New skin to save our firefighters


DCU scientists are developing a ‘smart second skin’ for firefighters, including jackets that monitor vital signs, motion and levels of carbon monoxide, writes HELEN GALLAGHER

THE PHRASE “clever boots” will soon take on a new meaning. Researchers are using “e-textiles” and sensors to make the dangerous job faced by firefighters just a little bit safer. Dublin City University is a participant in the “ProeTEX” project, a pan-European research effort involving 23 partners. It will see the development of innovative new “second skin” sensors coupled with wireless communications and GPS, technology that will allow handlers to monitor the location of firefighters, gauge their physical condition and detect any toxic threats in an emergency.

This “smart” technology is driven by a Framework Six project under the European Community Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration. The DCU participant is Dr Tanja Radu, of the university’s Clarity research group, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

Sensors embedded into the boots and clothing of the firefighters will pick up life threatening signals and alert them and their handlers if they are in danger. “It will give great improvement in the health and safety as well as efficiency and coordination of emergency personnel, particularly firefighters,” Radu says.

One part of the project is to develop a “second skin”, intelligent clothing with integrated sensors woven into the fabric. “Through this project we are developing technology based on the use of e-textiles with wearable sensors which can monitor for heart beat and breathing rate. It will also provide continuous monitoring of biosensors such as the level of sweat, stress and dehydration,” she explains.

The firefighters’ jackets and boots will also be fitted with sensors able to detect the level of carbon dioxide threatening the fire fighter. “We are also able to monitor for external toxic hazards such as gases which develop in a fire.”

The main area for DCU is the development of tiny wearable toxic gas sensors, cleverly located to detect potentially fatal levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide as they develop during a fire. “We are integrating the carbon monoxide sensors into the jacket of the fire fighter. It will slip into a small pocket near the collar, so it is close to breathing height. The sensor detects any dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and warns the firefighters,” she explains.

“There will be another sensor, a carbon dioxide sensor, which will be placed in a small pocket integrated into the boot and reads the level of carbon dioxide near the ground where it is most concentrated, as carbon dioxide is denser than air so it concentrates closer to the ground.”

The actual sensor is surprisingly compact, about the size of a one-cent coin. It is built into a protective casing slightly smaller than a credit card that also carries a wireless communication system and the power source. “We kept shrinking the components to make them as small and thin as possible so they don’t obstruct mobility, or add significant weight to the fire-fighter,” explains Radu.

HAVING ACHIEVEDthe product design goals, the next step is to test it in the field, she adds. “It is nice that some of the partners are fire fighters so with the product developed we are now in the testing stage and the product will be tested in real situations and we can get to see the product in action.”

The laboratory testing of the product has been very successful. “I have the boot encased in a chamber and I inject carbon dioxide and can easily pick up the wireless signal in my office on the laptop,” she adds.

This technology will deliver person-to-person links at the site of an emergency, and will feed back to base for co-ordination, so there will be two kinds of wireless communications, one short range and one long range.

“The short range will communicate between fire-fighters, so an alarm can be sent to a watch or a mobile phone to warn of hazards, a man down or injured, or having difficulty with breathing or hydration,” explains Radu.

“The long range will allow communication from each individual fire-fighter back to their base station, and allow monitoring of the entire brigade, so in a building or forest fire you can monitor the activity and posture of each man,” she adds.

This technology will have a life-saving impact on firefighting teams, she explains. “If sit in your remote location and just by monitoring you see a man is down, maybe he is not breathing anymore; maybe he is sweating too much or losing electrolytes, and you can take action to get to him.”

The project is in the final stages and it is hoped that through the industrial partners this technology will be available soon after the finishing date of 2010.