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Smart helmets could bring firefighters back alive

World Trade Center tragedy turns research in a new direction

Wright adjusts helmet

Dubbed the "Robocop version" of the heads-up display, the next-generation smart helmet will feature an in-mask display mounted on the lower right region of the visor. The National Science Foundation funded the core technology for the smart helmet, with Intel and CITRIS support.

On September 11, 2001, firefighters from all over New York City responded to the attack on the World Trade Center. As hundreds worked their way up to the floors where the first plane struck, those in charge set up a command post on the ground floor of the neighboring tower.

Though second to be hit, that tower was first to collapse, wiping out the command post and thrusting the rest of the rescue mission into chaos. Police helicopters circling the remaining tower predicted it would fall and issued an evacuation warning. That message, sent 21 minutes before the tower collapsed, never reached the firefighters.

Three hundred and forty three firefighters died in the towers that day. One hundred twenty-one were within sprinting distance of safety but did not hear the evacuation order.

Rolling back the clock is a luxury we wish for. Breakthrough technology is a luxury we have. Under way in mechanical engineering professor Paul Wright’s Ford Prototyping Lab is budding technology that, in the face of events as monumental as 9/11 or as local as an apartment building fire, will make it possible for the first time for firefighters to remain oriented and within the secure control of their commanders.

"September 11 set the groundwork for this project," says Wright. "In the fall of 2001, I was teaching a seminar on high-tech product design and rapid manufacturing. It quickly became clear to all of us in the class that we had to refocus our product research to include a significant social component. Now all our projects have this added layer."

Materials science engineering doctoral student Daniel Steingart was in Wright’s class, where he was developing a "heads-up" display for motorcycle helmets. His nascent smart helmet display, which projected speed and cell phone caller ID on the inside of the helmet’s visor, was designed to allow riders to keep their heads up and their eyes on the road rather than on the handlebars.

Word of Steingart’s project reached Richard Nowakowski, special projects coordinator for Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication. In sync with the stark political realities following 9/11, the Chicago City Council had passed a resolution that required all buildings more than 80 feet tall — seven or eight stories — to submit electronic floor plans to the Office of Emergency Management to help rescue workers navigate inside. Nowakowski called Steingart asking if the heads-up display could be adapted to exploit the digital maps his Chicago firefighters would soon have, and a partnership was born.

Rescue Joe in a fire

As part of a ladder drill, City of Berkeley firefighter and paramedic Dan Green removes "Rescue Joe," a 200-pound dummy from a smoke-filled building — this one swirling with non-toxic Fog Fluid. With the heads-up display mounted on his mask, Green’s whereabouts and heart rate can be monitored on a laptop computer.

Over the past year, the Berkeley team has worked closely with the Chicago Fire Department to create customized smart helmets — oxygen masks outfitted with wireless sensor motes and miniature near-eye displays. A quick glance at the tiny screen inside their masks will allow firefighters to track their progress through a building and locate crewmates or victims trapped inside.

Outside the building, where commanders direct a rescue team, the smart helmet — via the Electronic Incident Command System (EICS) — will offer new levels of visual access, allowing command and control officers to efficiently monitor the progress of rescue operations, communicate with selected firefighters, or even call for an evacuation.

"In a smoky fire, firefighters and their commanders can be starved for reliable information," says Wright. "The smart helmets put them in a much more information-rich environment, allowing them to make better, safer decisions. Good information can make a huge difference when you’re faced with the kinds of decisions they have to make."

The smart helmet marks the convergence of several technologies, according to Steingart, a key player on this project from the start. First, there was the evolution of small, inexpensive sensors, which can be placed in and around a building as well as on firefighters. The tiny wireless sensors and many of their application domains — developed by EECS faculty members Kris Pister, David Culler, Jan Rabaey, Richard White, and James Landay as a flagship project for the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) — broadcast limited-range signals to create a sort of Local Positioning System (LPS) inside buildings.

Then last December, Wright’s engineers — who are taking the core sensor technology and adapting it for applications such as the smart helmet — journeyed to Chicago. In tandem with a group of Haas Business School students, the interdisciplinary team interviewed 140 firefighters to learn more about the kind of information firefighters consider most crucial in a helmet display. The Berkeley team was also seeking a realistic notion of how sturdy their new apparatus would have to be, given the abuse such equipment takes inside a burning building.

The Berkeley-Chicago collaboration continues to evolve. The miniaturization of powerful microprocessors and near-eye displays has been key to the project’s success. "Firefighters already wear more than 40 pounds of equipment into a fire," says Steingart. "They are not about to strap a Pentium PC onto their backs as well."

The latest smart helmet packs an 11-ounce Xybernaut POMA computer, slightly smaller than a VHS videotape. Once the monitors, motes, transmitters, and batteries are all assembled, the unit will weigh between five and ten pounds. As with most portable electronics, battery weight and reliability are major challenges, says Wright. "For a firefighter using a smart helmet as a lifeline to safety, dead batteries take on a new meaning," he says.

Smart helmets will not only monitor the wearer’s location, they will track a firefighter’s well being. Lloyd Lim, one of Wright’s ME graduate students, has adapted a pair of heart-rate monitors, one on the neck, another on the wrist, that give a commander an instant report on a firefighter’s status. A quick measure of the lag time between the pulse in the neck and the pulse in the wrist — key indicators of a firefighter’s effectiveness — makes it possible to evaluate fatigue levels, says Lim. The monitor on the neck also picks up vibrations from the voice box, doubling as a microphone to transmit the voice clearly, even when a muffling oxygen mask covers the wearer’s face.

"Smart helmets will give us another set of eyes," says Gil Dong, a fire captain and station commander in the City of Berkeley Fire Department, now working closely on a local level with Wright’s group. "Every time we go in to search a building, it will make the job easier, safe, and more efficient. Firefighters can die, lost in the dead end of a burning closet or stairwell." Ultimately, Wright says, the LPS will probably be established by multiple antennae arranged outside a building on fire trucks and helicopters positioned around the site. There they triangulate the points necessary to chart a position. That way, the position detectors — initially distributed inside the building in fire-resistant cases but still vulnerable to super-high temperatures and impact — will be out of harm’s way. Even then, motes will still be used to monitor temperature and smoke levels throughout a building, where they could also provide position location redundancy.

Asked what Chicago’s firefighters think about the new equipment, Nowakowski says, "Before 9/11 they’d have said, 'We don’t need more stuff.' Now they’re saying, 'Definitely, we need it!'" And in about two years, Nowakowski and the Berkeley team predict, they will have it.

Gordy Slack writes for local and national magazines about science, technology, and the environment.

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