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Keeping Australia’s Firefighters Safe with Wearable Tech

Image Credits: University of Queensland, Press Release

The University of Queensland is currently running an entrepreneurship programme that seeks to develop a cost-effective invention to address the alarming number of firefighter fatalities. The proposed innovation seeks to prevent up to 50% of firefighter deaths each year, providing a practical and effective solution to a critical problem.

This life-saving innovation would be an asset for firefighting teams around the world, reducing the risk of injury and loss of life in dangerous situations.

Tiarna McElligott, a student from the Faculty of Science, has joined UQ’s ilab Accelerator programme as its youngest participant. Currently, she is developing wearable exertion monitoring technology, which has the potential to revolutionise the way individuals monitor their physical activity.

Through this innovative solution, users can effectively track their exercise routine, providing them with real-time insights into their physical exertion and ensuring that they stay within their limits.

Ms McElligott stated that the project began when, during a visit to a fire station, she was told that it wasn’t flames or falling buildings that killed firefighters but rather physical stress. However, there was no way to track it.

According to recent data, overexertion caused 54% of firefighter deaths in the United States in 2020. To address this critical issue, Ms McElligott is designing wearable technology that can be seamlessly integrated into existing firefighting equipment and clothing. The technology is specifically designed to monitor key vital signs such as heart rate, blood oxygen concentration, and body temperature.

By constantly monitoring these metrics, the device aims to alert the wearer well in advance of any warning signs of overexertion, thus enabling firefighters to take appropriate action to avoid hazardous situations. The device is being developed with the understanding that firefighters may become so engrossed in their demanding job that they fail to recognise the early signs of overexertion.

This innovative wearable technology has the potential to make a significant impact in the field of firefighting, helping to ensure the safety and well-being of firefighters while on the job.

A prototype of a vest has been developed; it is currently patent pending. This prototype serves as a proof of concept for the wearable technology that is being designed to monitor vital signs and warn firefighters of overexertion. Through the workshops and mentorship opportunities provided by the three-month ilab Accelerator program, the technology is now being refined to create a compact unit that can be easily attached to a firefighter’s turnout gear, such as on their helmet.

While monitoring devices do exist currently on the market, they tend to be expensive and impractical for widespread implementation. These devices require the replacement of a firefighter’s entire turnout kit, making them cost-prohibitive for many fire departments.

In addition, these monitoring systems need to be replaced every few years due to wear and tear, or damage incurred while on the job. Consequently, there is a critical need for more cost-effective and practical solutions that can be easily integrated into existing firefighting gear without compromising on safety or accuracy.

The system is a collection of electronic sensors, a processing unit and a radio transmitter in a small and portable unit. An external system that can receive clinical data from the wearable unit is also being developed. Ms McElligott is collaborating with fire services to ensure that the system is compatible with the existing processes and technology used by firefighters.

The wearable technology is designed to be monitored by a support person who is stationed outside of the immediate fire zone. This is because the last thing that firefighters need during an emergency is another task to attend to. By having a dedicated support person monitoring the data feed, the firefighter can focus on the task at hand while still receiving real-time information about their vital signs and the warning signs of overexertion.

Wearable technology is being developed to communicate with a monitoring system, possibly as part of an existing breathing apparatus, in order to protect firefighter lives. The integration of these devices will allow for real-time monitoring of vital signs and early detection of overexertion, improving firefighter safety in emergency situations.


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