For the last two years the Hanover Park (Illinois) Fire Department participated as the main test subjects for a national research project titled SMARTER. The SMARTER (Science, Medicine, Research, Technology for Emergency Responders) research project is focused on advancing technology to improve health and safety in the fire service. SMARTER aims to employ scientific advances, medical knowledge, research findings, and technological solutions to reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities.
How did you implement this safety and health program?
The research is supported by the Assistance to Firefighters Grant funding and is being led by Skidmore College with collaborative support from University of California at Los Angeles, University of Illinois Fire Service Institute, U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Fire Protection Research Foundation, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Globe Manufacturing Company, Zephyr Medtronic, International Association of Firefighters, and others.
For a 9-month period, during their 24-hour shifts, all Hanover Park firefighters wore special shirts/straps equipped with technology to monitor and track physiologic data such as heart rate, estimated core body temperature, respiration rate, ECG and movement. This data was then downloaded and transmitted electronically to Skidmore College–First Responder Health and Safety Laboratory where analysis was completed. Individual files from firefighters were compared against emergency response reports, trainings, daily physical fitness activities and other events to determine how the firefighters physiologically responded to the various incidents and events.
Once data files are received at Skidmore, a team of researchers began analyzing the data to determine the key findings for each firefighter – for each shift that they work. The size of each data file averages more than 17 MB. This is for each firefighter, each work day. This made the management process challenging on both ends of the study – download/transmittal at the fire station and uploading and analyzing the data at the laboratory.
One of the most interesting components of the project was the ability to see live feed data on working firefighters. Through use of Zephyr OmniSense Live, incident commanders and safety officers were able to track the physiologic condition of their personnel operating at an emergency incident. This provided some significant advantages in the on-scene decision-making process for incident commanders. We believe as the physiologic status monitoring develops, it has the potential for use in determining when to send a firefighter to rehab and possibly can help in tactical planning related to personnel deployment and the number of firefighters needed to complete a given assignment.
The big question with all research comes down to so what?
The study employed some exciting emerging technology and collected a massive amount of data. The challenge now is figuring out what it all means and how it can be used within the fire service to help support the health and safety of firefighters and reduce firefighter injuries and fatalities. Early in the data analysis phase of the study it was discovered that the physiological impact of heat stress was much more significant than originally thought. Prior to the SMARTER study, data had been collected on firefighters working in a laboratory/live fire training facility. However, the in-field study has shown that core body temperatures on firefighters wearing structural turnout gear are significantly higher than originally believed.
Based on previous research, we know that the body’s temperature continues to climb even after firefighters are removed from the work environment and have doffed their protective gear. Based on this new information, the department along with the SMARTER team began working to find a protective gear solution for incidents where heavy thermal protection is not needed.
As a result, the department has recently issued a hybrid PPE to all personnel that is duel certified as both a wildland gear and a technical rescue gear. The new gear provides flash, abrasion and blood borne pathogen protection without the thermal protection of structural gear. The plan is to have personnel replace wearing structural gear with the hybrid gear for all nonstructural fires and vehicle fire incidents. Since the gear has just been issued, it will be field tested in coming months.
Prior to making the purchase, a preliminary laboratory test was done by the First Responder Health and Safety Laboratory at Skidmore College using their heat and humidity chamber. A broader test with a larger number of firefighters will be conducted in coming months, but the preliminary work suggests that the physiologic stress is reduced during work compared to structural gear. Also, a great deal about the wearability and usability of physiologic monitor equipment on firefighters was learned. Work is progressing with manufacturers to figure out how to improve this technology so it is better suited for use by the fire service.
Who can be contacted for more information about these health and wellness programs?
Contact Chief Craig A. Haigh for more information about the study and the hybrid gear now in use.
The IAFC Safety, Health and Survival (SHS) Section is committed to reducing injuries and deaths in our fire service. Does your department have a program that has resulted in improved health and safety of your personnel? We want to share it! Fill out this brief survey and you may be the next spotlight.