Colorado State University engineering professors are using a $917,000 Fire Prevention and Safety Grant to develop technology that would protect firefighters' cardiovascular health and stave off heat stress. Researchers will use an existing device from Niwot Technologies that can cool firefighters and hazmat teams as they work, said Thomas Bradley, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
"What we are trying to do is develop firefighter equipment that addresses major health problems for firefighters which is heat stress," he said. "The protective [bunker] gear insulates them from the outside environment but also holds in their metabolic heat so what we are trying ways to remove the metabolic heat the body produces from the inside of the gear and getting it into the outside."
According to NFPA estimates, 43% of firefighter line-of-duty deaths are the result of cardiovascular failure. The work is strenuous, and firefighters are bogged down by apparatus and fireproof suits, Bradley said. In fact, he said people generate about 600 watts of metabolic heat performing common firefighting tasks like climbing stairs and carrying heavy loads.
"It feels like having 10, 60-watt light bulbs under your coat," Bradley said. "Firefighters have a dangerous job and their equipment should not make it worse."
The core technology to be tested from Niwot is the SuperCritical Air Mobility Pack, or SCAMP. It originally was developed for NASA and used by astronauts around 20 years ago, said Terence Gier, the company's operations manager. SCAMP weighs 30 pounds and uses cryogenic or extremely cold air kept a thin, compact case. Grier said the company is partnering with CSU to modify the SCAMP technology by adding an air- purifying respirator, as well as a thermal-electric cooling system to control the amount of cryogen released. The goal is that the unit will cool down firefighters as they work and perform for four hours.
"We currently can provide four hours of purified air and then use the cryogen bottle to provide cooling in order to redistribute the heat stress while they are working," he said.
Bradley confirmed that Colorado State University researchers will develop a design to improve the pack's endurance and cooling function for use by hazmat and first responders. The development of the SCAMP toward the hazmat application will require research into manufacturing processes for thin-film thermoelectric cooling devices, improved system design, and further development of the firefighter/machine interface, he said. Integrating the system with a cooling suit and a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) will make it so that a cooling technology is available for longer incidents, like for hazmat workers, he said.
"The PAPR development and its integration with an accessory thermal electric, compressor cooler is so firefighters … working hazmat operations have something for four-hours of endurance," Bradley said.
"The motivation is to isolate [first responders] from heat stress and make it so they are more effective," he said. "They already they make sacrifices to make us safe so we don't want packs that can hurt cardiovascular health and cause heat stress."
Research is expected to be completed in October 2011, Bradley said.