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The "Smart Helmet" designed by GIX students to help wildland firefighters. Photo courtesy Global Innovation Exchange

As we looked back on the historic wildfires that ravaged the U.S. West Coast this past summer, how can we use technology to protect the firefighters who protected us?

Generally, wildfires are unplanned and uncontrolled burns that occur in hard-to-reach areas. Due to high temperatures, smoke, and the speed at which they spread, they are extremely dangerous to wildlife, livestock, property, and people. These fires often cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem and costs exceed hundreds of millions of dollars. Those who fight wildfires face long hours, dangerous working conditions, and smoke inhalation while being pushed to their physical and mental limits. With support from Vulcan and the Washington Department of Natural Resources (WADNR) Wildfires division, University of Washington students at the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX) are developing a “smart helmet” to monitor the health of these firefighters, which will provide them with early-warnings and help improve safety measures.

“There are many challenges with this project, including designing a device that reliably transmits data in real-time with no Wi-Fi or cellular connection, and that doesn’t interfere with firefighters’ vision or range of motion,” said CJ Ngeh, one of the students working on the project. 

The team from left to right: CJ Ngeh, Gulnara Sarymbekova, Paulo Goncalves, Jiali Zhang, and He Feng. Photo courtesy Global Innovation Exchange

The "Smart Helmet" Team

These GIX students are working with Washington state's DNR and Vulcan technologists to explore how they can use the latest tech to protect our state's fire crews.

The rugged, lightweight helmet currently under development features a suite of sensors capable of gathering data for heart rate and skin temperature, an accelerometer, and GPS. Bluetooth Low Energy, a wireless personal area network, is used to transmit health data to the firefighter’s phone. The project team is also investigating technologies to transmit data in real-time to off-site crew supervisors. By utilizing a firefighter’s previous health history and the data gathered in real-time, in conjunction with machine learning, students aim to predict and prevent heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and dehydration for firefighters working in the field. 

“With the emerging technologies we see coming out of universities and industry, it makes sense for us to take a closer look at what’s possible, and what could be possible in the future to support our firefighters’ wellbeing,” said Russ Lane, assistant wildfire division manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “There’s a lot of opportunity for technological innovation in the work we’re doing, and a public-private partnerships like we have here with GIX and Vulcan are a step in the right direction.”

“The western US has experienced some of its warmest temperatures on record in the past 15 years. With the severity of the fires we see increasing, and 54% of firefighter deaths since 2000 caused by overexertion or stress, it’s apparent that resources should be dedicated to exploring the creation of technologies that help keep the firefighters who protect our families, homes, pets, and natural resources safe,” said Chris Emura, executive director of engineering at Vulcan Inc. “We’re excited to see where the students end up with this project and what we can all learn from it.”

It's apparent that resources should be dedicated to exploring the creation of technologies that help keep the firefighters who protect our families, homes, pets, and natural resources safe

Chris Emura, Vulcan Inc.