First responders often work in harsh and potentially dangerous environments during their duties, whether in extreme heat when fighting fires or under exposure to toxins and other pollutants on the site of man-made disasters. The ramifications of working in such challenging conditions can include short- and long-term health consequences for first responders. Many of the heroes who worked to rescue lives at Ground Zero on 9/11 have dealt with lasting health problems ever since. Keeping first responders as safe and healthy as possible while they help others is where technology can step in—both by monitoring first responders’ vital signs and critical health metrics and by monitoring the environment they’re working in for hazardous conditions or airborne pollutants.
Wearable Technology with Environmental Sensors
Along with the emergency response equipment first responders bring to a rescue situation, there are emerging technologies that can equip them for safety in a number of ways. Wearable tech can inform supervisors if team members are experiencing any spikes in heart rate or blood pressure, as well as other biometric data, while environmental sensors can determine if any toxins or dangerous chemicals are present in the surrounding environment. Measuring blood oxygen levels via pulse oximetry sensors can tell firefighters when they’ve been overexposed to smoke-filled air, and body positioning sensors like the kind used in some step counters and other fitness trackers can sound the alarm when a first responder is lying prone or in any awkward position that might indicate potential distress. Something as simple as monitoring body temperature can let firefighters know when to pull back from the front lines and rehydrate.
Environmental sensors capable of measuring the presence of airborne pollutants or particulate matter are commonly implemented in industrial manufacturing and processing facilities for employee safety. First responders can utilize similar technology in a more mobile application to provide them with important safety information about environments they’re encountering with limited prior knowledge.
Concentrations of potentially poisonous and invisible gases in the air, like carbon monoxide or dioxide or volatile organic compounds, can be detected through chromatography and light refraction. Particulate matter created by combustion, like the kind made by forest fires, can also be detected and measured through light reflection. Larger pieces of particulate reflect more light than smaller ones and pose a greater health risk, so measuring the size of particulate fragments as precisely as possible is essential. Environmental data collected from scenes of disasters has value for medical personnel as well. Having prior knowledge of the types of airborne toxins or pollutants victims and evacuees have been exposed to before they’ve even been examined can help develop treatment plans more quickly.
Real-time Data Collection
Mobile sensors collecting real-time data on first responders’ persons feed the information into an intelligent processing layer and then display data on a “dashboard” of sorts, presenting a digital readout of the various vital signs and environmental factors being monitored. The dashboard can be monitored remotely by first responders on the scene or supervisors offsite to ensure that any responders in distress can be helped as quickly as possible. Real-time data on the surrounding air quality can tell firefighters precisely when they have to employ oxygen tanks in the field in order to breathe safely or when toxic fumes from a chemical spill have become too dangerous to be exposed to without a special breathing apparatus. Vital sign monitoring lets supervisors know when individual firefighters on the front lines of a blaze need a break or medical intervention, similar to the technology being implemented in sports to monitor athletes’ body temperature and blood oxygen levels.
Data collected in real time can also be saved and fed into algorithms that recognize patterns and make predictions to help optimize future emergency response plans. Knowing that personnel can only safely fight fires burning at certain temperatures from specific distances helps spare future hospitalizations, or worse, heatstroke or smoke inhalation. Furthermore, knowing how first responders’ bodies have reacted to the presence of certain gases or volatile organic compounds in the environment can help design emergency treatment options if first responders or victims are exposed in the future and require immediate medical attention in the field. In large-scale personnel deployments, like forest fires or natural disaster relief, historical data on employee health and wellness can help supervisors determine the optimal length and frequency of shifts to maximize overall efficiency and help responders get the appropriate amount of sleep and nutrition.
Working in potentially hazardous environments is something asked of first responders every day, so monitoring their vital signs as well as key environmental factors is critical to ensuring safety. Using the data collected from first responders on the front lines to optimize future emergency response plans may also save lives and ensure first responders live longer, healthier lives post-retirement. The short- and long-term benefits of wearable technology and environmental sensors are so self-evident that you may see firefighters, EMTs, and even police officers wearing bio- and environmental-metric sensors on a daily basis in the near future.