Tech in 2020: How the fire service leveled up its technology game

From ground-based robots to space-based tools, there are several high-tech products making waves in the fire service


Not all the news in 2020 was bad. In fact, 2020 saw some significant technological achievements. Unfortunately, as so much of the country was focused elsewhere, many firefighters may have missed the stories highlighting how the fire service – and supporting companies – leveled-up its tech game this year.

Check out these nine technological advances making waves in the fire service.

LAFD Acquires Fire-Fighting Robot

In October 2020, the Los Angeles Fire Department unveiled its Robotics Systems 3 (RS3) firefighting droid to the world. About the size of a Smart car, the bright yellow RS3 is a remotely controlled, hose-equipped tank-like vehicle. It can pump up to 2,500 gpm of foam or water into potentially explosive indoor fires that are too dangerous for humans to attack.

The Los Angeles Fire Department introduced its new firefighting robot at a press conference Tuesday. RS3 can blast 2,500 gallons of water or foam per minute and is designed to battle fires in areas too dangerous for firefighters. (LAFD Photo/Gary Apodaca)
The Los Angeles Fire Department introduced its new firefighting robot at a press conference Tuesday. RS3 can blast 2,500 gallons of water or foam per minute and is designed to battle fires in areas too dangerous for firefighters. (LAFD Photo/Gary Apodaca) (LAFD Photo/Gary Apodaca)

The RS3 was built by Howe and Howe Technologies, which manufactures bomb disposal robots for the U.S. Army.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas explained the simple reason the LAFD bought the RS3: In the deadliest fires, “I can afford to lose one of these wonderful machines. I cannot afford to lose a firefighter.”

The RS3 proved its worth during a massive textile warehouse fire inside two adjacent LA structures the day before. Working alongside 130-plus firefighters, the RS3 used its front-mounted plow to push its way into the burning structure after fire crews had pulled back for safety reasons. Interestingly, this call was an unscheduled stop for the RS3, which was being trailered to a demo at the LAFD training facility when its assistance was sought.

Drones Drop ‘Dragon Eggs’ to Starve Fires in California and Colorado

‘Dragon Eggs’ are one of the more creative firefighting tech advances to be deployed during 2020. They are ideally suited for igniting fire breaks in hard-to-reach areas.

Each Dragon Egg is a one-inch sphere the size of a ping-pong ball, which is filled with potassium permanganate. The eggs are flown in by remotely controlled drones to be dropped ahead of an advancing fire.

Just before the drop, each egg receives a small injection of anti-freeze. The resulting chemical reaction causes the Dragon Eggs to ignite once they hit the ground, causing small fires that starve the advancing major fire of usable fuel.

Aerial drops of Dragon Eggs helped to stem wildfires in California and Colorado this year. The unmanned drone drops created effective fire breaks without the need to put ground crews and staffed firefighting helicopters in harm’s way.

“A bonus is you can do nighttime ops and work in smoky conditions, because if a drone crashes, no one dies,” said retired firefighter Simon Weibel, now doing operations and sales for Drone Amplified, in an interview with National Geographic magazine.

Residents who purchase the bulb can install it in place of their porch light or another light that is visible from the road and use it as a regular light bulb until they need emergency services. When the resident calls 911, the app will activate the bulb through Wi-Fi connection and cause it to flash strobing red, white and blue lights.
Residents who purchase the bulb can install it in place of their porch light or another light that is visible from the road and use it as a regular light bulb until they need emergency services. When the resident calls 911, the app will activate the bulb through Wi-Fi connection and cause it to flash strobing red, white and blue lights.

‘The Locator’ Makes It Easy for Fire/EMS to Locate Homes

Even in the age of GPS, it can be difficult for fire/EMS crews to locate homes during emergency calls, especially in remote areas. To remedy this problem, longtime paramedic Johnathan Harrison created The Locator, an app-controlled porch light (or any other light that faces the road) that strobes in red, white and blue colors, alerting rescue crews to the home’s location from a distance.

