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Pinellas County, Fla., Improves Fire Station Alerting

Innovative system allows for customized alerts, reducing negative effects on crews

By Gail Tyburski
Published Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Station alerting is one small, yet important component of a dispatch system. Like many departments, in Pinellas County, Fla., until recently all on-duty firefighters were alerted to an incoming dispatch collectively, whether the individual crew or truck was actually required to respond.

Pinellas County fire chiefs expressed concern over this system. Alert tones were already unique to the station being dispatched, but they wondered if it would be a much better solution to modify these alerts, allowing individual crews to immediately recognize whether the call was for them. Further, they wondered whether these alerts could be limited to only sound in the bunk rooms of the crew that needed to be notified.

As referenced in the IAFF publication “A Guide to the Recognition and Prevention of Occupational Heart Disease for the Fire and Emergency Medical Services,” studies have shown that while small, there is a measureable increase in heart disease risk due to noise exposure. The manual notes, “The characteristics of the noise that have been associated with heart disease include unpredictability, a lack of meaningfulness, high volume, and of an intermittent nature”—all factors that come into play for firefighter alerting systems. The authors conclude that “To reduce unnecessary noise exposure, station tones should alert only those personnel in the station and/or bunk rooms that need to respond to the current call for service.” Other experts have suggested using alert tones that employ an escalating volume to further reduce stress to cardiovascular systems caused by noise exposure.

All of this information provided Pinellas County Public Safety Services (PCPSS) with the motivation it needed to upgrade its current system to meet the above recommendations.

Determining Tones
Pinellas County (pop. 916,542) is located on a peninsula on the west coast of Florida. PCPSS operates a primary PSAP and consolidated dispatch center dispatching for 19 fire departments. Countywide, there are 63 fire stations, each with its own complement of first responder apparatus and personnel. Some fire departments in Pinellas County are located in densely populated urban areas, some serve small beach communities and others have responsibility for fire protection of large wooded areas.

As part of the county-wide initiative to upgrade to a P25 digital system, PCPSS chose Motorola’s FSA4000 solution to be used as the station alerting equipment at each of the fire stations. This solution provides the desired levels of redundancy not only in base equipment but also in transmission abilities. PCPSS achieved redundancy by installing two FSA 4000 base stations at separate dispatch locations. Additionally, the FSA 4000 provides concurrent connectivity over the existing fire station WAN and RF links. The FSA4000 system allows for programmable tones to be recorded and uploaded into each Remote Terminal Unit (RTU).

Perhaps most importantly, the audio zoning feature allows speakers and/or lights to be automatically activated in selected bunkrooms based on the type of alert or zone selected.

The initial proposal allowed for only five individual zones. PCPSS met with local fire departments to decide if alerts would be based on call type or on the unit assigned to the call. With the fifth zone reserved for use when multiple units are to be alerted at any one station or as a station-wide alert tone, only four zones were available from which to choose. With such diversity in fire department alerting needs across the county, it was extremely difficult to get consensus from the fire departments on which alerting method to use.

Through further conversations with the vendor, we found that there was another creative option that would allow 15 tones at each station. Once this discovery was made, we realized that a combination of both call type and unit alert methods could be implemented.

We proposed alerting the five most common unit types in each of the stations, using the next nine zones for call-type alerting when two or more units from the same station are dispatched on a call, and using the last zone as the default/station alert tone. The five most common unit types were designated as:

  1. Engine
  2. Truck
  3. Rescue
  4. Squad
  5. District Chief

The nine most common call types are:

  1. Water rescue (Pinellas County is surrounded by water)
  2. Gas leak
  3. Hazmat
  4. Traffic incident
  5. Fire alarm
  6. Structure fire
  7. Unconfirmed structure fire
  8. Brush fire
  9. Medical

Putting It All Together
PCPSS computer aided dispatch (CAD) software is unique; many years ago, we purchased the rights to modify the software source code and chose to make an investment in skilled personnel who had the ability to customize the CAD software for the needs of all PCPSS stakeholders. Therefore PCPSS programmer/analysts developed both the data structure solution and the software program interface to the new fire station alerting system.

Each zone is activated by a unique four-digit code, which is then tied via data to either the unit type or the call type. The code for the individual apparatus is entered into the individual unit numbers, so a single unit being dispatched from a station will hear their individual engine, truck, etc., tone.

When two or more units are dispatched from the same station, the interface software will choose the call type code alert tone so that they will be alerted to what type of call they are responding to. If two or more units are dispatched from the same station and the call type is not designated as one of the most common call types, the default/station tone is used and the emergency responders listen to the verbal announcement provided by a dispatcher.

Some of the stations in Pinellas County run as a single-unit station. Using the above concept, if a lone apparatus is dispatched from a station, the only alert tone they would ever hear would be the engine, truck, district chief, squad or rescue tone. Although that would work, it does not utilize this new system to its fullest capacity. Therefore, PCPSS programmers made one final modification so that those units responding from a single-unit station would always receive an alert tone that matched the call type.

PCPSS created tones for each of the five common unit types using individual tones with a voice imported at the halfway point in the escalation; the voice states the unit type (engine, truck, etc.). The call type tones use the same escalating tone volume, but the voice that comes in at the halfway point indicates the call type (water rescue, structure fire, medical, etc.).

The tone creation involved quite a lot of manipulation. This was not simply taking a .wav file and uploading it into the station RTU. The .wav files were created and then the tone was basically recorded as it was played over a cabled connection to the RTU. This did require several manipulations of the original .wav file to get the amplification levels correct so the tones sounded true when played by the RTU over the fire station speakers. The current tones are available at

A Little Quieter
PCPSS has completed the upgrade to this new alerting system at 13 stations, with the feedback being extremely positive. Providing the fire departments within Pinellas County with this custom solution allows for the individuality of each station and, as bunk rooms are wired properly and personnel placement is considered, late-night alerts can be limited to only those personnel who need to be alerted—thereby improving the health and welfare of station crews and providing quicker incident type recognition.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank the following organizations and individuals for their efforts in this system installation and for providing information for this article:

  • Pinellas County Fire Chiefs
  • Pinellas County Operations Chiefs
  • Pinellas County Public Safety Services/911
  • Rickard Webster, Pinellas County Public Safety Services Sr. Programmer/Analyst
  • Jacqueline Weinreich, Pinellas County Public Safety Services, 9-1-1 Computer Systems Manager
  • Donna Beim, Pinellas County Public Safety Services Radio Communications Analyst
  • Fire Chief George Bessler, Seminole Fire Rescue
  • Deputy Chief Don Sayre, Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue
  • Rick Parrish, Motorola Engineer
  • David Bache, Motorola System Technologist
  • Eric Parker, Motorola System Technologist
  • Chris Painter, Suncoast Communications Technician

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The system Pinellas County chose allows for programmable tones to be recorded and uploaded into each Remote Terminal Unit (RTU). The audio zoning feature allows speakers and/or lights to be automatically activated in selected bunkrooms based on the type of alert or zone selected.
Programmers made a modification to the system so that units responding from a single unit station would always receive an alert tone that matched the call type.

Gear Test: Dräger’s UCF 9000 Thermal Imaging Camera

The multitude of impressive features on Dräger’s UCF 9000 makes it a shame to call it just a thermal imaging camera

By Chad Allison
Published Monday, January 14, 2013 | From the March 2013 Issue of FireRescue

One of the greatest tools available to us during search and rescue is the thermal imaging camera (TIC). It allows us to peer through obscuring smoke and total darkness, decreasing the likelihood of missing a victim during a search or a hotspot during overhaul. A TIC also allows us to view the layout of a building and any potential hazards that may jeopardize firefighter safety on the fireground.

I’ve been reviewing the Dräger UCF 9000 TIC for the past few months. After a quick orientation on its features, I realized that this product was a major step up from the TIC currently issued to our frontline companies. Its superiority is apparent when looking at the image quality and many other impressive features. The more I used it, the more amazed I became by its capabilities—I found myself regularly showing it off to other firefighters. In short, Dräger has taken the average TIC and increased its usefulness, versatility and adaptability to fit the ever-evolving and dynamic emergency scene.

The UCF 9000 can operate in several modes, each of which comes with a unique feature, depending on the task. The unit turns on in Standard mode, which is a combination of all the different modes available. This “default” mode can be used for what one would expect of a TIC, which is why I used it the most.

In the middle of the screen, there’s a small box that corresponds with the color-coded temperature scale found in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Note: Researching other TICs of similar price, I found that the UCF 9000 has a greater temperature range; it can display temperatures between -40 and 1,800 degrees F. The default temperature range displayed on the right runs between 230–270 degrees F. When the box in the center of the screen displays a temperature reading that’s higher than the default range is capable of displaying, the default scale changes to one that can display higher temperatures, which range from 570 to 1,700 degrees F, and it does so without freezing frames, a problem I’ve encountered with our current TIC. (Note: Dräger touts that they’ve paid special attention to the camera’s shutter time, creating a video image that doesn’t stutter or freeze.) On the orientation video provided by Dräger, the narrator states that the temperature range of the TIC’s scales can be changed to suit your needs. I didn’t physically change the scales because they suited my needs just fine.

