Despite rigorous training and protective clothing, tens of thousands of firefighters suffer burns in the line of duty every year—and that’s just an estimate for the U.S. The cause of some of the injuries is obvious: The firefighters are running to burning buildings, after all. But some are avoidable. Because most firefighter gear is heat resistant up to a certain temperature, the insulation can also numb a firefighter’s senses to how hot their surroundings really are. Combine this with adrenaline, which can dull our bodies’ ability to feel pain, and firefighters are sometimes simply not realizing they’re getting burned in the first place. A new smart suit could curb these injuries by alerting firefighters to dangerous temperatures, thanks to built-in sensors.
It started with the Brigade de Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris, or the Paris Fire Brigade, which is the largest fire service in Europe and the third largest in the world, with about 8,500 total firefighters. The brigade reached out to Sioen, the Belgian textile company that supplies the brigade’s protective clothing, with a concern: Firefighters were frequently suffering second-degree burns. How could they avoid those injuries?
The two organizations set out to find a solution, working with researchers at the Belgian innovation hub Imec and the University of Ghent, along with electronics hardware company Connect Group. The teams integrated electronic temperature sensors into the textiles, replacing standard electronic wiring with ribbons woven with conductive yarn. A coating makes the electronics resistant to possible contamination, like from the firefighter’s sweat, and the batteries for the system are housed in a case that is also protected against high temperatures.
When a firefighter wearing this sensor-integrated suit is at risk of getting burned, the system emits a warning signal from a speaker close to firefighter’s neck. The sensors start to warn at around 60° Celsius (140°F) measured in the inner layer, meaning that heat has penetrated through the suit. “It starts to beep, and the frequency increases when it’s getting hotter, [so] the firefighter knows it’s getting dangerous,” says Frederick Bossuyt from Imec. “Then the firefighter himself can decide to stay or evacuate. . . . It can be in some situations that he knows there’s a risk of getting burned, but if he can still save somebody laying there, he can decide himself.”
The sensor is another tool for these firefighters to use as they work, and how they use it will be informed by their training. The idea makes sense and sounds like it should already exist, Bossuyt admits, but the reality is more complicated. So far there are no garments on the market that are integrated with such sensors, he says, in part because of a lack of regulations regarding protective clothing with integrated electronics.
Also, there are a lot of factors at play: The sensors must be able to withstand high temperatures, too; be safe for the wearer; be washable; and be so seamless in the suit that they don’t hinder the firefighters as they get dressed, which can’t take more than a minute. “The system has to be easy to use, and not make more work,” says Vera De Glas, a research and development engineer at Sioen, “because the firefighters have to put on their equipment very quickly.”
The prototype suit these researchers created complies with the European protective clothing standard, and De Glas says that she’s active in ensuring there are new standards for electronic textiles, so that Sioen can create the safest garments possible because, as she says, this is equipment that “has to protect them against the biggest risk, and that’s death.” The teams did two “flashover tests” for this prototype suit, meaning it was exposed to 1,200°C, or 2192°F, and the sensors still worked after that heat, and the electronics didn’t pose any additional safety risks.
De Glas says the biggest feedback they heard from Paris firefighters during this project was that the system needs to be washable—without having to remove all the parts, because that affects how fast the firefighters can get ready. So far, they have’t hit that goal. But the researchers are already planning to continue their work on this project, and that washability will be the focus of the second phase. De Glas says they hope to have that completed by 2023.
A suit with temperature sensors could be used for more than just firefighting. De Glas sees this electronic textile fitting into the healthcare sector or even such temperature sensors in wetsuits that measure the cold to help water rescue services. The sensors in the fire suits could also collect additional data concerning heat stress, which is a hazard to firefighters. There’s still work to be done, but Bossuyt believes that in the near future, these sensors will be a regular part of firefighter’s jackets.