The Locator light bulb and app are designed to automatically activate during emergency situations. As soon as the user calls 911, the app signals the light bulb via WiFi to turn on its red, white and blue strobe effects.

Harrison invented The Locator in response to a tragic incident that occurred in 2009, when he and his EMS crew couldn’t find the mobile home of a 2-year-old experiencing cardiac arrest.

"This unfortunately added almost four minutes to the time of arrival at the child's side,” Harrison said. “That does not sound like a lot of time but in a cardiac arrest situation, it could literally mean the difference between life and death. Sadly, the child did not survive and that call has haunted the crew for over a decade."

Update: The Locator was taken off the market shortly after its release due to errors with connection, glitches and software issues, but the company says it's on track to re-launch in mid-March 2021. The company released this statement: "We’ve been busy at The Locator and have great news! We have signed with a new manufacturer and new software development firm out of Nashville, TN. as well as changed our box color to the red from blue which looks amazing! We have a tentative re-launch scheduled for mid March 2021 and an app design that is far more superior to what we had. The most important feature is that the connection for the user will be super simple with a 1 click connection! You will be able to connect multiple bulbs, share your bulbs, rename the bulbs according to where you install them, set up auto on/off scheduling, send a text to emergency contacts when the bulb is activated and so much more! The Locator is coming back soon and we will be better than ever!"

Teaching Firefighting in VR

The widespread wildfires that devastated Australia in January 2020 demonstrated the importance of firefighter training in dangerous situations.

To provide this education safely, the Australian company FLAIM has designed a fully-immersive Virtual Reality (VR) training system. The FLAIM Trainer outfits the students with special turnout gear that heats up depending on the specific training situation, a VR headset with earphones, and simulator hoses that replicate the force of actual water pressure to support a series of learning scenarios. The training environments include Exurb (suburbs), Airport, High-rise, Airbase, Docks, Highway, Mining, Navy, Parks, Gas Station, Refinery, Residential, Rural, Tunnel and Vehicle 360.

"The whole point of VR is that we can put people in a traditionally dangerous situation, let people make decisions, and let people make mistakes," James Mullins, founder and CEO of FLAIM Systems, told CNN Business. "Our technology enables people to train without discharging foam into the environment, without creating smoke, or using water.”

SpaceX Lends Satellite Internet Service to Fire-Ravaged Town

A September 2020 wind-driven wildfire destroyed almost every structure in the small farming town of Malden in eastern Washington, reported NPR. “The scale of this disaster really can't be expressed in words,” Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said in a statement. “The fire will be extinguished, but a community has been changed for a lifetime.”

One casualty of the Malden wildfire was the town’s communications infrastructure, which cut its links to the outside world. Stepping in to help was SpaceX with its Starlink satellite-based internet service. SpaceX set up free WiFi internet and telephone access for first responders and the public at the Washington Emergency Management Division (WEMD) office in Malden. SpaceX satellite access terminals were also set up at Bonney Lake in Western Washington, which was affected by the Sumner-Grade wildfire.

"Glad SpaceX could help!" tweeted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted. "We are prioritizing emergency responders & locations with no Internet connectivity at all."

The Connected Right-Sized Emergency Firetruck stands at just 6 feet and 5 inches tall and carries a 125-gallon tank.
The Connected Right-Sized Emergency Firetruck stands at just 6 feet and 5 inches tall and carries a 125-gallon tank. (Photo/Panasonic Corporation of North America)

Good Trucks Come in Small (Electric) Packages

The old saying, “good things come in small packages” was taken to the next level in January 2020, when Panasonic and Tropos Motors unveiled a compact electric fire truck at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show.

The “Connected Right-Sized Emergency Fire Truck production concept” combines a Tropos Motors' compact electric fire truck with a rugged Panasonic TOUGHBOOK FZ-G1 tablet computer. The electric fire truck is narrow and stands just 6 feet 5 inches tall, yet carries a 125-gallon water tank and hoses for quick responses in tight areas. According to Panasonic, these trucks have a footprint that fits on the width of a typical cart path.

