Tomorrow's firefighters will have near-superhuman abilities

From Engadget - October 13, 2017

The development of the first helmet in the 1730s, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in 1863 and the telescoping ladder in the 1880s helped make the job safer. Though it was not until the 1980s that modern Nomex- and Kevlar-impregnated gear became common. Today, however, the firefighting community is going through a technological revolution that could grant tomorrow's firefighters near superhuman abilities.

A firefighter's gear -- known as Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) -- consists of a helmet, hood, pants, coat, gloves, boots and SCBA. The outfit typically weighs around 40 pounds. Adding a thermal camera, light, radio, Halligan bar and axe increases that figure to around 75 pounds. On top of that, firefighters are expected to climb multiple flights of stairs and carry or drag fully grown adults out to safety. Dragging all that weight around takes a significant physical toll on first responders, which is why Melbourne-based designer Ken Chen of Monash University designed a powered exosuit to help lighten the load.

"Each year, an estimated 15,500 high-rise structure fires cause 60 civilian deaths, 930 injuries, and $252 million in property loss," Chen told the Daily Mail in 2014. "High-rise buildings can hold thousands of people well above the reach of fire department aerial devices, once the fire is above the operational reach of aerial ladder or elevating platforms the chance of rescuing victims is near zero."

Chen's solution is an exo-suit concept that firefighters strap on over their PPE and can support up to 95 Kg (209 lbs). Like Hyundai's recently-developed "power loader" exosuit, Chen's design would transfer any load directly to the ground, relieving the physical strain of the wearer. Unlike Hyundai's device, Chen's does not appear to have gotten off the drawing board just yet.

The water-propelled Dolphin jetpack, however, is real. And it is spectacular. It's designed to help Dubai Civil Defence forces quickly move through the city's network of waterways, avoiding the often gridlocked roads. The pack is attached to a jet ski which the firefighter rides to the scene of the fire, straps on the jetpack and uses the surrounding supply of water to lift himself above the flames and douse them.

The Dolphin is a clever solution for a city that's suffered a spate of high-rise fires in the past five years, including a 2015 blaze at the 63-story Address Downtown hotel, but unfortunately is not much use against structural fires any distance from open water.

Now, you'd think that a fire's most dangerous aspect would be the flames themselves. Nope. It's actually the smoke, which can disorient and disable victims within minutes as well as obscure the view of firefighters as they move through the building. Many fire companies already employ handheld thermal imaging systems but you generally want to keep your hands free when running around inside a burning building.

That's why UK-based Design Reality created the Sight on behalf of Scott Safety. It's a thermal camera that mounts onto the side of the mask and projects a display onto the visor. This way every firefighter entering a structure fire has easy access to this data, rather than just the camera-wielding team leader. The 8.5-ounce device works for four hours on a set of standard AAA batteries.

Some of the most important work is done prior to ever stepping foot in a flaming inferno. The more information a firefighter has upon arrival, the better. This could be data on the building's layout and orientation, whether there are flammable materials stored within, or the number of occupants (both human and non-human).


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