Annapolis firm helps Md. firefighters stay rested

Annapolis-based Zephyr Technology is working with local department to electronically monitor firefighters' vital signs

By Shantee Woodards
The Capital

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — The heart races. Lungs burn.

Even with their bodies telling them to slow down, most firefighters instinctively want to push past their physical limitations to put out fires or help people in distress. A transplanted New Zealand company wants to help the Annapolis Fire Department keep their firefighters safe by better monitoring their vital signs.

The department currently relies on old-school techniques such as manually monitoring the time firefighters spend in hazardous conditions. But that hardly provides a clear indication of a firefighter's level of fatigue, dehydration or other health problems.

Annapolis-based Zephyr Technology is working with the local department to electronically monitor firefighters' vital signs when responding to emergencies. Zephyr is letting Annapolis Fire use the devices, but the department must upgrade its radios to transmit this data in real time.

The devices are readily available on the market, and Zephyr is using Annapolis Fire as a test market to any upgrades or changes they may make.

"They're our hometown heroes," said Steven Small, Zephyr's vice president of business development. "(With this device), we can tell the safety officer or incident command when to rest and rehydrate his people so that they're ready to go back, as opposed to being injured and going to the hospital."

Without this technology, the department has its own process of keeping firefighters rested. Firefighters are cycled into hazardous scenes and burning buildings for no more than 20 minutes, and then taken out to rest.

The Zephyr devices can monitor 64 firefighters at once. Battalion Chief John Menassa compared the software program to a car speedometer, where the gauges turn red if the heart rate is too high.

"It really is a cutting-edge technology for us," Menassa said. "It takes us far beyond where we ever were before this as far as being able to tell what's going on with firefighters in action."

Making the technological leap won't happen until sometime over the summer for the AFD. It will cost about $1,500 to upgrade the radios, or the department could use a Web-based version of the technology that connects to a smart phone via bluetooth.

"It's really advanced compared to what we used to do," Menassa said. "In the past, we kind of had to go by feel and assessing what people in the gear were telling us. The nature of wanting to get back in and continue working sometimes puts themselves a little too far out of their physical [ability]."

Zephyr moved to Annapolis from New Zealand in 2006, and is located across the street from the fire department's Taylor Avenue location. The company provides a series of products geared toward providing health data with a network of health providers.

The company made headlines in 2010, when it provided the technology that helped care for the 33 Chilean workers trapped in the collapsed San Jose mine. The BioHarness is a chest strap that measured heart rate, breathing, temperature changes, activity and posture.

The fire department's device will work similarly. It will be connected to a firefighter through a chest strap or T-shirt. The device will keep track of the firefighter's core body temperature and heart rate, as well as notifying the staff when these signs are elevated.

Aside from first responders, the device is also being marketed to athletes. The devices are already available on the market, but Zephyr is working with Annapolis Fire as it makes any changes or upgrades to the equipment. It costs about $500 per person monitored.

Zephyr Technology will let the Annapolis Fire Department use its devices that monitor the vital signs of firefighters. The devices will flag the staff as to when a firefighter is showing signs of fatigue or dehydration.

Copyright 2012 Capital Gazette Communications, Inc.
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