[Research] Firefighters goes wireless!

According to the feature, a research team is working to integrate wireless technology into firefighters' helmets, providing them with mobile information to help save lives.

Someone in the Chicago Fire Department (CFD) read a newspaper account last year about a high tech motorcycle helmet that had been developed by a couple of Wright's grad students. Designed for hands-free use, the helmet allows riders to control a music player, talk on the phone, and use GPS for navigation. The helmet has a heads-up display (HUD) that lets riders see caller IDs and the speed at which they're traveling, along with other information. Would it be possible to modify this helmet for firefighting purposes? The CFD called Wright and he jumped at the idea.

At first, some firefighters balked at the idea. They don't use computers at the scene of a fire. They already carry 30 pounds of stuff on their backs and they saw little reason to bring one into an inferno. But with recent developments in smart dust technology, wireless networks and wearable computing, which would make it possible for them to navigate through smoke-filled buildings and provide critical information that could save lives (including their own), they agreed to cooperate with the Berkeley team. (...) Because things happen fast at the scene of a fire, it's easy to lose track of where firefighters and equipment are inside a building. Regular roll calls must be issued, which are necessary, but take time away from fighting the fire. Also, if a firefighter falls, it's possible that no one will find out until the next roll call, and by then it might be too late to save the firefighter. Wright's team developed a computer screen, called the Electronic Incident Command System (EICS), to replace the Incident Coordinator's greaseboard and eliminate the need for roll calls. The EICS displays the electronic floor plan and the locations of each firefighter, because they'll be wearing a wireless tag that transmits vital statistics, such as heart rate, to the IC. If there's trouble, the firefighter's icon on the EICS will flash a warning.

Most firefighters use radios to communicate, but as the researchers discovered, voice communication is often limited by noise. "There is a lot of noise on the fire ground," a firefighter explained to a grad student. "You’re inside; the fire is burning; it makes noise; there’s breaking glass; there’s chain saws above your head where they’re cutting a hole in the roof; there’s other rigs coming in with sirens blaring; lots of radio traffic; everybody trying to radio at the same time." Instead of relying on sound to convey information, the modified helmet could display text messages sent from the IC, such as orders to evacuate. When a firefighter needs to speak to someone else, he'll use a special microphone that adheres to the outside of his neck, which cuts down the background noise significantly.