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UW Graduate Students at GIX Developing Technology to Monitor the Health of Wildland Firefighters

Date: October 28, 2020

As we look back on the historic wildfires that ravaged much of the west coast of the US in the summer of 2020, an important question arises: how can we use technology to better protect the firefighters who protect us?

Generally, wildfires are unplanned and uncontrolled burns of vegetation that occur in hard-to-reach areas. Due to the high temperatures, smoke, and the speed at which they spread, wildfires are highly dangerous to wildlife, livestock, property, and people alike, often causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem and hundreds of millions of dollars of material damages. Those who fight them face long hours, dangerous working conditions, intensive physical labor, and smoke inhalation while being pushed to their physical and mental limits. With support from Vulcan Inc. and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WA DNR) Wildfires division, University of Washington MSTI students at the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) are developing a “smart helmet” to monitor the health of wildland firefighters, and to provide them with early-warnings and safety measures.

“There are many challenges with this project, including designing a device that reliably transmits data in real-time with no Wi-Fi or cellular connection, and that doesn’t interfere with firefighters’ vision or range of motion,” said CJ Ngeh, one of the MSTI students. “It’s an exciting challenge.”

The rugged, lightweight helmet currently under development features a suite of sensors capable of gathering data with heart rate and skin temperature sensors, an accelerometer, and GPS. Bluetooth Low Energy, a wireless personal area network, is used to transmit health data to the wearer’s phone, and the student project team is now investigating technologies to transmit data in real-time to off-site crew supervisors. By utilizing a firefighter’s previous health history and data gathered in real-time, in conjunction with machine learning, students aim to predict and prevent heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration, ultimately improving awareness and reducing accidental dangerous outcomes.

“DNR’s wildfires division, Vulcan’s technologists, and our professors are really helping us understand the problem space and what’s possible technically,” said MSTI student Paulo Goncalves. “The project is making for a great learning experience – one where we may be able to make a real difference.”

“With the emerging technologies we see coming out of universities and industry, it makes sense for us to take a closer look at what’s possible, and what could be possible in the future to support our firefighters’ wellbeing,” said Russ Lane, assistant wildfire division manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “There’s a lot of opportunity for technological innovation in the work we’re doing, and public/private partnerships like we have here with GIX and Vulcan are a step in the right direction.”

“The western US has experienced some of its warmest temperatures on record in the past 15 years. With the severity of the fires we see increasing, and 54% of firefighter deaths since 2000 caused by overexertion or stress, it’s apparent that resources should be dedicated to exploring the creation of technologies that help keep the firefighters who protect our families, homes, pets, and natural resources safe,” said Chris Emura, executive director of engineering at Vulcan Inc. “We’re excited to see where the students end up with this project and what we can all learn from it.”

Learn more about MSTI Launch Projects here.

Learn more about Vulcan, Inc. here.

Learn more about the Washington Department of Natural Resources Wildfires division here