Today is International Firefighters Day, an occasion to recognize and honor the sacrifices that brave men and women around the world make to safeguard our communities. The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) wholeheartedly supports firefighters year-round with research and development funding and scientific expertise. We consistently cultivate innovative gear, tools, guidance, and more that enhance firefighter safety and effectiveness; and today we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate these fine folks.
On a much sillier note, it is also Star Wars Day. The date was chosen for the pun on the catchphrase "May the Force be with you" as "May the Fourth be with you," but I’m willing to argue that firefighters could be considered real-life Jedi. Revered guardians of peace and justice? Protectors of all life forms? Sounds like a first responder to me!
S&T proudly serves the responder community as a sort of Yoda—advising through subject matter expertise and empowering with crucial capabilities to protect our version of the Galactic Republic. There is even an innovative technology currently under development that uses something akin to “the force” to accurately locate first responders in emergency situations. Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER) is a joint effort between S&T and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which amidst historic Mars research rover landings and helicopter flights, worked with us on this important initiative on our home planet. POINTER uses magnetoquasistatic energy fields to penetrate any building material and determine exact position and orientation in 3D space. It may not grant telekinesis and mind control but knowing where every member of an emergency response team is at all times is a big deal. While our think tank of experienced experts in the First Responder Resource Group didn’t send S&T a hologram message saying, “you’re my only hope,” they did identify the location and tracking technology offered by POINTER as their number one priority.
Another important area we’re focusing on is respiratory protection. Structural firefighters wear Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) on their backs to provide compressed, breathable air in hot, smoky, and hazardous environments. Traditional devices are large and bulky, though, extending far off the back of the firefighter. In addition to causing changes to the firefighters’ center of gravity, SCBAs can cause accessibility and safety issues in some situations. We’re working with Avon Protection Systems to address this, designing an innovative lower-profile (more compact), lighter-weight SCBA.
Wildland firefighters are exposed to many of the same naturally occurring respiratory hazards as structural firefighters, but SCBA tanks, which must be replaced roughly every 30 minutes, are impractical to use out in nature. As a result, wildland firefighters often use a mere bandana over their mouth and nose for respiratory protection. S&T has teamed up with TDA Research Inc. and Avon Protection Systems to develop a lightweight wildland respirator that is easy to don and doff and can be integrated with standard gear—similar to a bandana but with positive pressure and small, replaceable filters to ease breathing and comfort. We are currently working to gather responder input on the design and function for this innovative powered air purifying respirator; hands-on evaluation by wildland firefighters is on the horizon.
In addition to these upcoming capabilities, some S&T technologies are already, or soon-to-be, in the marketplace and making a real impact on firefighters’ mission success. One is the Burn Saver Thermal Sensor, which has been transitioned to TDA Research Inc. for commercialization. This wireless device is worn by firefighters to continuously monitor heat exposure, logging temperature data in real time. An alarm is sent if dangerous levels are reached, which gives firefighters one less thing to worry about. The sensors weigh a mere 12 ounces and run on a single AA battery.
Another is the RedZone™ Particulate Blocking Firefighter Turnout Gear, a specialized ensemble that prevents toxic substances in the air from entering through vulnerable spots, like arm and leg holes, and depositing on the skin. This type of exposure has been found to cause serious long-term health effects including cancer, making mitigation of the utmost importance. And finally, the Flex-Tuff Improved Firefighter Structure Gloves protect hands with infrared, thermal reflective, and flexible materials that provide enhanced dexterity, water repellency, and fire resistance.
At S&T, we love making science fiction into science fact. We don’t have lightsabers or speeder bikes (yet?), but there are plenty of other incredible technologies that do exist to help accomplish the mission of fire protection and response. To all the firefighters, salute you I do.