SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Acknowledging that about half of firefighter line of duty deaths can be attributed to medical conditions, primarily cardiovascular disorders, the federal Department of Homeland Security and a consortium of academic and industry partners are working on technology to monitor firefighters in the field.
Last year, the DHS launched the Physiological Health Assessment Sensor for Emergency Responders (PHASER) Project, and on Monday, those involved with the project lead a health and safety class called "Protecting the Protector” at Firehouse World in San Diego.
The class, lead by retired Santa Rosa, Calif. Fire Chief Bruce Varner, presented how the latest wireless technologies will be employed in monitoring firefighters in the field to determine fitness as well as distress, with the intent of saving their lives.
"We have to do a better job at keeping firefighters alive," said Varner said.
During the past six to eight months, some of the best minds in the business have been developing wireless technologies that are low cost with the intent developing a matrix of fitness for firefighters and then a way to make that information available to the firefighter and to others who need it. The team is also very sensitive to the medical privacy laws that prevent personal health information from being disseminated.
Developing the wireless technology that uses smart phones, Dr. Maxim Batalin, senior technology strategist at the University of California, Los Angeles Institute for Technology has developed a prototype that will monitor heart rate and other vitals and wirelessly transmit them to personal phones.
Showing a short flash video of the prototype, Batalin said the sensor, which is small and unobtrusive, is worn in an elastic-type harness around the chest and uses Bluetooth technology to provide the user with medical information accessible on the smart phone screen.
Batalin said the information can be password protected to ensure that Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws are not violated.
Additionally, Batalin said he's well aware that whatever technology is used, it must be easy for firefighters to use, and unobtrusive for firefighters to use it. In the months since PHASER's inception, Batalin said he thinks he's on the right track.
The device needs only one calibration on a treadmill and then it can be used anywhere, including on personal fitness regimens and outside during walking, jogging or running.
Dr. Christopher Cooper, principal investigator for the program and a professor of medicine and physiology at the Geffen School of Medicine also at UCLA, said that as information is gathered about firefighters, it can be stored and used as a resource upon which fitness programs can be developed.
Cooper also explained the five big risk factors for firefighters, regarding fitness.
De-conditioning/fatigue tops the list; followed by dehydration/heat stroke; added weight from turnout gear and equipment; exposure time; and traditional cardiovascular issues, including heredity. Cooper added that anything that can be done to reduce those factors will greatly reduce firefighter line of duty deaths.
To reverse those trends, Cooper recommends "pre-hydration" where firefighters consume sufficient quantities of water to be hydrated before an incident. Lighter personal protective equipment, maintaining ideal weight and keeping fit will also go a long way to reducing firefighter deaths.
Dr. Thomas Storer, an adjunct professor of UCLA Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, spoke to those who attended the class. He explained the PHASER team has worked with firefighters and officers in Redondo Beach (Calif.) to come up with baseline matrixes upon which to base an average and a database to compare individual conditions to a normal heart rate or O2 saturation.
"Some firefighters are exceptionally fit," Storer said. "They are occupational athletes."
While the technology and the programs are not yet available, when they are perfected they will be low cost, easy to use and readily available, the panelists said.
And that's important to Capt. Jason May and Firefighter Isaac Yang, from the Redondo Beach Fire Department.
"This is a user-based program," May said, adding that fitness is built into many union contracts, and this program will help departments meet that part of the contract without breaking the budget. "It will benefit us directly," he said.
Yang said too many firefighters have fallen into "fitness complacency" and the PHASER program will help them get back on the track of taking better care of themselves.
"We need to be physically fit for ourselves and for our communities," Yang said. "... It's a good thing to say the least."