A consortium of academics and manufacturers will establish guidelines and technologies that monitor firefighters’ health and safety, under the advisement of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate. The Physiological Health Assessment System for Emergency Responders, or PHASER, will include the development of medical metrics and a wireless health-monitoring device that later may be used for firefighters in the field, said Jalal Mapar, S&T program manager.

“The objective is to determine how we can develop physiological health-monitoring systems using wireless technologies so we can [give it] to vendors to start building, according to the standards we develop,” Mapar said.

The U.S. Fire Administration is concerned about the trend of cardiovascular events associated with firefighter line-of-duty deaths. So the agency asked S&T to develop a technology system to reduce the number of cardiovascular-related LODDs. As a result, the study’s scope includes two components: a medical aspect and a technology aspect. To start, UCLA put together a team of medical and engineering staff to develop health metrics. The university also is working with Skidmore College, known for exercise physiology, to determine the baseline of the project: how cardiovascular health is affected by the work environment common to the fire service. They then will develop the metrics — or vital signs to be measured — in order to stave off heart attack-related deaths by firefighters.

“They also will look at ways to improve fitness assessment,” Mapar said. “For example, many of these firefighters have to go through their annual fitness test. They do treadmill and so on. We need a baseline for them while they are healthy and keep track of that as things happen and stress level goes up while they address the fire — and monitor those metrics as opposed to monitoring 60 vital signs.”

The next step will be to take the metrics and develop a system of sensors and wireless components to measure the health of a firefighter and transmit the data in real-time. S&T also is enlisted NASA and Zephyr Technology — which develops health status monitoring devices — to help. Zephyr will provide physiological sensors, often used by runners where a wrist-watch is worn and a sensor is strapped across the user’s chest, Mapar said. Those sensors monitor aspects of the physiological health, such as temperature and heart bit rate, and an embedded mini-microprocessor analyzes the data.

The information then is transmitted wirelessly — often times when line-of-sight is unavailable — through a radio carried by the firefighter. Mapar said the wireless transmission is based on technologies being developed in another S&T program for firefighter location tracking. Each radio worn by firefighters supports a wireless mesh network, and then physiological measurements gathered by the Zephyr system piggy-back on top of the network. They currently are transmitting data over the 900 MHz band, he said.

“If you know what is happening to [firefighters], you really need to know where they are to do something about it,” Mapar explained. “We need to bring that information real-time to the incident commander who is outside at the fire truck. Then everyone has great situational awareness of what is happening.”

The system isn’t for just firefighters, Mapar added. In fact, the implications of physiological health assessment through the use of wireless technologies for commercial use are beyond first responders. He believes combining health monitoring with location tracking will be be a game changer when it comes to preventative health care.

“I know the network carriers are looking at the next revenue sources for their businesses and they’ve identified location-based tracking and aspects of health monitoring as a major source in the next five to 10 years,” Mapar said. “So what we are developing is a small piece, but it may have a huge impact on the general public and healthcare market.”

Mapar expects a prototype system will be ready for testing in fireground environments in Q1 2011.