Using a four-way toggle button found below the screen, the user can select from several modes: Standard, Fire, Persons, Thermal Scan, Hazmat, Outdoor, Scan Plus, Normal and Custom. When operating in any mode, you can quickly hit the power button to return to the default Standard mode.

In Fire mode, hotspots and temperature ranges are shown in detail and contrast. In Persons mode, the camera focuses on cold and warm objects, even when located near a fire or other high-heat source. I noticed that when I pointed the camera at a person in this mode, the person’s body had greater illumination than in other modes.

The Thermal Scan mode highlights objects that are greater than the set temperature; you can adjust the temperature that you’d like to view using the four-way toggle. During my experience with this mode, the temperature was initially set to 100 degrees F during overhaul, and the whole room lit up. I was able to increase the temperature displayed until it would indicate only the high-heat nooks and crannies where fire might have been hiding. With this mode, it was very easy to locate and extinguish spot fires that may have led to a possible rekindle.

In Hazmat mode, a vibrant color area is displayed within the image, which clearly indicates liquid level and leak detection. In Outdoor mode, the images on the screen have reversed brightness (the image is very bright indoors), a feature similar to changing a video monitor from a daytime setting to a nighttime setting. This feature may be useful if firefighters are trying to locate a body that has been ejected during a motor vehicle accident.

Scan Plus combines the image quality of Normal mode with the temperature display feature found in Thermal Scan mode, so that anything above the set temperature has a color imposed on a normal digital video feed. In Normal mode, the TIC becomes a digital video camera, displaying images as you would see them with any video camera.

In Custom mode, the image is very similar to what you’d see on any TIC screen, but with the broader color range of an infrared camera. So rather than displaying a body as bright white in a darker setting, it’s displayed in varying colors that correspond with the temperature scale found on the right side of the screen.

Other unique features found on the Dräger UCF 9000 include the Laser Pointer, the Freeze Frame, the integrated Brightness Sensor, the 2x and 4x Zoom, and the Video/Audio Recorder. The Laser Pointer is used by simply pushing the four-way toggle in the needed direction. I used this feature to point out a hot spot in the eaves of a building that were too high for me to physically reach.

While viewing with the camera, you can hold down a button on the front grip, which freezes the image on the screen so that you can evaluate it. To unfreeze the image and return the camera to its original mode, you simply release the button. I found this feature particularly useful when I wanted to show someone what I had found or had been looking at, but moving the camera would remove the object being discussed from view.

The integrated Brightness Sensor automatically adjusts the brightness of the screen to an optimal level, which came in handy when I went from an outdoor area to an indoor area, or from a well-lit area to a darker one. The Zoom feature brings an object closer, which is especially convenient when an object is in your line of sight, or when your point of interest/concern is not easily accessible.

The video/audio recorder feature will come in handy during training or when evaluating an incident during an after-action review. The camera records video and audio in a loop for two hours, while a USB connection on the camera allows the captured footage to be transferred to a computer. (What I found particularly noteworthy about this feature is that I was able to go back and look at all the different things I had done with the camera for this review.)

As if all of that weren’t enough, the Dräger UCF 9000 also has a durable design and is rated as Zone 1 Explosion Proof. The battery lasts for four hours; however, this TIC is equipped with a system that can increase the duration of the battery. To conserve the battery, the TIC goes into standby mode as soon as a hand leaves the grip; it’s reactivated when a hand returns to the handle. (Note: This feature can be disabled if you don’t find it useful.) I found that the life of the battery was far greater than our current TIC. Even without a charger on the rig, it was rare that I had to place it on the charger in the station.

As you can see, there are many exceptional features to the UCF 9000—so many, in fact, that I was continuously impressed by it throughout my review. I found only a couple areas that need improvement: First, after the camera is turned on, it takes about a minute to boot up. The video camera will begin to function quickly after it’s powered up; however, the image freezes while the camera continues to load. This can be deceiving because the TIC appears ready for use, but it’s not. I recommend turning on the camera at least one or two minutes before you need to use it to avoid any delays.

The laser pointer is also a great idea, but I found that it’s difficult to see at any distance because the red dot is so small. I found this to be especially true at night in an outside environment with emergency lighting.

Another issue, which is true with many TICs, is that it’s a hand-held unit, so you have to be very mindful of where you place it if you need to set it down. This issue is easily remedied by using the neck harness or side strap with a lanyard that Dräger offers as accessories. Not having either of these definitely bore some inconveniences on the fireground, especially considering that it’s not a cheap tool to leave lying around. The Dräger UCF 9000 retails for about $14,000. My initial reaction was that this seemed a bit high, but I did some research and discovered that the price is comparable to other higher-end TICs. I also discovered that the UCF 9000 has more and/or better features than the other TICs in its price range. For example, it has a greater temperature range and a 4x zoom in addition to the standard 2x zoom of some of its competitors.

The bottom line: The UCF 9000 is a great TIC. It almost seems wrong to refer to it as a TIC because the term doesn’t do it justice; it doesn’t encompass all of its capabilities. The biggest challenge I had with this product was giving it back to the manufacturer and returning to the TIC on our engine.

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Drager's UCF 9000 thermal imaging camera is a compact, user-friendly device that offers many impressive features and modes. Photo courtesy Drager

Robot Firefighter for Shipboard Firefighting

U.S. Navy commissions an autonomous robot to mitigate shipboard fires

By Jane Jerrard
Published Sunday, December 30, 2012 | From the February 2013 Issue of FireRescue

The future of firefighting is approaching at warp speed: By next year, engineers from Virginia Tech expect to test the first autonomous firefighting robot designed for the U.S. Navy, with the ultimate expectation that dangerous shipboard fires can be handled safely by SAFFIR—the Shipboard Autonomous Fire Fighting Robot.

The Birth of SAFFIR
Pronounced “sapphire,” the robot is being created at Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, for exclusive use by the Navy and funded by the Office of Naval Research.

Brian Lattimer, PhD, is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the primary engineers involved in the SAFFIR project. “My colleague Dennis Hong and I were talking about using robots in firefighting applications,” Lattimer recalls. “He’s involved in developing robots, and I’m on the fire side of things.” Lattimer’s career includes research and teaching on topics surrounding fire dynamics, experimental and computational studies of combustion, heat transfer and heat generation from fuels.

Hong and Lattimer proposed their idea of using robots to the Navy as a way to help keep people out of danger. “There are ways to integrate [SAFFIR] to help with the most hazardous conditions that sailors face,” Lattimer explains.

Sorry Star Wars Fans …
The SAFFIR project has received positive attention in the media; however, some sources labeled SAFFIR as a “C-3PO-based robot,” referring to the well-known humanoid robot in the Star Wars series of films. But according to Lattimer, the comparison is misleading—there is no Star Wars connection here. “[Both Dr. Hong and I] were interested in developing humanoid-type robots, because ships are already designed for humans and the navigation is very tricky,” he points out. “A wheel-based robot couldn’t get over the ‘knee-knockers’ [the low partitions between compartments].” The takeaway: Any resemblance to C-3PO is coincidental.

A Work in Progress
SAFFIR will have limited, though essential, firefighting capabilities. “At this stage, we’re limiting it to operating a handline and tossing a propelled extinguishing agent technology [PEAT] grenade,” Lattimer explains. PEAT grenades are still being developed, but they contain a dispersal cartridge that disseminates water or firefighting foam for fire suppression. “There’s a possibility that we’ll have an integrated extinguisher on it so that it can suppress very small fires. But we want to focus on putting the robot—rather than humans—in harm’s way.”

The engineers are approaching shipboard fires as indoor commercial fires. “There might be fuel spills, electrical fires or your typical combustibles,” Lattimer says. To simulate the commercial fire environment, as well as the human interaction needs of SAFFIR, Virginia Tech is working with experts from the Naval Research Lab.

One particularly impressive aspect of SAFFIR: It will be autonomous, so that it won’t have to be told where to go or what to do. “It will have sensors and algorithms built in, and it will be able to operate in zero visibility,” Lattimer explains. “However, it’s also being designed for human interaction, and will be able to understand hand gestures such as pointing.” So a firefighter can direct SAFFIR if necessary—which might come in handy if there are simultaneous events. “Further down the line, we envision a team of robots on each ship,” Lattimer says. “There might be different robots with different roles, such as boundary cooling and fire suppressing.”

As of late 2012, the Virginia Tech engineers were wholly focused on SAFFIR’s functionality. Its physical “body” will be addressed once the baseline design is complete, and built from 100% fireproof materials. Once built, the engineers expect that SAFFIR will operate for a maximum of 30 minutes. This time limit is not due to the robot’s abilities, but rather due to naval history. Lattimer explains, “They need to get a [shipboard] fire out within that timeframe or bad things start to happen.”

A Two-Tiered Test
In late 2013, a SAFFIR prototype will make its firefighting debut in a demonstration on board the former U.S.S. Shadwell, a decommissioned landing ship docked in Mobile, Ala., that serves as the Navy’s full-scale damage-control research, development, test and evaluation platform.

