Firefighter Dylan Murray’s mission is to get in close to a cluster of leaking pipes and do what he can to stop the flow of noxious gas. Moments earlier, a gleaming white mobile command center arrived on the back of a matching truck and was set down onto the rain-soaked parking lot. A portable generator has been fired up and is supplying power to the module. The charred shells of several burned-out cars have been abandoned in a nearby parking lot. A late-model Chevy van is resting on its side close by.
Murray stands alongside the command center with arms outstretched as Battalion Chief Stephen Hardesty and Capt. John Zour help him into his protective gear. Soon he is covered head to toe in a green disposable chemical-resistant jumpsuit, blue boots and black gloves. Duct tape seals the gaps at his wrists and ankles. It takes a few minutes to make sure his gas mask and helmet are secure and tightly sealed. Every part of his equipment is new except for the scuffed and scraped air tank strapped to his back.
There is no actual emergency on this wet Tuesday in February. The mobile command center has been brought to Dylan Murray’s home turf, the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center in Howard County, Md. The bright red T-shirt under his protective gear has “INSTRUCTOR” emblazoned in white letters across the back. Besides fire and rescue training, the facility is used by police, sheriffs, SWAT teams and the FBI. The leaking gas pipes that Murray is attending to are stand-ins for the real thing. The four-story industrial-looking building they are attached to is routinely set ablaze and then extinguished by firefighters in training. The three firefighters are here today to demonstrate the capabilities of a new piece of equipment designed to aid first responders in their work while keeping them safer.
In his protective gear, Murray steps away from the mobile command center and cautiously makes his way to the simulated gas leak next to the metal building. A rectangular aluminum plate on his chest is barely visible beneath the tangle of wires, hoses, buckles and straps that hold his equipment in place. Affixed to a black vest made of chemical-resistant material, the metal plate protects a new technology that makes communication and data transmission possible within inhospitable environments. “HOT” is spelled out in bold red letters across the top of the plate. A row of six small lights run vertically along one side. All are green except for the top one which is not illuminated. A thick cable snakes its way to a small camera fastened to the side of his helmet. Inside the command center, Chief Hardesty is directing the action, seeing what Murray sees, on a large wall-mounted monitor.
Video, voice and any data desired can be shared with the command center no matter what conditions are present.
High-Tech Solution for Hazardous Situations
The job of the firefighter is hazardous. In 2018 (the latest year figures are available), 82 firefighters died in the line of duty, of which 51 percent occurred during an emergency, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. Good communications is a key element to keeping injuries and fatalities as low as possible.
First responders entering a dangerous or contaminated area, referred to as the hot zone, need to be in contact with their colleagues in the cold zone, the area used for staging and directing rescue efforts. Relying on cell service is not always an option. Underground, inhospitable and remote locations can make cell and radio communication difficult, if not impossible.
Vorbeck Materials, a small Maryland company, designs and manufactures the new piece of wearable tech that Dylan Murray is demonstrating today. The company's vest allows fast and reliable video, voice and data communications in less-than-ideal situations. At the heart of this technology is a relatively new material called graphene. Just like coal or diamonds, graphene is nothing more than carbon. The difference is in the way the carbon atoms are arranged, in this case in tightly interlocking hexagons, like a honeycomb. The bonds between the atoms are extremely strong. Only one-atom thick, graphene is one of the strongest and lightest materials known to exist. It is also flexible, transparent, chemical-resistant and a highly efficient conductor of heat and electricity.
Exceptional durability, light weight and high conductivity without the need for external antennas make the vest a viable option for firefighters who need to communicate when and where other systems won’t work. Vorbeck has recently been showing its product at trade shows and there is interest from a few states and local jurisdictions, but to date, no one has paid the approximate $7,000-per-unit asking price, less than the existing voice-only options now on the market. In the meantime, Howard County is keeping a close watch on the testing being done by its local search and rescue team.
Capt. Zour and his team of first responders have been working with Vorbeck for years, offering insights and advice along the way. “We’ve tested it inside concrete dams. We’ve had success going below grade and inside of some pretty robust infrastructure,” he says. “The primary application for us, as we see it, is to be able to get inside of a building and have it reliably transmit outside the structure.”
Labels were added when it became apparent that the vest’s sleek, minimalist look was not user friendly.
It was Zour who came up with the colorful “HOT” and “COLD” labels affixed to the aluminum plates. He also labeled the row of small lights that indicate battery charge and network connection. Laminated copies of Zour’s “Technology Quick-Start Guide” are attached anywhere where they are sure to be seen. When a responder is answering a call, there might not be time to think about how to start and use a piece of equipment that may not have been touched in weeks.
Besides the addition of clear labeling, other changes made to the vests may have been less obvious, but still important. Straps were widened and repositioned, cables moved and antennas repositioned, all in the interest of comfort, speed and uniformity. “All their equipment, they put it on, and they pull forward to tighten. That was just something we wouldn’t have known unless they showed us,” says Vorbeck engineer Sriram Manivannan.
“They don’t have a lot of time to put on gear. They need something that they can grab and throw on, and it has got to be ready,” says John Lettow, Vorbeck’s president. “You have to keep it super simple. When they put it on, they have to know how to work it and remember it like that,” he says, snapping his fingers in the air. “And then it’s useful to them.”
Lettow admits he did not fully appreciate the variety and complexity of dangerous situations firefighters encounter on the job. “They are responding to everything from chemical spills to tractor trailer accidents on the highway to search-and-rescue scenarios. A first responder vehicle can pull up to an incident and that entry team or recon team or rescue team can go in and have communications amongst themselves, in the harshest environments,” he says. “You’re not worrying whether you have cell connectivity; this is building its own little network.”
Every person wearing a vest automatically becomes part of a closed mesh communications network capable of finding the best data route from hot zone to cold zone. “When responders go to an incident site, all they have to do is turn on their vests. The system automatically finds partners and meshes together,” says Manivannan. “It’s fully secure and it’s fully closed. If a commander comes on the site later on, if he has one of the vests, he can tap in by just turning it on.” If desired, the closed mesh network can be plugged into any other available network so that information can be shared with anyone, anywhere.
Responders can also drop “breadcrumbs” or smaller nodes as they are called, as they move through an area. These nodes also become part of the network. Cameras or sensors can be attached to the nodes, providing real-time pictures and information on areas already cleared. Any kind of data is transmittable through the network. Not only can the command center talk with colleagues in the hot zone and see what they see, sensors may relay temperature and air-quality information while biometrics keep tabs on the stress levels and physical well-being of responders in the hot zone.
“Data is data and this thing gets it out from one place to another,” says Manivannan. “What we’re really looking to do is make sure that each person who goes into a hazardous scenario as a first responder has live-streaming backup and can get their information out,” says Lettow. “And also get advice and assistance as they’re going in.”
The rain has stopped and sunlight is reflecting off the shallow puddles scattered across the training center’s pavement. Firefighter Murray is returning to the command module, having completed his drill with the leaking gas pipes. He peels off his equipment and everything is packed up and put away. The communication vests are stacked neatly in their own case.
Chief Zour can remember the first time Vorbeck’s president visited his station. “John came by the firehouse asking if we had any needs,” he says. “We had quite a few. We realized that our ability to reliably transmit video and audio feed from a hot zone to a cold zone is one of those things that would really benefit our people. We were grossly deficient in that capability prior to starting this project.”
Vorbeck’s wearable technology is continuously improved as field testing continues.