In today’s ever-changing world of constant technological innovations, there exists a gadget, sensor, or electronic to measure, report, and analyze almost any type of data we might desire. As sensor technology has evolved, systems have gotten lighter and less cumbersome, enabling them to fit into our cell phones, watches, wearable devices and even our clothing. Wearable technology involves the use of smart electronic devices that can be easily worn on the body via an accessory or incorporated directly into our clothing. For most consumers, these new tech gadgets are fun and exciting; a “toy” so to speak, that enhances their daily fitness routine. But for others, these devices can mean the difference between life and death; and the implementation isn’t quite so straightforward in some cases.
Take firefighters for example, whether working inside a structure or fighting a wildfire in open geography, firefighters require specialized personal protective equipment (PPE), tools, and technologies to ensure their safety. Many protection and health issues still exist in the fire service industry such as heat stress, cardiac arrest, and exposure to carcinogenic particulates, just to name a few. The risk of firefighter injury and illness could be greatly reduced with the introduction of wearable technology. Measuring real time physiological responses, monitoring health, and tracking location would provide vital, life-saving feedback for the fire service. Some manufacturers have already successfully produced wearable garments for firefighters to track their location, heart rate, etc., however, the technology is still cost prohibitive for most departments who are working on a tight budget. At well over $1,000 for a set of turnout gear, PPE budgets don’t have additional discretionary funds for “fun, tech toys.”
In order to make wearable tech a feasible, realistic option in the fire service industry, multiple challenges must be overcome. First, as mentioned above, cost must be addressed. Affordable, scalable sensors are a must if wearable tech is to be incorporated into structural turnout suits and wild-land firefighter gear. Second, in an industry that is known for its historical tradition and culture, the mindsets of the users must be convinced that the benefits of these disruptive technologies far outweigh the cost, and not just in terms of monetary value. As a population that puts their lives on the line each and every day, firefighters must be convinced that a significant change to their PPE is safe and worth any adaptations to their current tactics and training.
A third, and maybe the most challenging obstacle is creating sensors that can perform effectively and consistently under the extreme conditions in which firefighters often find themselves. In a flashover scenario, temperatures may reach well over 500°C. These environments would require durable sensors that can withstand extreme conditions and repeatedly perform after multiple exposures. Further, these sensors must not cause any decrease in thermal, chemical, or liquid protection; hinder the user’s movement; or cause discomfort. On top of all of the above criteria, the sensors must also be conducive to the laundering process at temperatures above 120°F. To overcome all of the above criteria would be a tall feat, even for the most developed technologies.
To truly enact change in firefighter PPE, all of the above concerns must be addressed not just from an academic or scientific standpoint, but from a practical, daily use perspective. While sensor technology has greatly advanced, there is still much work to do in order to incorporate these valuable, life-saving technologies into the applications where they are most meaningful. For firefighters, being able to track location, movement, heart rate, breathing rate, carbon monoxide exposure, and so much more, could be the difference between them going home to their families or an unfortunate tragedy. Sensor technology gives us hope for the future, but much research and work is still needed to create affordable, adoptable, and practical wearable technology for our first responders.
Meredith McQuerry, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Textiles at Florida State University. She has almost a decade of experience working with the fire service industry to engineer better performing and more durable personal protective clothing. Her research interests include clothing comfort physiology for first responder, military, and athletic applications.