MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Gel-filled acoustic sensors and a
variation of wireless Internet technology may be the foundation for
new equipment that keeps firefighters safe by constantly monitoring
their vital signs and voice.
But first, scientist Mike Masterman and his engineers must be
sure the device they are trying to develop will collect the data
they want without malfunctioning in thick smoke or melting in the
heat of a burning building.
Masterman, founder of Philippi-based Extreme Endeavors and
Consulting, watched Thursday as Clarksburg firefighter George
Hayhurst crawled into a smoke-filled building to test the
components of the Electronic Lifeline.
Initially, the experiment failed. An antenna shifted, blocking
the signal from the sensors packed into a bag on Hayhurst's belt.
On the second try, with components firmly held by duct tape, it
worked.
The jagged lines of Hayhurst's heartbeat appeared on a laptop
computer where electrical engineer Todd Leonhardt captured the data
for later analysis.
"Overall, it went well," Leonhardt said. "We're going to
learn a lot from it and improve."
Masterman and his team are working under a $100,000 grant from
the National Institutes of Health to develop a sensor system they
plan to incorporate into a lightweight firefighting suit. Masterman
hopes to land a second NIH grant for $750,000 to develop the
prototype next year.
Many people are working on technology that could benefit the
nation's 28,000 fire departments, he said.
"The problem is the firefighter gets treated like a Christmas
tree: Hang this device off you. Hang that device off you. And
before you know it, you have 30 pieces," Masterman said. "Our
goal is to make it all in one."
A heart attack brought on by overexertion is the No. 1 cause of
death among the nation's firefighters, Masterman said.
Increasingly, fire departments are designating safety officers, but
they need a tool that allows them to monitor people.
Adding to the challenge is the nature of firefighting: The
search for victims is done mainly on hands and knees, in blackness
and extreme heat. Firefighters don't have a free hand for a radio
to say when they're in trouble.
Military special forces units use headsets to communicate, "but
they haven't come into play yet in the fire industry," Masterman
said.
That's partly because firefighters don't present a large enough
commercial market to make it a worthwhile investment for venture
capitalists, he said. "It takes someone like me, who is a
firefighter, to get out there and get the grants."
The acoustic sensors were developed by Michael Scanlon, a
mechanical engineer at the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Md.
Years ago, he got the idea of a gel-filled pad that could be used
as a baby monitor, recording vital signs regardless of the baby's
position for research into sudden infant death syndrome.
Then he thought about military applications, figuring it could
be placed under an injured soldier to help medics decide who needs
treatment first. But now the Army is focusing on body-worn sensors
that could be built into helmets and other gear.
Scanlon ran his own experiments Thursday alongside Masterman,
whose company also has a contract to develop a medical monitoring
system for the Army's Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts.
Natick plans to incorporate sensors into a high-tech uniform it
hopes to have ready for use in 2008. Besides ballistic, biological
and chemical protection, "the future soldier also wants
situational awareness," said Bill Haskell, Natick's technical
program development manager.
Scanlon said his acoustic sensors can even indicate when a body
is shivering, warning the data reader that a soldier might be
suffering from hypothermia.
During the tests, firefighters crawled, laid down, then
retrieved a mannequin. Theoretically, the recorded data will show
when they were moving, still or exerting themselves.
Blood pressure, heart rate, pulse and breathing are captured in
a stream of sound that will then be separated by computer and used
to generate numbers.
Masterman's team is unable to do complete real-time analysis
now, but the tests help get them closer to that goal. In the
prototype, they also hope to miniaturize the components.
"We want to be able to find a way to do the processing not at a
computer," he said, "but on the belt of a firefighters, with a
device the size of a deck of cards."
Masterman, a former science coordinator and manager at the
Amundesen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, formed Extreme
Endeavors in 1998 and now develops products for NASA and Lucent
Technologies, among other clients.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Anyone who can update these forums, regarding the development of this technology....please, this is very interesting stuff!