The demonstration will include two scenarios. “There will be one large fire—nearly a flashover—inside the ship,” Lattimer explains. “The robot will throw a PEAT grenade and close off the room, and then follow up by suppressing the fire with a handline. The robot will be working with a Navy firefighter during this exercise.”

In the second scenario, SAFFIR will work autonomously to identify a much smaller fire and put it out. “Our goal is to hold those demonstrations in 2013. The next steps depend on how those turn out,” Lattimer says.

A Final Note
As proven by the SAFFIR project, firefighting technology continues to take great strides, indicating that, in terms of firefighting suppression devices, the possibilities are endless. Ultimately, SAFFIR will become a fixture on naval ships and could eventually go on to spark the creation of robot firefighter “cousins”—which just might someday work alongside your department!

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The lower portion of SAFFIR. The robot is being created at Virginia Tech’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, for exclusive use by the Navy and funded by the Office of Naval Research. Photo Virginia Tech Department of Mechanical Engineering
The vision system for navigating through zero-visibility is key to the success of SAFFIR. The image on the left shows a camera image of a small fire while the image on the right shows the same fire seen through the "eyes" of SAFFIR. Photo Virginia Tech Department of Mechanical Engineering

Implementing Physiological Monitoring in the Fire Service

How will physiological monitoring systems affect command decision-making?

By Dennis C. Wood and Edward J. Dadosky
Published Wednesday, December 26, 2012 | From the February 2013 Issue of FireRescue

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 46.5% of firefighter fatalities from 2007–2011 were as a result of heart attacks ( Excerpts from several line-of-duty death (LODD) reports include accounts such as:

  • “Complained to fellow firefighters that he didn’t feel well.”
  • “Fell ill where he was discovered a short time later.”
  • “Fellow firefighters discovered him unconscious in the firehouse.”

In short, many of these firefighters had no idea that they were experiencing a cardiac emergency; they may also have been unaware of underlying factors that contributed to their cardiac-related death.

What if we never had to read about another firefighter death during or after a training exercise that was due to overexertion, leading to a heart attack or stroke? At structure fires, what if firefighters’ vital signs could be remotely and reliably monitored via a minimally invasive garment to be worn under fire gear that would track body temperature, respirations, blood pressure and heart rate—a system designed to alert a third-party monitor to a potential medical emergency for that firefighter? How many firefighter LODDs could such technology prevent every year?

This is not science fiction. Physiological monitoring systems for emergency responders are becoming a reality; several prototypes have been fielded (see sidebar). In the future, incident commanders (ICs) will be able to monitor the physiological health and safety of their personnel in real time.

Physiological monitoring of firefighters will provide a significant improvement in situational awareness on the emergency scene. We will be able to see an objective measure of the firefighters’ health status; in turn, we will be able to intervene for those personnel who may be in distress—even if they do not yet know it, or deny it. Yet this technology will also bring significant challenges. If ICs are going to be prepared to implement this technology as it becomes widely available, fire service leaders must begin to discuss now how it will affect command decision-making in all aspects of fire service operations.

Red, Yellow, Green
In simplest terms, it may be easy to think of physiological monitoring using a “stop light” approach. Rather than overwhelming the IC at the command post with raw data, each firefighter would use the system during everyday activities to establish a baseline, or non-exertion status. From this baseline, the system calculates “how much is too much” for the firefighter, and these levels are programmed into the system so as to alert the IC.

A firefighter operating in the “green” is functioning as a baseline or non-exertion status. They can safely operate in that capacity almost indefinitely. This status is expected during routine station activities or administrative duties.

A firefighter working at a high exertion level would be demonstrated by a “yellow” status. This is the status where our personnel can function, burdened with appropriate protective clothing and significant physical tasks, for a short period of time—usually, the duration of an SCBA cylinder.

A firefighter operating in the “red,” or alarm, level is experiencing a physiological stress that should not be exceeded or maintained, or perhaps even evidence of potentially life-threatening physiological parameters.

How It Might Work
Let’s look at a few examples of how physiological monitoring would work in typical fire service scenarios.

At a department’s burn building, dozens of fire trainees are performing physically intense tasks such as forcible entry, advancing fire lines, victim rescue and building ventilation. Every firefighter participating in the training wears a physiological monitoring garment. They each have a pre-established, customized medical baseline customized (e.g., maximum heart rate of 150, maximum blood pressure of 150/90).

A qualified medical professional (i.e., paramedic) monitors the firefighters. While one group of trainees is inside the burn building, advancing a hoseline up the stairs, one of the firefighters exhibits physiological indicators that place him in the “red” zone specific to his baseline. The paramedic monitoring that firefighter—positioned outside the burn building and monitoring via computer—immediately notifies the IC, who subsequently orders the crew out of the building and the firefighter is placed into rehab. If necessary, the training is stopped all together.

Structure Fire
The 9-1-1 call center receives a call for a fire in a single-family residence with possible victim trapped. As a result, 20–30 firefighters are dispatched from several stations. All on-duty firefighters are already wearing their physiological monitoring garments. Upon arrival, the IC establishes an electronic command post that includes data feeds demonstrating the statuses of all firefighters. Of course, the IC has many duties, so it’s likely that true monitoring will have to wait for later-arriving medical/physiological monitoring personnel.

A truck company crew proceeds to the roof and is cutting a ventilation hole in conjunction with interior operations when a safety officer is alerted to the fact one of the truck company’s firefighters is operating in the red status. At this point, the IC has several options:

  • The crewmember may be in distress or need assistance. An accountability check on that person might be appropriate, or the unit officer should be directed to check on them.
  • The task might be overly physical. The unit officer should consider crewmember rotation. The IC can also consider unit rotation, or assigning additional crews.
  • The crew or crewmember might be ordered to report to EMS or rehab for medical evaluation and monitoring.

The drawbacks to “pulling” crewmembers are clear: When medical monitors begin pulling firefighters out of the fire for personal safety, other firefighters may also have to retreat to assist “at-risk” members ordered to the rehab area, or because they will no longer be able to safely operate interior. This can delay fire attack and other operations. If not skillfully and somewhat judiciously handled, it’s not difficult to imagine fire scenes where firefighters don’t know who is staying or going—creating an even more chaotic and unsafe situation.  

Hazmat Incident
Your hazmat response team is on the scene of an anhydrous ammonia leak at an industrial food storage facility. Several people from the facility are reported missing. A crew of four personnel has already had their pre-entry physicals completed by their physiological monitoring system. All are in a “green status” and are preparing to enter.

The benefits of physiological monitoring in a hazmat situation are significant. In the era after the Tokyo sarin attack, many departments have attempted to address the rescue of viable patients from chemical contaminants. This mindset is contrary to traditional hazmat tactical doctrine: isolate the area and ensure others are not exposed. However, several efforts to establish “quick dress” options have emerged. How can you maintain regulatory requirements without pre-entry medical monitoring?

The answer could lie in real-time continuous physiological monitoring. If you know the baseline health status of the hazmat responder when they arrive on the scene, the additional time and effort to perform this task is reduced, if not eliminated. In essence, it makes every hazmat scene a quick-dress situation.

Medical monitoring during a hazmat situation can also provide the IC with the necessary information to establish a formalized crew cycling process, providing specific information on how many resources are needed in reserve based on the physical demands being placed on crews working.

If you’re wondering whether a cold storage processing facility (or other large building) could pose challenges to the telemetry system signal strength, you’re not alone. Such challenges are being taken into consideration in the development of monitoring and tracking systems.

Crews have been working an incident for more than 45 minutes and are being rotated through rehab. A single EMS unit has been as assigned to rehab on this incident, which has 34 personnel operating. This bottleneck leads to undue delays in establishing baseline vital signs, so by the time vital sign measures are established, the 20-minute rehab period has been exceeded. This limits the effectiveness of the rehab operation and also reduces the perceived benefit to the group of responders. The IC is trying to establish a crew rotation with available resources, but it proves difficult based on the bottleneck in rehab.

Physiological monitoring allows the crews rotating into rehab to be monitored for both the “need” for rehab and for the completeness of rehab. It does not remove the EMS component form the rehab process—assessment and history-taking is still needed—but the challenging issue of taking a set of initial rehab vital signs in a timely manner is significantly reduced. In addition, recorded medical data can be tracked via the monitoring devices, which could help with record-keeping and reconstructing cases in which injuries and/or medical events occur.

The need for rehab can be better understood as well. If all four members of a suppression crew are operating in the “yellow” for longer than a prescribed period of time, that gives us an objective basis to assign personnel to rehab, rather than an arbitrary time, which does not account for level of effort. Theoretically, rehab could be directed after an estimation of the number of calories consumed, rather than a set amount of time.

