Protecting our firefighters through human-centred engineering

Protecting our firefighters through human-centred engineering

Researchers at RMIT University are developing intelligent garments and materials to protect and monitor the health of the most vulnerable frontline workers as they tackle the chaos and catastrophe of wildfires.

This year, devastating wildfires have touched all four corners of the world – from the peatlands of the Arctic Circle to the west coast of the United States and the Amazon rainforest.

In Australia, toxic bushfire smoke affected urban areas hundreds of kilometres away, reducing air quality to ‘hazardous’ levels.

With climate change and human mismanagement predicted to bring about fire seasons even more intense and catastrophic, it has never been more important to protect the firefighters who risk their health and own existences to defend both the environment and human populations. 

The next generation of smart protective clothing

Through human-centred engineering, researchers at RMIT University are developing functional materials and intelligent garments to enhance the personal protective gear worn by firefighters and other first responders.

“In my research group we're engineering new functional materials and then integrating these with frontier technologies in wearable computing and health IoT,” said Professor Olga Troynikov from RMIT’s School of Engineering.

Working alongside the Intelligent Automation Research Group, the engineers unite smart garments with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to create new possibilities to develop Machine Learning (ML) algorithms capable of learning firefighting situations.

“By combining our cross-disciplinary expertise, we incorporate monitoring capabilities into the protective garments by fusing various biodata and environmental data,” said Dr Ehsan Asadi from the Intelligent Automation Research Group.

“By using embedded sensors and connecting garments with Clouds and Big Data, it's possible to monitor a firefighter’s exhaustion levels or detect the imminent dangers of the fire environment – and take appropriate action.”

30 September 2020

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The physical demands of firefighting can be exacerbated by heavy and bulky uniforms The physical demands of firefighting can be exacerbated by heavy and bulky uniforms

Functional materials to combat physical stresses

Troynikov’s research group looks at the human attributes of the wearers – the ergonomics, biomechanics, and thermal physiology – to develop materials to relieve the physical demands of firefighting, which is often exacerbated by heavy and bulky protective gear.

Underpinned by materials engineering, the research focuses on the end user’s tasks, the tough environments in which they work, and the physical stresses they experience.

“We engineer materials and garment systems that not only effectively protect and reduce the burden of wearing protective gear, but also equip the body to undertake exhausting tasks in extreme environments,” said Troynikov.

“For example, by incorporating super absorbent materials into the internal layer of protective clothing we're able to improve comfort levels for the end user by keeping the skin dryer.”

Putting the prototypes to the test

Using RMIT’s state-of-the-art research and laboratory infrastructure the researchers test their prototypes in conditions that mimic those occurring in real fire scenarios.

“We work with industry partners to develop protective materials and garments that best suit the firefighter’s body to reduce the physiological burden of extreme heat,” said Troynikov.

“Considering the nature of our research, we test our materials in a controlled setting before trying them out on humans – this is where thermal manikins come in."

As completion of the Manikin Based Flash Fire Evaluation Research Facility draws near, the researchers will soon be able to evaluate how complete protective systems and materials hold up in situations where firefighters are exposed to open flame.

“The first of its kind in Australia, and among only a few in the world, this facility will allow us to evaluate where burns could occur on the body if the firefighter’s protection gear is not up to scratch,” said Troynikov.

“Using the manikins we can assess the performance of our prototypes in terms of thermal protection through sensor data collection and analysis.”

As firefighting forces become less male-dominated, the engineers also seek to maximise the comfort and protective capability of new garments and materials according to the end user’s physical frame. 

“Using 3D body scanning we have found that air trapped underneath the same size jacket differs in volume according to the physique of the wearer,” said Troynikov.   

“The volume of trapped air can affect the material’s thermal and vapor resistance and impact upon both the firefighter’s physiological comfort and the efficacy of the protective clothing.”    

By engaging directly with firefighters throughout all stages of the research, Troynikov and the team are able to grasp the real issues of importance to the end user and develop the cutting-edge materials engineering solutions to tackle them.

Troynikov is a member of RMIT’s Disaster Research and Response Network, a collective of researchers taking a multi-disciplinary approach to disaster research and working with communities to identify and build resilience to better respond to and recover from disasters.

 

Story: Hannah Tribe

30 September 2020

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  • Research
  • RMIT Europe
  • Engineering
  • Advanced Materials

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