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FirefightersThermal sensor provides warning for firefighter safety

Published 22 December 2016

The conditions inside a burning building are perilous and can change rapidly. For firefighters searching for people trapped within a burning building, these risks can be exacerbated in a matter of seconds as exposure to high temperature may cause their personal protective equipment (PPE) to fail. This is particularly true in the presence of infrared radiation, which can rapidly increase the temperature of a firefighter’s environment without warning. DHS S&T  is now working with partners to develop the Burn Saver Thermal Sensor, a battery-powered device that will be carried by firefighters and detects thermal changes in their operating environments.

The conditions inside a burning building are perilous and can change rapidly. For firefighters searching for people trapped within a burning building, these risks can be exacerbated in a matter of seconds as exposure to high temperature may cause their personal protective equipment (PPE) to fail. This is particularly true in the presence of infrared radiation, which can rapidly increase the temperature of a firefighter’s environment without warning.

Lacking an early warning detection system, firefighters are reliant on their own senses; however, this can put them at risk. By the time they recognize the danger signs, firefighters can find themselves in a thermal environment that can cause the facepiece of their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to fail.

Traditionally, firefighters are taught to rely on the sensitivity to high temperatures of their ears — and often burnt ears — as the indication that they are in a dangerous thermal environment. Due to improvements in head protection, however, firefighters no longer feel that heat on their ears to experience this warning; instead, they often find out when their SCBA facepieces begin to bubble, soften, or even melt. In reality, it may only take sixty seconds of exposure to Class IV fires (500-1832°F) and heat fluxes of 10-100 kilowatts per square meter before the SCBA equipment begins to degrade.

DHS S&T says that this is why the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) is working to provide firefighters with a timely warning system that PPE failure is imminent, allowing them to exit the area and head to safety before it’s too late.

FRG is now working with TDA Research, Inc. in a Phase Two Small Business Innovation Research contract to develop the Burn Saver Thermal Sensor, a battery-powered device that will be carried by firefighters and detects thermal changes in their operating environments. The goal of the effort is to develop a lightweight instrument that uses color-coded lights to signal environmental temperature increases, including a warning that they should immediately leave the area when PPE failure is imminent. 

The Burn Saver system is designed to recognize different types of thermal conditions through algorithms that are being developed by TDA researchers. Laboratory testing continues to characterize temperature conditions and heat profiles to ensure the algorithms accurately characterize thermal environments encountered by firefighters. The Phase II development effort will also examine possible design configurations using the thermoplastic material that is planned for the commercialized device to make the unit lighter than the current metal prototypes and optimize the final design to minimize the size of the Burn Saver device.

“The capability for firefighters to continuously detect, monitor and analyze thermal environmental threats in real time, and quickly respond, is essential to FRG’s efforts to decrease the number of PPE failures and improve firefighter safety,” said FRG Project Manager Bill Deso.