Opportunities & Challenges
The greatest opportunity in physiological monitoring technology lies in its very motivation: to prevent firefighter LODDs. This can be accomplished in several ways:

  • Full-time physiological monitoring will establish baseline fitness levels and deviations from this baseline will identify potential illness.
  • Supra-maximal exertion in responders can be identified in real time, allowing for appropriate intervention and rehab that in turn prevents cardiac emergencies.
  • Real-time cardiac arrhythmias and ectopy can be identified immediately, allowing for appropriate response
  • Personnel can be rotated based on exertion rather than arbitrary time periods.
  • High-stress and hazard situations can be identified. This will allow for improved resource allocations and staffing parameters.
  • Improved awareness and understanding of health parameters can drive improvements of health, wellness and fitness in the responder population.

Eventually, physiological monitoring will be incorporated with other technologies such as accountability, firefighter tracking and PASS alarms; this will further enhance its usefulness.
On the surface, what department wouldn’t want to be first in line for this latest advance in personal protective equipment? When we dig deeper, however, it becomes clear that we need to be prepared for the significant challenges such technology represents, while at the same time preparing our personnel to be open-minded and willing to accept the change.

Most obvious is the cost factor: Who can afford to field a system that can achieve all of the above goals? Although manufacturers are working hard to make such systems practical and affordable, remember that the cost of integrating any new technology is not just the hardware, but communications and training as well.

Although cost comes first to mind, it may also be the easiest to overcome. Most new technology follows a pattern: When first introduced, it is prohibitively expensive for most departments, but over time it becomes more and more affordable. Think of all the technological “game changers” that have been introduced to the fire service—centrifugal pumps, SCBA, portable radios, thermal imagers, etc.  

Throughout history, progress brings unintended consequences. Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin was responsible for a boom in cotton production in the United States, the unintended negative impact of which was the proliferation of slavery to keep pace with the increased demand for cotton. Conversely, as the ability to physiologically monitor individual firefighters becomes reality, how much of an increase in staffing and what level of expertise would be necessary during training or emergency scenarios to adequately monitor each individual firefighter? The fire service must determine how to incorporate physiological monitoring without the need for a huge staffing investment. Work cycles and crewmember rotation will become even more important, as we focus on rotating out members who are nearing the red zone, while taking advantage of those who are still in the green zone who are ready (physiologically) to rotate in. 

One thing is clear: Medical monitoring does require dedicated personnel. Expecting personnel assigned to other areas to absorb monitoring as an addition to their current responsibilities fast becomes a slippery slope, especially if the RIT or medics are forced to abandon their monitor posts to perform their primary duties.

Determining what qualifies as an emergency
Physiological monitoring will also need to prove its reliability before we can expect widespread acceptance. Do the physiological parameters provide an accurate picture of illness compared to the to the perception illness? In other words, does a “red light” status equal real distress in a responder?

Related to this, is monitoring as simple as having just any firefighter stare at a computer screen and alert the safety officer that a firefighter’s pulse rate exceeded their target heart rate by 10%? Or, is there a duty to have an adequately trained paramedic or medical professional capable of identifying emergent health danger signs, but not so overzealous as to disrupt training and operations because someone took one too many breaths?

The legal maxim “hard cases make bad law” has some relevance here. It’s fair to say that unless a reasonable balance between safety and practicality is identified (and supported by a jurisdiction’s legal counsel), an over-abundance of health/safety alerts may be ignored for individual firefighters, similarly to a chronically malfunctioning fire alarm.

Take, for example, a training evolution where several dozen firefighters are working hard, practicing advancing hoselines and roof ventilation. These activities elicit significant physical activity, especially at the height of each task. During such evolutions, any number of firefighters may naturally drift into the “red,” or alert, status, and according to procedure, should be relieved of duty until coming back down into a “green” or acceptable physiological range.

Assume that the medical monitor stopped the training evolution the first few times the limits are exceeded. As firefighters naturally become more fatigued during this arduous training, it’s not hard to imagine increasingly frequent drill stops/starts with the medical monitor beginning to feel a little like the boy who cried wolf. After a while, the medical monitor may feel pressured or become complacent, “ignoring” the system alarms because nothing “bad” has happened thus far, and also sense a growing pressure from drill participants to use “good judgment”, a.k.a., quit bothering us with the procedural alarms, and only stop the drill when a “serious” alarm comes through.

A medical monitor at emergency incidents would likely feel even more pressure to less stringently monitor firefighters; they might rationalize that “I let the firefighter continue working because we almost had the fire out, which saved even more lives.” This respective logic could serve as an excuse as to why the monitor failed to pull someone off of a job who was exhibiting warning signs/symptoms according to the physiological monitoring system. 

Many other challenging, but realistic situations can be hypothesized that run counter to the purpose of physiological monitoring, whether during training or exercises.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point to physiological monitoring is the culture of the fire service itself. Can technology override the noble and heroic motivations of a responder? How do you disqualify a responder, and in turn the whole unit, while rescue operations are ongoing?

Privacy will also be a concern. Firefighters may regard monitoring as another instance of “big brother”; labor unions may argue that such technology creates the potential for discrimination, or endangers firefighter jobs. Firefighters could even try to subvert the system to avoid being reassigned or required to undergo medical care.

The goal of physiological monitoring is simple: to prevent firefighter injuries and LODDs from heart attacks and strokes. But departments should be prepared for the challenges and potential pitfalls of knowing what they previously did not, and could not, know prior to the advent of personalized physiological monitoring technology.  

A Final Word
Physiological monitoring is coming to an incident command post near you soon. There are still several hurdles in the way, but several of the best and brightest fire service leaders are interacting with exercise scientists and bioengineers to see it to reality. When it does, we must be ready to integrate it into our operations. And that requires thinking through how it will affect every facet of the fire service, from legal issues to training to incident response. To the men and women on the front line, whose very lives hang in the balance, we owe nothing less.

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The wireless pulse oximeter is a component of an integrated system developed by researchers in WPI’s Precision Personnel Location (PPL) team--technology that is designed to locate and track firefighters inside buildings, and to also continuously monitor their vital signs. Photo courtesy WPI
This image shows a proposed Incident Commander Display screen showing the location and tracks of the firefighters inside a building along with their physiological information. The firefighter icons are green, yellow, or red. Red indicates a firefighter is in potential trouble due to vital signs being outside acceptable limits or due to non-movement of the firefighter. Some of the physiological information being displayed is the heart rate, respiration rate, skin temperature, and oxygen saturation level. Photo courtesy WPI
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) electrical and computer engineering graduate student David Hubelbank tests a wireless pulse oximeter designed to monitor blood oxygen saturation, pulse, respiration rate, and skin temperature while the wearer is engaged in strenuous physical activity. The current prototype is held against the forehead by a strap, but may ultimately be integrated into the firefighter’s helmet. Photo courtesy WPI

Near-Miss Reports Involving TICs—or a Lack Thereof

Near-Miss reports underscore the benefits of using thermal imaging cameras

By John B. Tippett Jr.
Published Sunday, November 4, 2012 | From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue

Editor's Note: As of Oct. 10, 2012, the federal AFG program funding that supported the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System has not been renewed; however, the IAFC has announced a short-term plan to self-fund, keeping the Near-Miss Reporting System servers up and running through the end of October. The IAFC is currently working with program partners and others to save the cache of invaluable data compiled by responders throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Advances in firefighting technology allow us to perform some remarkable feats on the incident scene. Many of these advances were developed to provide protection from the effects of thermal insult on the body and the toxic byproducts of smoke and other fire gases. The personal protective equipment (PPE) we wear now far exceeds anything we’ve known in protective clothing. Of course, a downside to the improvements in protection is the inhibited sensory performance we experience while operating in such clothing.

But true to form, the fire service has now adopted an additional technology to offset the stunted sensory capability. An ingenious device made its way into our hands from the military after nearly a generation of probing blindly into zero-visibility atmospheres encapsulated in our state-of-the-art PPE ensemble. The device enhanced our visibility, and in its ever-evolving forms, provides us the information to help make better decisions.

This device is, of course, the thermal imaging camera (TIC). PPE and TICs enhance our safety and performance capability so that we can conduct our business confidently at every incident, whether the incident is a complex, infrequently encountered event (high risk/low frequency) or one of our more common incidents (low risk/high frequency).  

The TIC has rapidly become an indispensable piece of technology for departments that use it, and it is among the most frequently requested pieces of equipment of the last 10 years. Even though the TIC is a significant technological enhancement, it does have its limitations. Those limitations can be categorized in two general arenas: 1) failing to bring the tool into the structure and 2) not understanding the tool’s limitations.

Two reports from reinforce the value of having a TIC.

Report Excerpts

“I was a lieutenant on the third-due engine for a confirmed fire in a large, multiple-dwelling. There was heavy fire showing from multiple windows with reports of people trapped on the top floor. We had recently been issued a thermal imaging camera, but forgot to bring it with us.

“My partner and I inadvertently passed through a hole in the wall between apartments while doing a primary search. This caused us to end up in a different apartment than we had initially entered. The floor collapsed underneath us and fire from below cut off our egress. We were able to find and break a window, allowing us to be rescued via a ladder. I had to remove my mask to call for help over the radio and ended up with a severe injury.

