Recent high profile tragedies have renewed focus on the health, safety and wellbeing of those working in the fire and rescue service (FRS) and the potential benefits of Using Physiological Monitoring to Protect Firefighter Health.
Firefighters face daily challenges of saving lives in the face of danger, operating in high pressure and hazardous environments. Confined working spaces, smoke, excessively hot or cold temperatures and psychological strain, combined with heavy breathing apparatus and professional equipment, can lead to excessive stress on the body, heat injury or impairment of judgement.
According to the National Fire Protection Association in the US, overexertion and physical stress accounted for 59 per cent of firefighter deaths in 2015 with 51 per cent of these tragedies associated with sudden cardiac arrest – potentially due to being exposed to extreme heat stress, arguably the biggest risk to a firefighter. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), breathing apparatus and hoses add heat, stress and strain on the body and heart, limiting thermoregulation and resulting in overheating and associated symptoms including impaired mental performance, slowed reaction and decision times, delirium and even cardiac arrest. Monitoring of individual firefighter health is becoming ever more imperative.
In recent times, technological advances have included the introduction of sophisticated breathing apparatus and advances in PPE, including improving resistance to heat. Individual firefighter monitoring with the heart rate chest strap and temperature pill have found their place in training research, but are not comprehensive solutions because they only measure one factor per device. Chest straps have been found to be uncomfortable while the pill is expensive, invasive and a single-use solution. Operationally the pill is also impractical because it requires settling (or digestion) time which is usually between one to two hours for reliable measurements.
Tympanic temperature spot (single) monitoring is most commonly used in training across UK FRS, although it is not mandated. It’s a medically approved, easy and economical method of monitoring a reference of body temperature, but limitations exist to the ability to record in real-time. In some instances, a tympanic reading is taken before entering a training fire, and again upon exit. A major drawback to this is that it doesn’t allow monitoring during an exercise and requires firefighters to remove their PPE gear before having their temperature monitored. This means readings are not representative of the highest level of heat stress and are instead only representative of pre- and post-heat stress levels, which provides limited benefit. This means there is currently no way to accurately monitor ongoing or real-time vital sign measurements of operational fighters.
Bodytrak provides firefighters, for the first time, a highly accurate and effective way to monitor physical well-being and performance, both in training and operationally. It is the only, in-ear body monitoring device to monitor multiple physiological signs such as Core Body Temperature, Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variable, and VO2 accurately, continuously, and in real-time. It was designed to preserve the lives of workers operating in dangerous situations, particularly firefighters, but also rig workers in the oil and gas sector, and soldiers in battle. The device is currently being trialled with a number of emergency, fire and rescue services, military organisations and in scenarios where industrial health and safety is a priority.
Using the ear as a measuring site, due to its proximity to the brain, Bodytrak can pick up very accurate and immediate changes in the body, resulting in faster intervention by appropriate personnel in critical circumstances than traditional monitoring technologies. All data is sent from Bodytrak wirelessly and in real-time to a cloud-based analytics platform via a smartphone, digital radio, tablet, smartwatch, or internet hub. This allows for physiological changes to be detected rapidly for earlier intervention.
Bodytrak helps reduce heat stress and other injuries through early detection, informs operational strategies and saves lives. The discreet earpiece can also detect motion, for example when a firefighter has fallen, allowing team leaders and/or medics to know the vital signs of firefighters after a fall enabling quicker and more appropriate responses, which can be prioritised if necessary. Over time, firefighter organisations can gain insight from the data captured on the device. The predictive capabilities of Bodytrak’s analytics platform allows commanders to adjust training schedules, and better assess the fitness of each individual firefighter. Bodytrak also has integrated two-way communications combined with ambient noise transfer, which enables the wearer to take instruction from team leaders, communicate back on status, and still hear what’s going on around them.
A Look to the Future
Soon, we’ll see the emergence of more integrated, connected and, therefore, sophisticated network of UK emergency services; with FRS sitting at the heart of this more collaborative approach.
On the technology front, smart ‘second skin’ suits will integrate with connected vests and in-ear monitoring technologies, like Bodytrak. Earpieces fit neatly underneath hoods and helmets, connected to communications devices and other sensors to give highly accurate operational insights. When services become integrated and a connected emergency services network is in place with multiple technology and equipment partners working together, firefighters will benefit from a full-service ecosystem that equips them to operate with greater capability.
With heat exposure posing such an obvious risk in the everyday work of a firefighter and with limited government regulation in the monitoring of this area, the gap for ongoing health monitoring both in training and in operations is evident. Technology has finally caught up and, now, with the use of data analytics, FRS’ can reduce illness and improve the performance of individual firefighters both in the short and long term. Through measuring multiple vital signs with one device and in real-time, fire crews can identify physiological warning signs and intervene earlier; improving crews’ overall well-being and allowing for the re-assessment of occupational health policies.