As for the price? Panasonic reports that while full-sized fire truck could cost as much as $500,000, the Tropos FRV fire truck is one-tenth of the cost with similar capabilities.

Mapping Wildfires from Space

Managing wildfires is a major challenge for countries with large wildland areas. With 42% of its land covered by forests, Canada is responding to this challenge through the WildFireSat system. The system consists of one or more space-based satellites equipped with infrared sensors to measure the energy emitted by wildfires, which is known as Fire Radiative Power (FRP). These measurements will be taken daily and used to determine the location and severity of wildfires.

“With FRP information, essential characteristics of wildfires, such as fire intensity and rate of spread can be derived,” according to the Canadian Space Agency. “It will also give us accurate data on carbon emission from wildfires.”

The WildFireSat system will support smoke and air quality forecasting, and support carbon monoxide monitoring. Because the system will rely on infrared rather than visible light sensors, it will be able to track the progress and status of Canadian wildfires day and night.

The WildFireSat system is due to enter the design and construction phase in 2021. If all goes to plan, the system should be launched into orbit starting in 2025.

Drones That Fight High-Rise Fires

Fighting high-rise fires has long been a serious problem for fire departments. Ground-based equipment can only reach so far up a building, while requiring firefighters to carry hoses and other equipment up stairwells is time-consuming, exhausting and dangerous.

In 2020, the Chinese drone-maker EHang demonstrated the EHang 216F firefighting drone (aka AAV, for autonomous aerial vehicle) in Yunfu, China, to specifically address this problem.

According to EHang, the 216F is specially designed for high-rise firefighting. The eight-rotor drone can carry up to 40 gallons of firefighting foams and six fire extinguisher bombs in a single trip, and has a maximum flight altitude of nearly 2,000 feet.

Equipped with an autonomous onboard flight control system, the 216F uses a visible light zoom camera to quickly identify the location of fire, then hover in position while using a laser aiming device to fire (in succession) a window breaker. Fire extinguishing “bombs” and then a full-range spray of firefighting foam on the fire.

Multiple 216Fs can be remotely dispatched to high-rise fires, getting started before ground-based apparatus arrive at the scene.

Containing COVID-19 Risks

The risk of contracting COVID-19 via aerosol spray has inspired many fire and EMS professionals to devise clever solutions to protect themselves.

This device focuses the ambulance exhaust fan directly over the patient’s head to help draw out aerosols as they are generated. (Photo/Jamie Lee, Cumming, GA)
This device focuses the ambulance exhaust fan directly over the patient’s head to help draw out aerosols as they are generated. (Photo/Jamie Lee, Cumming, GA) (Photo/Jamie Lee, Cumming, GA)

For Firefighter-Paramedic Kari Dickerson of Kentucky’s Hebron Fire Protection District, the solution was an improvised “vent hood” inside the ambulance. He built it using the vehicle’s exhaust fan, a dryer vent kit and an unintentional contribution from his dog.

“I remember flipping the exhaust fan switch [inside the ambulance] and making a joke about how I wished we could bring the exhaust to the patient,” Dickerson said. “It kind of snowballed from there. I had a K9 'Cone of Shame' in my trunk from my German Shepherd and a couple rolls of duct tape and a few ratchet tie-downs. About an hour later, we had everything set up.”

Bossier Parish (Louisiana) EMS took a different approach to the aerosol infection issue. In this case, the agency adapted an existing PVC tubing-based patient isolation device for isolating COVID-19 patients in the ambulance, by adding ports to let medics treat them while remaining outside of the device.

“It is very helpful in isolating the patient and medic from each other and attempting to contain the droplets and other contaminants,” Bossier Paramedic Rose Rivera said. “I definitely appreciate that our organization has taking our safety into consideration during this time by having these built and installed.”

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