“A thermal imaging camera would have made all the difference. We lost situational awareness and did not realize that we had passed through the wall, even though both of us commented that the apartment seemed bigger than it appeared from outside. If we had not found the exterior wall and window, this could have easily ended up being two fatalities.”

“We responded to a structure fire. While en route and when arriving on scene, we were getting reports of people trapped on the upper floors. We arrived on scene and size-up revealed a working fire in a 2½ -story, wood-frame structure. First engine arrived on scene and stretched a 1¾" handline, and a backup line was also deployed with ladders placed to the upper floors.

“An officer and a firefighter went up to the second floor to conduct a primary search. The first door they encountered and searched was a bathroom. When exiting, the officer went to the right into a bedroom, and the firefighter coming out a couple seconds behind went straight into another bedroom. While the officer was conducting a search, he got turned around. The officer found the wall and started looking for an exit, not being able to find a window (one covered by sheet rock, the other a small kitchen window). He continued to try to find a means of egress, then started to become disoriented at which time he began to deplete the cylinder on his SCBA. He declared the mayday and then completely depleted his air cylinder. The officer then took off his helmet and face piece and stayed as low to the floor as possible.

“Hearing the mayday, a firefighter equipped with a thermal imaging camera descended onto the second floor and began a search for the mayday firefighter (automatic mutual-aid FAST team not on scene yet). The firefighter located the missing officer and was going to try to remove him, but the officer became unconscious. The rescue firefighter rolled the officer on his side and, using his SCBA, pulled him to the stairway and down the stairs where he was assisted by other members. The officer came out of the structure unconscious, at which time members started first aid and turned him over to EMS. The officer was transported to the hospital and released later that morning with no injuries.”

Firefighters who fail to know the full capabilities and limitations of their technology are bound to find themselves lost in a zero-visibility atmosphere and low on air.

As the reports bring to light, having a TIC is not only preferred, it makes a difference. The two helmet cam videos included below provide additional visual examples of the chaos that ensues when we are sensory-inhibited and an unexpected occurrence strikes.

Training with your TIC is vital. It is a tool that improves the chances of victim survival and provides an increased layer of safety for crews. However, there is a tendency to become overly reliant on the device. In essence, using a TIC is about enhancing the basics. It is true that using a TIC improves your visibility, but depth perception is affected. And even though the device is a ruggedized device, it still relies on battery power and can fail due to improper maintenance. Use the TIC for what it was designed for: to enhance your operational performance and well-being. The TIC does not give you license to leave the orientation feature of a wall or the safety of a protective hoseline. A poorly maintained TIC will fail at the time it is needed most. So use the technology to enhance your performance—not to put you in jeopardy.  

In Closing
The cost of a TIC has dropped dramatically since the first generation made their way into the fire service nearly 20 years ago. That is great news unless your department isn’t even in a position to buy today’s model at half the cost. Where do you turn if the $5,000–$6,000 is just not in your budget? There are a number of sources for outside funding to get a TIC on your rig.

Community service clubs are frequently looking for projects to enhance the community. Seek out the president of your local Lions, Optimist or Exchange clubs. The local business community is another source of potential funding, whether you seek out the members of the chamber of commerce or speak to your local business leaders individually. There are a variety of grant programs ranging from the familiar FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and Fireman’s Fund Heritage Program to other award programs at the state and local levels.
Technology will continue to be introduced to the fire service as a means to enhance performance and safety. As new technologies make their way from the drawing board to the unit inventory, it is essential that we take full advantage of the advances while being fully cognizant of the shortcomings. In the report excerpts used this month, the message is clear: A TIC left on the rig or back at the station is like not having one at all. Entering today’s higher-heat-release, super-toxic, zero-visibility atmospheres without a TIC should give us pause. In the same sense that technology has mutated the forces of nature to a more violent and deadly environment, we need to take advantage of technology as well to be able to have the outcome go in our favor. The opportunity for a “do over” doesn’t occur on the fireground.

Related Links

Helmet Cam Captures Firefighter Going Through Floor, Zero Visibility

Helmet Cam Captures Firefighter Hit by Collapsing Ceiling, Zero Visibility

Interior Fire Conditions Viewed Through TIC, Rollover

Interior Fire Conditions Viewed Through TIC, Wind Driven

Search and Rescue Training with TIC

TIC Training
Victim Rescue with TIC

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Electronics Promise to Fundamentally Change PPE

From firefighter location to physiological monitoring, tomorrow’s PPE will be much more sophisticated

By F.I.E.R.O. Staff
Published Friday, November 2, 2012

The emergence of high-tech electronics in personal protective equipment (PPE) appears to be imminent. The key words are “high tech,” as the fire service has used some sort of electronic equipment in PPE for decades. There’s a case to be made that flashlights are PPE. Portable radios and thermal imagers are considered electronic safety equipment in NFPA standards. Without a doubt, PASS devices and SCBA are PPE. All of these devices have an electronic component.

However, the new frontier of high-tech electronics is in two areas: firefighter locator systems and the physiological monitoring of firefighter heart rate, heart rate variability, respiration rate, posture (standing, crawling, etc.) and workload/exertion—two key areas identified for improving firefighter safety and survival  

In recent years, manufacturers have partnered with research universities to develop products to fulfill these needs. The challenge with firefighter locator systems has been three-dimensional location. The challenge with physiological monitoring has been software development and packaging of the components into an easily wearable configuration. It now appears that most of the technological barriers have been overcome. The remaining obstacle is affordability, but there is optimism that this will eventually be overcome. Remember the cost of the first thermal imagers?

Concurrent to these developments is the issue of standards for electronics. Standards are being developed to ensure electronics are designed and built to withstand the firefighting environment. Standards are also being developed to create consistency among electronic components for the user. Examples of these can be found in thermal imagers, including the green color of the power switch and the icons on the display screen.

To facilitate the development of these standards, the Fire Protection Research Foundation (a division of NFPA) has started a project called Performance Requirements for Compatible and Interoperable Electronic Equipment for Emergency First Responders. The Foundation states, “The goal of this project is to develop performance requirements for the compatibility and interoperability of electronic equipment used by emergency responders.”

To learn the latest in emerging electronics in PPE, be sure to attend the 2013 F.I.E.R.O. Fire PPE Symposium. Fire Chief Bruce Varner (ret.) and Dr. Chris Spoons of the NFPA Technical Committee on Electronic Safety Equipment will give an update about this fascinating field of PPE. Also, Casey Grant with the Fire Protection Research Foundation will report on the Foundation’s projects. The Symposium will be March 4–6, 2013, at the Sheraton Raleigh (N.C.) Hotel. A highlight of the symposium will be a tour of the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC) at North Carolina State University. Details and online registration are available at

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Globe's WASP is a firefighter tracking and physiological monitoring system that is tested to withstand the fire environment and is expected to be commercially available by the end of 2012. Such tracking and monitoring systems are the "new frontier" of PPE. Photo courtesy Globe

Thermal Imaging: From Technology to Practical Application

5 areas firefighters should familiarize themselves with for safe and effective TIC application

By Mike Richardson
Published Friday, September 28, 2012 | From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue

Over the last 15 years, thermal imaging has slowly but surely become another “tool in the toolbox” for the fire service that is used on a daily basis for all types of emergency response. Both the thermal imagers themselves as well as the applications for which they are used continue to improve and grow on a daily basis. Although this growth is a good thing, it can also be a challenge to keep up with all of the progress and improvements.

This article will look at some of the changes that thermal imagers have gone through, as well as how those changes can impact their daily use in emergency response. The ultimate goal is to make sure that firefighters can understand the technical side of thermal imagers and how that technology can come into play in their daily use in emergency response.        

Parts & Pieces
Fire service thermal imagers can be broken into five major operational components:

  • Optical assembly
  • Infrared detector
  • Image display
  • Power supply
  • Imager housing

Let’s take a closer look at each of these parts, as well as some training tips that can help you and your firefighters become familiar with them.  

Optical Assembly
One of the primary issues that firefighters need to be aware of with the optical assembly is the field of view (FOV). FOV is important to understand because it determines how much area can be seen at one time and it can impact depth perception. An imager with a narrow FOV can create tunnel vision and can compromise a firefighter’s depth perception by making objects appear closer than they actually are. Conversely, a thermal imager with a wide FOV can make objects appear farther away than they actually are. FOV numbers have varied greatly over the years and as new thermal imagers are put into service, it’s important to look at how the FOV changes can impact the use of the imager.  

Practical Training Tip—“How much can I see?”
Place firefighters with a thermal imager in a room at one extreme end, have them look at the other extreme end of the room, and note how much of the room they can see with the imager. If they can’t see the entire end of the room, have them scan left and right and up and down, noting how far they have to move the imager to see everything. If the department has different imagers in service, complete the exercise with each imager and note how far each one has to be moved to see the entire area. Important: Ensure that all areas can be seen and checked for victims and hazards, and that firefighters remember to scan as needed to avoid tunnel vision while using the imager.

