By Federico Guerrini, Forbes contributor
When it comes to putting out fire, time is often the most important factor to consider. Time, and information. The more data about the burning structure – and the people trapped in it – is available to firefighters, the more they can operate effectively, saving lives and limiting the damages to the building.
In 2013 alone, according to data from the National Fire Protection Association, 1,240,000 fires were reported in the U.S., which caused the death of 3,240 civilians and $11.5 billion in property damage.
Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Fire Protection Research Foundation believe that at least part of this heavy toll could be reduced, if fire brigades, instead of relying heavily on the experience and judgment of the incident commander — as it often happens — could base their decisions on the data systematically and scientifically collected on the scene.
Their joint report “Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting” contains several examples of how enhanced data gathering, processing and delivery could transform traditional fire protection and firefighting practices, combining the the points of strengths of what we are getting used to call the “ Internet of Things” (in its various declinations) with the big data analytics.
A ‘smart’ approach
Here’s what “smart firefighting” would look like, according to the paper. “Once the equipment and personnel are on scene,” researchers write, “a temporary wireless network could be set up, deploying a number of different sensor technologies to obtain a comprehensive and accurate assessment of the evolving situation on the fireground.”
Technologies that in everyday life we’re getting used to — file under the “sensors” embedded in personal protection equipment — could track the location and health condition of responders; images coming from surveillance cameras could prove invaluable to discover how many people are inside the building and where; information gathered from ventilation systems could help estimate thermal conditions and the risk of flashover.
“Today there is significant variety to the information accessible by fire brigades, and great potential as the Internet of Things continues to proliferate,” the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s executive director Casey Grant tells me. “Real-time information will greatly assist emergency responder situational awareness, which is especially critical during an event when time is precious.”
Drones, could also play a role: They are already deployed for monitoring wildfire events; in the future, thanks to technological improvements, they could also be employed indoor. Robots, equipped with a wide array of chemical sensors, on-board cameras, and lasers, will be used to gather data in risky environments, where humans fear to thread.
Will there be too much data?
Clever as they might be, the implementation of these new techniques and methods for firefighting will not be always come easy, of course. One reason is that the introduction of new technology is advancing much faster than the regulatory and operational infrastructure that’s needed to support it.
For instance, while the use of aerial robotics by emergency responders is dramatically increasing, standards to address operations, deployment, training, have yet to be created.
“Further, there are important regulatory questions, such as the use by others (non-fire-service) that can interfere with emergency operations,” Grant says.
Another possible issue could be that of information overload. First responders might find themselves “task saturated” by everything – sensors, images, cameras – being thrown at them, and push back, as it happened when the first mobile data computers were deployed: fire officers would ignore them, or in some cases turn them off, preferring to rely on older, tried and true methods instead.
Last, but not least, financial considerations will have their say. Will there be enough funding to buy all the “smart” equipment researchers are advocating for? Grant hopes for the best.
“The availability of funding will be driven demand, and here this activity is blossoming and all indications are the demand will continue to increase,” he says.
This article was written by Federico Guerrini from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.