Mordecai says. “You can make the tool more useful through preplanning, having layouts and floor plans and whatever, but none of that is necessary to be able to use this.”
Mordecai explains that the system is a kind of a “cocktail” of technologies—inertial navigation instruments, accelerometers, gyroscopes, technologies that measure direction and altitude. But the key is its ability to classify motion. “If you think about the basic pedometer, it classifies one motion, but firefighters have a very complex set of motions—walking, moving left or right, crawling, etc.,” Mordecai says. “All of those affect inertial motion, so we’ve been working on how to make the technology understand and identify those motions.”
Of course, Globe isn’t inventing all this technology itself. From the fabric used in the shirt to the sensors to the radios over which the information is transmitted, Globe is working with existing technologies, but integrating them together into a wearable unit that uses a common transmission system and a common base system.
Information with Context
Information overload is fast becoming a reality of our existence, but on the fireground, too much information can turn deadly. That’s why another key component of WASP is how all of the sensor data is relayed to the incident commander (IC)—which basically takes place on a laptop located at the command station. “
“The IC can’t be monitoring six different systems,” Mordecai says. “There’s a million different metrics that you might want to know, but they have to be integrated; they can’t be stand-alone so you don’t have conflicts between transmission, multiple base stations and all of the other things that would make it impractical. WASP demonstrates not only that the information can be collected and transmitted in a meaningful way, but that it can also be integrated into a system. Down the road, we’ll be able to integrate other sensor technologies.”
And it’s not as if the IC is looking at raw data and trying to interpret it. WASP uses algorithms to sort through the physiological monitoring data to determine whether the IC needs to be alerted to the condition of a firefighter due to factors such as fatigue, dehydration, heat stress, etc. “The IC can’t pay attention to everything, so the graphical user interface is an ‘at-a-glance’ alert of what they need to know,” Mordecai says.
Of course, then you have the question of who monitors the system. “That may depend on how it’s being deployed,” Mordecai says. “During a hazmat response, it could be a medical team or safety officer; in the operational mode, if there’s a downed firefighter, the IC is going to be very involved in the monitoring. But generally speaking, the IC wouldn’t be able to both manage a fire scene and look at the screen all the time, so it has to be an ‘alert’ function that demands their attention when it’s needed.”
Mordecai stresses that it is fire departments—not Globe—that will ultimately have to decide how the system is integrated into their standard operating procedures. “We need to give the tool to fire departments sooner rather than later, so they can figure out how their SOPs will work with the technology,” he says. “Larger departments often respond to fires with an ambulance; in that case, maybe the medics would monitor the WASP, but maybe it’s the safety officer, maybe it’s the battalion chief. And it could also depend on the type of incident—an extrication scene is very different from a fireground.”
WASP will also serve a critical function in rehab and, Mordecai notes, can also be used for fitness testing and monitoring.
If You’re at FDIC…
Globe is demonstrating the WASP system at FDIC (booth #2207) in a number of ways. “We have personnel in our booth wearing enabled shirts that monitor their physiological data, videos that show the system in use at field trials, and data loops that show what you would have seen if you’d been at the field trial,” Mordecai says.
Although you won’t be able to wear it yourself, don’t miss this opportunity to better understand WASP and see it in action. “We’ve been going out and doing field trials as part of this project, and we’d like to be able to share the results,” Mordecai says. “It will take the balance of this year to complete the project and field trials, but we expect by the end of this year there will be a commercialized system. So our intention is not to announce at FDIC that you can buy it, but it is real and it is coming in the near term, and FDIC is a tremendous opportunity to learn about it.”
Ok, So What’s It Gonna Cost?
Even though the product isn’t yet on the market, I couldn’t resist asking Mordecai for a price prediction.
“Cost is one of those things we’re really not sure about yet,” he says. “It keeps changing as the technology changes. It will be several thousand dollars a person—how many has not been determined.”
One thing that could lower the cost: Globe plans to offer components of the system for sale separately, so a department could choose to purchase just the physiological monitoring component, for example. “It could be modular in terms of deployment,” Mordecai says, “A department could start with one unit in training, or a hazmat or specialty team could start learning about the system before deployment in the full department. There’s a learning curve that the department will go through as well.”
Mordecai also points out that the WASP system will progress just like any technology—as it moves forward, performance improves and cost goes down. “It’s not unlike thermal imaging cameras—when they first came out, they were $25,000 a piece, later on price was $3,000,” he says. “It’s a fairly well beaten path of how technology gets out into the market, but if you wait too late to get it, you’ve missed the additional safety that you could get today.”
Mordecai says as a company, Globe is very aware that fire departments by and large do not have piles of money sitting around waiting to be spent on the latest technology. “In today’s environment, when you talk about cost and procurement, fire departments don’t have any money to maintain and replenish current equipment, let alone buy new things,” he says. “So our expectation is that most departments would need grant money to purchase the system.”
Committed to Investment
Closely aligned with that expectation is Globe’s commitment to WASP over the long term. The product has been in research and development since 2006, and Mordecai stresses that Globe was never looking for quick commercialization.
“Globe’s long-term mission allows us to invest in R&D when the marketplace is soft—this is one of the advantages that we have as a fourth-generation family-owned and managed business,” he says. “Globe’s owners believe that their mission is firefighter safety. Just because the pond [of funds] has gotten smaller, the need to invest in safety hasn’t lessened. We’re very committed to the mission of keeping firefighters safe as opposed to doing something that can be commercialized in a short time.”
And it’s the two big factors WASP addresses that could make it a giant step forward for firefighter safety. “As clothing and equipment has become more protective, we’ve discovered that we need to do everything we can to monitor the person inside that protective clothing, and we need to be able to track where they are,” Mordecai says. “If we can address the fundamental problems of firefighter physiology and location—if we can tackle two biggies in one system—we can make a significant step in making firefighters safer.”
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