Practical Training Tip—“How Far Is That?”
Place firefighters with a thermal imager in a room with a zero-visibility environment. Starting 7 to 10 feet from a door, instruct them to crawl toward the door, using the thermal imager to judge distance, until they believe that they can reach out and touch the door handle. Based on the imager’s FOV, and the firefighters comfort level with depth perception, they may come up significantly short or almost run into the door before they stop.

If your department has different imagers in service, complete the exercise with each one and note the differences in where they stop due to the differences in FOV. Next, have the firefighters conduct the same drill, but add the use of a hand tool to help them judge the distance to objects.

Infrared Detector
At the “heart” of every thermal imager is the “engine,” or an infrared detector. This is the part of the imager that detects the infrared energy and processes it to produce an image. Over the years there have been a number of different detector technologies used, including PEV (Pyroelectric Vidicon Tube), BST (Barium Strontium Titanate), VOx (Vanadium Oxide) and ASi (Amorphous Silicon) Microbolometer detectors.

Microbolometer technology is the only one still available for purchase in fire service imagers. Contrary to many popular sales pitches, there’s no perfect detector technology; each type comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. As such, it’s very important for firefighters to have enough knowledge of the detector technology that they’re using; if they lack this knowledge, they won’t be able  to take advantage of the technology’s strengths and avoid or work around its weaknesses.

Practical Training Tip—“How do I work with this technology?”
One side effect of how BST technology works is called “haloing.” A halo is ring or circle of an opposing color that shows on the display around a very hot or cold area. Although this could be seen as a con, it can actually be used to help identify the areas on the display that are at one temperature extreme or another. Photos 5, 6 and 7 demonstrate the halo effect.

A side effect of how microbolometer technology works is called “shuttering.” Periodically, the shutter will “fire,” blocking off the opening to the infrared detector. This process occurs so that the detector can auto-calibrate. Some thermal imagers have a visual indicator, which will alert firefighters that the shutter is firing; others don’t.

Per the two examples above, especially if a department is using thermal imagers with both types of technology, it’s very important for firefighters to identify the technology and understand in detail how it works. A firefighter who has been using BST technology and looking for halos, would not be successful if they switched to a microbolometer-based imager because that technology does not produce a halo. Likewise, a firefighter who started off using BST technology, and then switched to a microbolometer-based imager, might believe something was wrong with it when the shutter fired and the image froze on the screen.

Image Display
Another area of thermal imagers that’s constantly changing: the display. Changes have included the size of the display and the information provided on the display. Display sizes can vary from 2½ to 5 inches. The key with display size on a thermal imager is striking a balance between size, weight and the ability to clearly see a detailed image. Some imagers are very basic and may have nothing on the display but a battery status indicator, while other imagers may have very extensive display features.

Practical Training Tip—“What can I actually make out?”
Start the drill by placing three firefighters acting as victims in a zero-visibility environment. Place one firefighter in the open, cover at least 50% of one firefighter, and cover the last firefighter completely, leaving only a hand exposed. Then instruct a fourth firefighter to view the area with the three “victims” using the thermal imager to see what they can identify. If the department has different imagers in service, repeat the drill with each one and determine the level of detail that each one of them is capable of indentifying.

Practical Training Tip—“What is all of that stuff?”
Ask firefighters to explain in detail each of the items that are on the display. Ensure that they can identify each item, as well as its significance and how they interact with it. It’s especially important to ensure that the firefighters understand what’s similar and what’s different if various makes and models of imagers are in use.

Power Supply
Thermal imager power supplies have seen a constant evolution over the past 15 years. The battery technology has seen a number of advances, starting with NiCad (Nickel Cadmium) and moving to NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) and LiIon (Lithium Ion).

The early NiCad batteries had a number of issues, including developing a memory (they will take less of a charge each time they are recharged unless they are completely drained each use) and limited operational times. If you have an imager with NiCad batteries, it’s important that the battery is completely discharged before it’s placed on a charger to prevent it from developing a memory. NiMH and LiIon batteries do not have issues with developing a memory, but they can be sensitive to temperature extremes. If they are exposed to extremely cold or hot environments, they may lose their charge very quickly.

Practical Training Tip—“Can I make sure the lights come on?”
Reports from the field have shown that in many cases when a thermal imager is needed the most, it’s not operational due to a dead battery. There are a number of areas that firefighters need to check to ensure that this does not happen.

  • Battery service life: As with all rechargeable batteries, thermal imager batteries have a limited service life, ranging from 18 to 36 months. As batteries start to exceed 12 to 18 months of service, or if they are showing signs of significantly diminished operating times, they should be checked for serviceability. This can be done by using a battery analyzer or a volt meter to determine the maximum charge the battery is holding. Refer to the operator’s manual or manufacturer’s guidelines to determine if the battery is charging to optimal levels or if it needs to be replaced.
  • Apparatus-mounted chargers: Whether the apparatus-mounted charger uses a connecting cable or direct contact system, it’s very important to ensure that it’s operating as needed each time the imager is returned for charging. Make sure connecting cables are disconnected completely as the charger is removed to prevent damage to the connector or wiring. With direct contact chargers, care must be taken to ensure the imagers are not returned to the charger dirty or wet, which can lead to corrosion and charging problems.

Imager Housing
As the other components of a thermal imager have changed, the housing sizes and shapes have also changed to keep pace—and most firefighters would agree that one of the most positive changes was a reduction in both size and weight.

The size and weight of a thermal imager will ultimately dictate the carrying options available to firefighters, which can include full-size carry straps, short wrist lanyards and retractable keepers.  

Practical Training Tip—“How can I hang on to all of this stuff?”
Have firefighters gear up to include all items that they would use for a structure fire, including full turnout gear, SCBA, radio, flashlight and imager. Once they’ve donned all of their gear, confirm that they can reach and operate all of the items as needed. Finally, ensure that they can have both of their hands free to carry out operations as needed, and they do not have to set a piece of their equipment down to make this happen.

Experience has shown that with all of the equipment firefighters wear and carry, it can be very challenging to manage all of it effectively. Real-world incidents have also shown that many firefighters will carry a thermal imager in their hands and then set it down when they need both of their hands for work. Once they lay it down, it’s very easy for it to get lost, forgotten or even damaged.

Training Required
In the ever-changing world of fire service thermal imagers, it’s important to master the above basics and build a solid foundation for their safe and effective use with all the imagers your department employs. As departments purchase more imagers with improved technology and more features, it’s very important that firefighters receive additional training to address those changes. Unfortunately, some departments and firefighters have taken the approach that thermal imaging is as simple as turning it on, and if you can use one thermal imager, you can use any thermal imager. Although thermal imaging use does not have to be overly complicated, and there are many similarities among all thermal imagers, detailed, imager-specific training is required for optimal and safe use.

Mike Richardson is a 26-year military and fire service veteran, currently serving as a training officer for the St. Matthews Fire Department in Louisville, Ky. He graduated with honors from the Eastern Kentucky University Fire & Safety Program. He has instructed firefighters in more than 35 states and eight countries, and has served as an instructor for FDIC, Firehouse Expo and Fire-Rescue International. He also currently serves as an instructor for SAFE-IR.

Sidebar: NFPA Standard 1801—Better Late Than Never!
Unlike most other pieces of equipment in use by firefighters, thermal imagers have been produced and used without the guidance of a corresponding NFPA standard for more than 15 years. Fortunately, with the publication of the 2013 edition of NFPA1801: Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service, that will slowly but surely change. As imagers are produced that meet the new standard, the fire service will finally start to see the benefits that an NFPA standard can bring about. Two areas to highlight include minimum performance standards and standardized operations.

Minimum performance standards. As with other equipment such as PASS devices, a thermal imager will now have to meet a minimum performance standard for criteria, such as heat, water and impact resistance, as well as produce a minimum level of image quality for critical applications, such as victim identification and hazard recognition. These standards will be reinforced through testing and verification by an independent third party.

Standardized operation. This will include a given set of operational criteria for both a “TI Basic” and a “TI Plus” operational mode. All imagers meeting the standard will have to automatically start in a “TI Basic” mode, which includes:

  • Grayscale display, with white equaling hot and black equaling cold
  • Power status indicator
  • Internal temperature overheat indicator
  • Imager status “On” indicator

This basic operational mode will ensure that a firefighter can turn on any compliant imager and have an understanding of how it’s operating and what they’re seeing.

The basic operational mode may also allow for the incorporation of additional features, such as display colorization of yellow, orange and red progressively and the associated temperature “kick-in” points displayed and temperature measurement. In the past these features could cause confusion with operators who do not fully understand their specific make/model of thermal imager. Additionally the standard calls for a TI Basic Plus operational mode to include all additional options/special features and functions that a user may want to customize their specific thermal imager with that are not included in TI Basic. The Basic Plus operational mode features require firefighters to take extra steps in the operational process to gain access to them. Untrained users in these features may simply depress the standardized Green On/Off button to revert the imager to the TI Basic operational mode.

