John Leonard December 14, 2016
Firefighters, security guards and health workers routinely risk their lives whilst trying to protect people and their property from harm. It’s vital that risks are minimized as much as possible. Technological advances present new ways to help meet this need.
A firefighter enters a burning office block to try to save workers trapped inside. All being well, their breathing apparatus and protective clothing will keep them safe but if they’re in there too long or get hit by an unexpected explosion, they could run into serious difficulty.
Smart clothing for emergency personnel
To improve upon this scenario, we can equip the firefighters with sensors to remotely monitor their heartrate and breathing.
Today, a Wearable Advanced Sensor Platform (WASP) is available to monitor various physiological signs. Data from a bioharness gets transmitted to a smartwatch and a remote control center, and a TRX location unit which provides accurate 3D mapping even when GPS is unavailable. If someone is starting to show signs of being in trouble, they can be instructed to withdraw before they fall unconscious. If they do fall unconscious, they stand a better chance of being located and rescued.
Another improvement that we could bring to this situation is in locating the people who are trapped inside the building. If everyone in the building is issued with a Bluetooth tag – say, access cards for workers and name badges for visitors – then in the event of an emergency firefighters instantly know which floors are clear and where they need to focus resources.
This saves valuable time and increases the chances of saving lives. This is a simple technology that could also be applied to construction sites, where incidents can leave many people stranded with no way of getting down.
Protecting the protectors
Such technology can also be used to monitor the vital signs of a security guard, for example. Used in conjunction with an accelerometer to detect impact if someone falls to the ground, the resulting composite data (which could include location, impact temperature, heart rate and so on) will give an offsite control center a fuller picture of what may have happened.
In the event of a likely problem, a response team can be summoned via a silent alarm to increase the odds of catching the intruder and potentially save the guard’s life.
Improving safety for health workers
Healthcare professionals, especially those working in mental health, know only too well that dangerous situations can arise and escalate very quickly. It’s important in such situations to remain calm and attempt to de-escalate as quickly as possible. Having to cross a room to reach for a panic button could be something that makes the situation worse.
Equipping nurses and doctors with a small beacon tag that they can activate quickly and quietly in the event of a problem, whilst trying to calm a distraught patient, would improve this greatly. Other staff members could be alerted to attend to the situation, with the exact location known through the beacon’s relative location to hubs placed throughout the building.
It’s not just at-risk workers who could benefit from location-aware technology. Anyone of us is at risk of being robbed or assaulted as we go about our daily lives. Bluetooth beacons that can be easily activated without an attacker realizing, so that the police can attend the incident whilst it’s still in progress, could mean the difference between life and death.
Concerns and pitfalls
Obviously any technology which can track and report people’s location is a potential risk to personal privacy. Workers’ unions are unlikely to take too kindly to any technology that can track workers, without assurances that it can only be used in certain circumstances. Likewise, members of the public need to decide whether the potential for their location to fall into the wrong hands is outweighed by any increase in safety.
Companies that manufacture or monitor location tags will need to provide guarantees that the system is safe from hackers and also from their own employees. It will also need to be robust enough to hold up in an emergency. A system that relies on beacons might stop working if a building is on fire, so a system that connects via a smartphone will probably be required, to avoid this problem.
Another potential problem is the accidental activation of panic alarms. This can be solved by requiring the button to be tapped in a certain pattern, simple enough to remember in a critical moment, but complex enough that it would be unlikely to occur by chance.
Opportunities beyond emergency personnel
Looking beyond the benefits of smart clothing for emergency personnel, anyone working in isolated or dangerous conditions could benefit from these technological advances. Farmers, factory workers or even the military could see their jobs becoming safer.