There is no shortage of concepts for new firefighting technology, but the need for practicality and affordability means that many of the most intriguing never get beyond the drawing board
What if you could extinguish a fire using sound waves? Seth Robertson and Viet Tran, electrical engineering students at George Mason University in Virginia, wanted to find out. They put together what they called the Wave Extinguisher - a large silver drum speaker, tethered by thick cables to a cluster of black boxes, resembling a piece of DJ equipment. Turn it on, and hold it over a fire - and flames vanish. And they don’t come back.
“The sound waves agitate the air molecules to separate the oxygen from the fuel,” says Robertson. “In order to reduce the heat, it spreads it over a larger surface area, which helps to dissipate it.”
The applications of the Wave Extinguisher are easy to see. Restaurants could substitute it for the existing chemical-based systems they’re required to have over every open stovetop, and astronauts could use it to quickly and safely put out fires in orbit.
Tran is convinced the device could also be used in traditional firefighting. “I imagine a bunch of drones using swarm robotics to configure themselves to attack certain parts of a fire in a forest,” he says. It could also have applications in areas like California or South Africa’s Western Cape - places with lots of fires and not enough water.
However, exciting as it is, seeing the Wave Extinguisher in the hands of firefighters is still a long way off. It joins the queue behind the many developments in firefighting technology that are still in the prototype stage - and it’s uncertain if they’ll ever get the opportunity to be deployed in the field.
The Flamesniffer is further along than the Wave Extinguisher. This R2-D2-shaped device has reached the pilot stage in a fire-risk area in Santa Barbara, California, where nine of them have been placed on utility poles.
The 22 sensors in each device track temperature, sample the air for smoke and chemicals, and detect flames with heat signatures. If fire is detected, the unit starts sending photographs to the fire station, along with location data. And if the fire reaches the Flamesniffer itself, its flame-resistant polymer can withstand up to 460°C.
Like many of these innovations, Flamesniffer didn’t come from some dedicated research facility. It is the brainchild of two accountants, Australian Cam McKenna and American Bill Islava. “In 2009, Australia experienced the Black Saturday bushfires,” says McKenna. “We lost 173 lives. At the same time, California was experiencing fires that were horrific. We thought we could work on developing a product that would address the situation.”
McKenna and Islava are aware of the challenges of bringing new technology to fire services, but they also think there are opportunities that others have overlooked. “With homes being built on the urban fringe, it’s increasing the size of the market across the US as well as in other countries,” says Islava. “The market is in the billions.”
Often, it’s the firefighters themselves who play a role in developing new ideas. Craig Vanderzwaag is a captain in the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and in 2007 he began to think seriously about apps. The iPhone had been unveiled that year and, at a time when no fire engines in California had computers, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
In 2011, Vanderzwaag released Response Deck, a free app designed to give first responders an accurate picture of a situation, including location maps and call details. “It was just an effort to capture what was freely available. We didn’t have computers in the engines, we didn’t have very good maps,” he says.
It’s not just new concepts that struggle for support. Well-established technologies such as thermal imaging are frustratingly slow to develop. Thermal imaging has been around as firefighting technology since 1997, when the Seattle Fire Service acquired a camera for use in one of its engines. It’s now rare to find a fire engine that doesn’t have thermal imaging technology built into it.
The problem is, it’s rare to find thermal imaging where it would be most useful: in the helmet faceplates of the firefighters. The technology to do so exists. Motorola has developed a system called Next Generation Fireground Communications, which includes a head-up display inside the mask that gives firefighters data on oxygen levels, battery levels and heart rates.
Smaller companies have got in on the act, too: a few years ago an American entrepreneur, Joseph Juhnke, tried to raise funding for an in-helmet head-up display. Its demonstration video showed a firefighter tracking colleagues and monitoring oxygen levels, all from inside the helmet faceplate. It never received enough interest or funding to make it to production stage.
So why is it that such seemingly simple and potentially vital kit doesn’t make it much past the drawing board? It is, as so often, largely down to money. Fire departments are government-owned, with tiny budgets. This can be frustrating for firefighters, unable to use tools that could help them do their jobs.
“There’s really zero reason we can’t have [the head-up display], because thermal imaging devices have got to the point where they are small and cheap enough,” says Vanderzwaag. “Display technology has evolved to the point where we could display that as an overlay that you can click on and click off - like a videogame. It would be expensive, but thermal images are expensive, and they are on all of our engines...if we can find someone in smoke-filled conditions rapidly, that’s a huge win.”
Deep in the data
One area of firefighting technology that is attracting a lot of interest is wearable technology that delivers data in real time.