Although the new NFPA 1801 standard is a move in the right direction, there are still issues that it does not cover and that the fire service will have to address. Those issues include:

  • Existing thermal imagers—the thousands of imagers already in service will not be addressed by the standard. Attrition will eventually see the noncompliant imagers replaced over time, but until then, the fire service will simply have to deal with large variations that exist in imagers through proper training and maintenance programs.
  • Thermal imaging training—the 1801 standard does not cover any aspect of thermal imaging training. It will still be up to individual departments and training agencies to determine the training that is needed to use an imager effectively and safely.

As with any new NFPA standard, 1801 will be a “work in progress” and will take a number of years to develop and fine-tune. Ultimately, when combined with a new corresponding training standard, it will ensure that the fire service has a robust and reliable thermal imager that can help firefighters perform effectively and safely.

As of the publication of this article, there have been no thermal imagers produced, tested and found to be compliant with the standard. However a number of fire service thermal imager manufacturers anticipate having compliant imagers in firefighters’ hands by late 2012.

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TICs can be broken down into five parts: optical assembly, infrared detector, image display, power supply and imager housing. Photo Courtesy Mike Richardson
The window on the bravo/left side of the structure is clearly showing a halo, making it the hottest spot in the view of the thermal imager. If firefighters understand this “quirk” of a BST detector, it can be used to find the hotter areas quicker and easier. Photo Courtesy Mike Richardson
The green square in the upper left corner of the imager display is an indicator showing the shutter is preparing to fire. During the few seconds when this is taking place, the last image seen by the detector will be frozen on the screen. It’s important for firefighters to realize that this is taking place because they must pause and allow the shutter to reopen so they will have an actual image of what they are looking at versus the frozen image. Photo Courtesy Mike Richardson
Some imagers, based on detector technology, screen size and resulting image quality, can produce a very detailed image that will allow firefighters to pick out fine details such as the hand of a victim. Other imagers may only be able to produce an image that would allow firefighters to pick out the full outline of victim. While the smaller imagers are easier to carry, the detectors and displays may not produce enough image clarity to be able to identify a fine detail such as a victim’s hand. Photo Courtesy Mike Richardson
This imager has shutter, detector mode, over temp, zoom, on/off status, battery and temperature measurement indicators on the display. Without proper training on all of these items, a firefighter may not be able to operate the imager effectively or safely. Photo Courtesy Mike Richardson

Using Technology to Reduce Response Times

From low-tech equipment to complex solutions, departments can reduce response times without jeopardizing firefighter safety

By Jake Rhoades and Tom Jenkins
Published Saturday, September 22, 2012 | From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue

When some people hear the words “technology” or “state-of-the-art,” they think of cool and cutting-edge gadgets designed to make our jobs easier. How we think about technology is sometimes determined by our rank—firefighters may think of the latest and greatest SCBAs, thermal imaging cameras, technical rescue equipment or other tools to help them conduct operations on the fireground, but fire chiefs may think of complicated project management, investment costs, ongoing maintenance fees and the problems associated with implementing change.

Regardless of your experience, a wide variety of technology-based solutions are available to meet public safety problems that have plagued fire departments for decades.

Although fireground operations are where the rubber meets the road, we must also think about using technology in other areas to improve outcomes. One area where technology has significant potential for improving our jobs: effectiveness and efficiency of incident response. Departments can use technology for “behind-the-scenes” functions that will inevitably have a significant impact on the fireground.

Reducing Response Times
Now more than ever, fire departments are being held accountable for their response time performance and effectiveness. Can your fire department answer the following questions accurately?

  1. How fast do your dispatchers answer and process emergency calls?
  2. What safeguards or job aides are in place to help dispatchers send the most appropriate units?
  3. How long does it take for firefighters to react and respond to an emergency incident?
  4. Are apparatus properly equipped for an efficient and safe response?

Our industry constantly attempts to improve response time, but rarely do we look at all aspects of the equation. Technology can play an important role in improving response times.

Remember that total response time is made up of three distinct components:

  1. Dispatch time: Time elapsed from when a call is received at the 9-1-1 center until units are notified.
  2. Turnout time: Time elapsed from when units are notified until they are responding.
  3. Travel time: Time elapsed from when units respond until they arrive on the incident scene.

Most fire departments have a habit of focusing solely on improving their travel time, because it’s traditionally accepted that little can be done to improve the other two components. Firefighters falsely believe that improving response time is made easy by driving faster. This solution rarely has a positive impact; in fact, it can lead to disastrous outcomes.

But using technology as an alternative to improve response times can change all that. Let’s take a close look at each of the three components that make up response time.

Dispatch Time
One of the most critical areas in which to decrease response times comes before firefighters ever realize there’s an emergency. When dispatchers receive a call for an emergency, it’s critical that they identify the nature of the incident and be able to dispatch the most appropriate resources. It isn’t uncommon to see technical rescue and hazmat situations downplayed during initial dispatch because dispatchers aren’t comfortable with the incident type.

Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and response interrogation software can help dispatchers recognize those rare, high-risk incidents and send the correct resources the first time. Sending the correct type and amount of resources initially is an excellent example of using technology to be more effective.

Additional technological improvements at the dispatch center can further help improve our performance. Can you imagine a dispatcher who always speaks at the same rate, tone and volume? Today, that is possible with computer-generated voice technology. By establishing a pre-recorded audio database, fire departments can ensure the correct pronunciation of all street names in a response jurisdiction. Even the format of a radio dispatch can be customized based on the incident type, geographic location or other variables. Although the use of “robot voices” for dispatching may sound unappealing or unnatural, it eliminates common errors that can have disastrous consequences.

The use of this technology can shave seconds off the dispatch time. In addition to this tangible benefit, dispatchers are able to handle higher call volume since the radio dispatch becomes “hands free.” The process is simple: A dispatcher processes a call for service, inputs all of the information required into a CAD system and simply presses a button to initiate the dispatch process. Since the “voice” is transmitting the information to emergency response units, the human dispatcher is free to gather additional information from the caller or to perform other duties.

Turnout Time
It’s impossible to improve things that aren’t measured and communicated. If we desire quick responses, we need to explore other ways to help our firefighters respond quicker. Taking an idea from the sports arena, why not place a clock on the wall to indicate how many seconds are left until an established goal is met? Firefighters are more likely to improve performance when they can see, in real time, how they’re doing.

In Photo 1, a simple countdown clock is tied to the fire station alerting system. Once an alert is received, the same circuit that opens doors and turns on lights initiates a countdown from 60 to 0 seconds on this clock. The clock should be mounted in a conspicuous location in the apparatus bay. When only 10 seconds remain, a chime is activated on the clock to remind companies to quickly place themselves “responding” with the dispatch center. We have installed these clocks in two stations as prototypes to see if results improve enough to expand the practice to the other five fire stations. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that the visibility of this device causes positive behavioral change (i.e., quicker turnout time).

Travel Time
Installing computers in fire apparatus is more common today than it has ever been. Departments have a wide variety of options, from adapting laptops to fit in the cab to purchasing customized, in-vehicle computers. Regardless of the hardware chosen, departments should consider using these computers for apparatus status changes. Using mobile dispatch software, firefighters can be responsible for changing their statuses, thus making them accountable for their performance. This frees up the airwaves for additional information that companies may receive while responding.

Computers with touch-screens or easy-access buttons are the best for shaving seconds off of travel times. It will also be important for departments to closely examine the software that will be used to make sure it is “friendly” with a touch-screen environment. Some software programs use icons that are too small and detailed for any measure of accuracy on a touch-screen.

In-cab computers can also contain automatic vehicle location (AVL) devices to track fire department apparatus in real time using GPS. This can provide valuable information and allow dispatchers to notify units that are closest to a received call for an emergency, thus reducing travel times.  

Embrace Change … But Use Caution
These technologies can all have a positive impact on improving total response time. Their cost varies—from several hundred dollars for an electronic clock to hundreds of thousands of dollars for automated voice dispatching and mobile computers—but in the grand scheme of customer service, it may be well worth the investment for the improved outcome.

Note: These solutions for public safety problems should ONLY be implemented when they improve and simplify operations—not complicate them. Some equipment vendors have a poor understanding of the environment and culture of the fire service, leading them to think their solutions are more user-friendly than they really are. Be sure to explore what solutions other fire departments have implemented and the lessons they learned to avoid repeating mistakes. Today’s economic conditions demand that we work smarter and are mindful of our budgetary footprint for complex projects. Ideally, your investment in technological solutions should demonstrate to your taxpayers that your department is working harder for their tax dollars.

The bottom line: Technological improvements for our business have only just begun. Embrace the change and look for ways to keep your fire department on the cutting edge of improvement.

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To motivate firefighters to reduce their turnout time, consider placing a countdown clock in the apparatus bay that starts counting down from 60 seconds when the tones go off. Photo courtesy Rogers Fire Department
In-cab computers can allow firefighters to take responsibility for apparatus status changes. Automatic vehicle location (AVL) can also help identify apparatus that are closest to an incident, further reducing travel time. Photo courtesy Rogers Fire Department
This chart shows the progression in turnout time compliance for the Rogers Fire Department. Click on Photos tab above to see this image full screen.

Technology & the Safety Officer

What role does technology play in firefighter/scene safety?

