After witnessing the intensity of the wildfires in Australia over the course of late 2019 and early 2020, it’s easy to see why firefighters need help gauging their vitals when working in extreme conditions for long periods.
“Overexertion injuries are the leading cause of injury for firefighters and can trigger cardiac events which comprise over half of the deaths in the field,” said Zack Braun, a current Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) student and co-founder of FireHUD, the first physiological monitoring device designed to mitigate the risk of overexertion.
Created by Braun and two other Georgia Tech graduates, FireHUD is a wearable technology that prevents heat stress by sending alerts to a cloud-based platform when a user has an abnormally high body temperature. The alert helps commanders keep track of their team’s vitals and gives them the ability to instruct users to seek safety before ever needing medical help.
The technology is currently used by firefighters in 12 departments with 120 FireHUD Bands now in use. Bolstered by a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and a secondary grant with the United States Air Force, the startup is now looking to expand its reach and deliver 500 additional devices for military evaluation and use.
“FireHUD Bands require no configuration and will send alerts when necessary – allowing users to be notified before injuries occur, but to be able to focus on the task at hand,” said Braun.
Additionally, FireHUD’s design focuses on safety through customization by utilizing a machine learning algorithm that modifies its thresholds for individual users.
“We developed an algorithm for ‘exertion’ that quantifies the current state of physiological strain for each individual user. This exertion metric is a zero to 100 percent value that allows commanders to easily glean the current workload of each responder in their team — removing the need to know individual heart rate thresholds.”
A History in Georgia Tech Startup Programs
Braun was a year away from graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) when a conversation with a family friend about firefighting safety concerns would instigate the launch of the startup.
“I came up with the original idea for a heads-up display after talking to a family friend at the Atlanta Fire Department. There I learned about firefighting in general as well as the lack of situational awareness that occurs in such a chaotic environment,” said Braun.
With this inspiration, Braun recruited the help of long-time friend and fellow ECE student, Tyler Sisk. Together, they joined Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X Idea-to-Prototype class as a means to work on the original prototype while earning class credit. The duo then won the InVenture Prize in 2016, a competition program that fosters entrepreneurial endeavors for undergraduate and recent graduates from Georgia Tech.
Photo by Fitrah Hamid
With this recognition and funding under their belts, the team recruited fellow classmate, Joe Boettcher to join them. Over the course of their undergraduate academic careers, the team of three was involved in a number of additional Georgia Tech startup incubation programs including three CREATE-X courses and Startup Launch.
Braun said, “All three of these programs provided mentorship and support in order to develop FireHUD’s prototypes and launch the company upon graduation in December 2017. On our last day before graduation, we won a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the National Science Foundation to continue development full-time.”
Now, after graduating with their B.S. degrees from Georgia Tech, Braun and Boettcher are continuing their education as OMSCS students.
Understanding Firefighters’ Experiences
Thanks to the SBIR grant, the FireHUD team was able to rapidly prototype and send 30 heads-up display units to select fire departments to trial. However, they were met with mixed responses and pivoted their design to an arm band after the heads-up display was found to be distracting.
However, this was not the first time that wearable technology in firefighting has been met with mixed responses.
“In parallel with these trials, we attended a conference called the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation (NFFF) Physiological Monitoring Technology Summit, which was crucial in pivoting the company towards a product that was more usable and adoptable. The keynote presentation given by a fire chief who talked about his department’s experience with physiological monitoring and the problems current physiological systems encounter,” said Braun.
Nine months later, the FireHUD team finished development of the first commercially viable physiological monitoring platform tailored to first responders which is now called the BioTrac Platform.
The BioTrac Platform is made up of three parts:
- the BioTrac Band, which is the wearable device,
- the BioTrac Gateway, which is the long-range radio transceiver,
- and the BioTrac Web Application, which is the real-time software dashboard.
The FireHUD developers are now working with a local contract manufacturer in Georgia to begin scaling the development for the BioTrac Platform’s hardware and plan to begin production by April 2020.
“We plan to sell to three markets that suffer injuries and deaths from heat stress and overexertion: first responders, the military, and industrial facilities,” said Braun.