One example is the Wasp, or Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform. It is developed by Globe, a company with a long history of firefighting technology - until it came along in 1887, firefighters were still wearing woollen coats.
The Wasp is a figure-hugging, flame-resistant T-shirt with multiple physiological sensors that transmit data on heart rate, respiration rate, posture and multiple other factors. It comes with a belt-mounted tracking unit, designed to give a picture of where the firefighter is in a 3D space - ideal for fighting structural fires.
Globe has been developing it since 2006, and according to director of business development Mark Mordecai, it’s “on the cusp” of production. “The firefighter is an industrial athlete working in extreme conditions,” Mordecai says. “If we can make this system work in the fire service, it can work anywhere.”
The Wasp highlights an area of fire technology badly in need of an upgrade: communications. Most radio technology that firefighters use is ancient, and it’s absolutely useless for sending data - a key concern if you’re developing wearable tech.
Mordecai says they have three options for transmitting data: mobile phone networks, Wi-Fi, and radio systems. But mobile phone networks can get shut down in emergencies, Wi-Fi is unreliable, and even the most advanced radio in use - Motorola’s APX 7000 - at times struggles to transmit data. The US government is working on a public safety system called Firstnet, designed to handle the data needs of firefighters, but it’s a long way from showing results. “They’ve spent billions of dollars on it already, and they don’t even have a design yet,” says Mordecai. “We are years away from having that deployed.”
Drones are one of the few examples of consumer technology that have made the leap to professional firefighting. Vanderzwaag’s service uses a DJI Phantom Quadcopter, currently available on Amazon for under $1000.
Drones are also one of the most combustible sparkers of raging debate. Theo Layne is a commander at the Goodwood Fire Station in Cape Town. In March 2015, he and his colleagues made world headlines after fighting one of the most devastating fires to hit the Cape Peninsula in years. He says that not only does his service have to deal with the country’s Civil Aviation Authority - one of the first in the world to introduce laws on drone flight - but if they do get a drone, it will have to be able to battle the area’s strong winds.
“We are considering drones, and we’ve made applications to the city to purchase a drone which can be used by fire, metro police, traffic,” he says. “With this mountain fire, we had an experimental drone that was demonstrated to us, and that was something we wanted to invest in.”
Vanderzwaag says that drones are fantastic for reconnaissance (he recently used one while training on an oil railcar fire in Colorado), but goes on to say that they’re not very useful for wildland fires where low-flying aircraft are making water drops.
This type of tech is going to become even more important in the next few years. An American initiative called FUEGO, or Fire Urgency Estimator in Geosynchronous Orbit, is in development. It’s a system that uses drones, planes and satellites working together to spot fires. However, it will take a few more years for Fuego to be operational - right now, drones like that quadcopter are what fire services have to work with.
Drones aren’t the only topic that gets firefighters talking. One of the most contentious pieces of technology is one that only ever gets used when a firefighter is in serious trouble: the fire shelter. These fold-out constructions are designed to protect a person against the fierce heat of a fire, but in 2013, 19 firefighters died in Arizona when the shelters they used as a last-ditch effort failed to protect them. In addition, firefighters have expressed concerns about their portability and effectiveness in the backcountry.
Ralph Gonzales is one of the people who helped develop a fire shelter model. He’s the centre manager at the San Dimas Technology & Development Centre in California, a research lab that is part of the US Forest Service, an agency that administers wild areas across the country. Gonzales says that there’s still a lot of work to be done. “Even with the current design, we’re always looking for improvements. We’re still working on the [portability], and protection is definitely tied in with weight. You can have a real effective shelter, but the firefighter has to carry it and deploy it. So we’re looking at the maximum weight.”
Just as with any technology, there’s a penalty, he adds. “We remind our firefighters that they need to fall back on the basics - keeping their heads up; situational awareness. Some of the technology can aid that, but we need to be mindful of their focus. It needs to be on fighting fire, not on the technology they have in hand.”
There’s a strong argument there. Firefighters have worked very well for years without significant developments in technology (most of the developments in this story have only appeared in the past two decades). Firefighters live and die, often literally, by their training and their understanding of how fires behave. Technology is only a small part of that.
Things may be changing. A 2006 study in the journal Science claimed that fires in the western US have been getting longer, and occurring more frequently, since the mid-1980s. If this is the case, and if firefighters are going to be able to combat these blazes more effectively, then there’s an equally strong argument for more investment in technology - and a more open-minded approach to new ideas.
When Vanderzwaag hears about Tran and Robertson’s Wave Extinguisher, he gets excited. “How cool is that?” he says. “They’re going to make a ton of money.” He then grows serious. “Are there applications for it in the fire service? Maybe. But there’d be a long adoption time.”