By John Eisel
Published Saturday, September 15, 2012 | From the November 2012 Issue of FireRescue

I’m sure we can all agree that technological improvements can be identified in virtually every area that affects our delivery of emergency services, and the advancements are only continuing to evolve. Lighting, thermal imaging, accountability systems, personal protective equipment (PPE), tools, apparatus, SCBA, dispatch protocols, etc.—each facet of emergency mitigation has improved over the past few years. For future generations of firefighters, will these technologies be as vital as turnout gear and SCBA are to us now? The thought is certainly promising and exciting!

The “Big 3” Technologies
With the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate on our side, the following “Big 3” technologies show tremendous promise for the future of the fire service and their role in firefighter and scene safety.

GLANSER: The Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System tracks up to 500 firefighters for up to 50 stories, transmitting the data back to a laptop. It is accurate within one to three meters, defining and transmitting their location and the floor they are on.

PHASER: Physiological Health Assessment Systems for Emergency Responders monitors vital signs, including body temperature, and transmits the data back to a monitored computer. With roughly 50% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths being medically related, wouldn’t we want to know if our personnel are at risk, as identified by their vital signs being monitored and transmitted back to the command? I would certainly think so.

WISPER: Wireless Intelligent Sensor Platform for Emergency Responders is an evolving technology that can transmit the vital information captured by GLANSER and PHASER, essentially becoming a self-powered, portable router that’s “dropped” along the route that firefighters take.

Experience & Resources
When it comes to identifying, predicting and preventing bad outcomes, I don’t know of any technology that can replace good old-fashioned experience. A key to this: a safety officer and an IC who are well-armed with situational awareness and timely, relevant information.

Safety officers and ICs will need to call upon their experiences to make decisions related to occupant survivability profiles, modern construction methods, building fire suppression features, available resources and weather conditions. Fortunately, the sharing of information has improved tremendously as well, giving safety officers and ICs even more resources to call upon in the decision-making process. If you’re not subscribed to several electronic sources of information that share fire service experiences (when things go right or wrong), then you are way behind the eight ball. Personally, I would prefer to ponder the “what if this happened to us?” question based on others’ experiences, rather than try to make all of the mistakes on my own first.

So with technology, experience and resources on our side, it’s easier to imagine a fire service that uses data to determine whether the structure to which you are responding is suitable for interior attack or is dangerously close to collapse. Another example: The first-arriving company executes an aggressive interior attack, one of the firefighters becomes lost, and their vital signs are accelerating rapidly. The arriving IC is laser-focused, has this information and deploys the necessary resources to locate the firefighter and remove them to awaiting medical attention. Clearly, if this technology averts one tragedy, it is worth every penny.

In Sum
Going forward, will these technologies improve firefighter and scene safety? I truly believe they will. This is not “pie in the sky” technology or pipe dreams; these technologies are real, and being aggressively developed and tested for the betterment of our profession. If the fire service embraces these technologies and they are used properly, they have the power to improve safety and protect our most valuable asset: our people.

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Software Holds Promise for Connecting Technologies on the Fireground

One company says the smartphone is the future of fireground communications

By Shannon Pieper
Published Sunday, May 20, 2012 | From the December 2012 Issue of FireRescue

“There’s an app for that.” By now, you’ve heard this clever little saying so many times that you’re probably annoyed every time it pops up. But it’s true—technology, specifically in the form of mobile applications, is transforming our lives. And it is poised to transform the fireground as well.

Smartphones and tablets can now provide a range of technologies that have application to the fireground—GPS tracking, video and audio recording, connection to department and dispatch records and preplans. The other day I read about two new apps, one that turns your phone into a portable Geiger counter to measure radiation, and another that can be used to test for the presence of eColi in water or food (granted, that one requires an equipment add-on—but still!). What we’ll be able to do with our phones in just a few years tests the limits of the imagination.

But there’s one problem with the smartphone or tablet as a delivery mechanism. There are a lot of them, and they run different operating systems. Sure, software developers can write multiple versions of code for their programs, but this takes time and resources.

That’s why Covia Labs thinks they’re onto something. The company has developed a software solution that enables applications to run on multiple platforms, without having to be tailored for the specific operating system. All that’s required is a piece of software (which Covia calls the Connector) installed on the phone.

There’s a huge potential consumer market for this technology, but recently, Covia has begun targeting the fire service as well. Why? The same technology that brings Angry Birds and calorie counters to our fingertips has the potential to provide firefighter heart-rate monitoring, indoor location, recording, etc. But the dissemination of these technologies to emergency responders will be much faster and cheaper if the developers can concentrate on developing their applications, and not on writing multiple versions of one program.

Recently, I spoke with David Kahn, Covia’s CEO, to learn more.

How It Works
Covia Labs is a young company, about three years old. Kahn says he had the idea for the technology when he was watching several fire departments respond to a fire in the South Bay of San Francisco. “I remember being a little bit surprised to see one fire department hand out walkie-talkies to the other responding departments, because the radios that the different agencies carried weren’t able to speak to one another,” Kahn says. “I remember thinking that it was really quite amazing that in 2008, this was the state of interoperability in the Silicon Valley for public safety.”

Kahn began thinking about how readily available technology could be used to improve interoperability. Not surprisingly, this led him to the smartphone. “There are a lot of people who make hardware or software systems that are meant to provide public safety advantages, tools for public safety—cameras, biometrics, heart rate monitors, RFID for tracking, etc.,” he says. “The people who make those products are experts on that particular technology. But it turns out that there’s a lot of infrastructure that each one of those companies has to deal with to make their system useful for people out in the real world. They may have to worry about encryption to protect the information, authentication, scalability, etc. My point: When you want to make something like this, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that people have to solve and re-solve to make the technology truly interoperable, to make it work between agencies.”

Covia’s solution: a platform that runs software across different devices while providing a secure, scalable system that can have hundreds of people from different departments using it. “Our piece of software is called the Connector,” Kahn says. “When you put this on the device—the LMR, the heart rate monitor, the cell phone, etc.—applications that are Connected Applications will be able to run on it.”

Public Safety & Cellular
With the nationwide public safety broadband network probably about 10 years away from operation, software like this is beginning to get attention. A group of NIST researchers in Boulder, Colo., is currently investigating how to move communications for public safety over to cellular. Covia Labs, along with many other companies, is involved in that testing.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “But I can hardly rely on my iPhone during fire attack, or search—it simply won’t withstand the environment.” That’s why Covia designed its system to work with the P25 radio you probably already carry. “P25 radios are really quite good at providing interoperable communication for voice between agencies, but they’re not very good for digital stuff because the data rates are too slow,” Kahn says. “The problem with cellular is that the transmitter on a cell phone is about a one-third of a watt, whereas on a P25 radio, it’s 5–6 watts. But they can work together.”

For instance, let’s say you carry a Motorola radio. Motorola would work with Covia to install the Connector software on the radio; it would also be installed on your smartphone. On the fireground, you would carry the smartphone on your person, inside the protective environment created by your PPE. You’d carry the P25 radio as you normally do, because it’s made to withstand the fire environment. But with the Covia software, the two are connected.

“P25 can act as a slow, yet high-powered uplink when you’re not able to reach the cell tower.” Kahn says. “You’ve got your mic, connected to P25 radio, connected by Bluetooth or wifi that’s on the cellphone, which is held inside the protective clothing.” When the system is able to use the cellphone for communications, it does, because that has the advantage that everything you say is geotagged and timestamped. “The knob on the top of the P25 radio, when it’s changing talk groups or channels on the P25, it also changes the channel on the cell,” Kahn says. “So you talk into the mic, your voice goes out via both broadband cell and P25, and when the cell is connected you also have the ability of the uplink of the biometric information, maps, etc.”

Branching Out
Covia has already deployed its software successfully within the law enforcement market, via a product called Alert & Respond. “We actually developed it as a software as a service (SAAS) for small departments,” Kahn says. “Rather than having their own IT infrastructure, they can use our servers, put the software on cell phones, and provide command and control in the field.”

Kahn says that as Covia worked with the Department of Homeland Security to develop Alert & Respond, DHS officials expressed that the technology could be applicable to the fire service as well, especially volunteer fire departments. “My impression had been that the fire service mostly just wanted reliable voice communication, wanted to stay on analog, so our focus hasn’t been on fire,” Kahn says. With the push for physiological monitoring, firefighter tracking, electronic preplans and real-time video at the scene, he realized that firefighters have just as much need for data as law enforcement—and the same budget shortfalls that make the relatively inexpensive smartphone an attractive communications device.

“We see a movement of fire and police trying to have a lot more information and passing more information to people in the field so they have situational awareness,” Kahn says. “And we think that our software is likely to be the glue that allows all those systems to work together, because otherwise the system that measures your heart rate will be different than the system that measures oxygenation of blood, etc. With the Connector, they’ll all be integrated on your cell phone.”

Whether this technology will take off, and where it will lead the fire service if it does, is anybody’s guess. But the bottom line as Kahn sees it: “The world of public safety is going through a transition from LMR to broadband—and we’re just waiting for what’s going to happen.”

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