Nov 21 2019
Public Safety

How AR Firefighting Masks Improve Situational Awareness

Firefighters are starting to experiment with augmented reality helmet technology to aid them in emergency responses.

A firefighter rushing into a burning building to save those trapped inside must contend with a variety of factors: intense heat, billowing smoke, communications from a commander and other firefighters, calls for help from those inside. Most firefighters would likely welcome any new fire technology that can make their job easier and help save lives faster, and augmented reality helmets and masks could fit the bill.

Drones can help provide fire departments with information about fires by feeding them live video from above an incident. However, they are of limited use when firefighters are actually on the scene and need to enter a structure. 

Fire departments are starting to test out AR helmets and masks to give them greater situational awareness.

Augmented reality — in which digital information is overlaid onto a view of the real world via a headset, glasses or smartphone — can help first responders get information about the location they are moving through, providing structural layouts and even showing where doorframes and people are in smoke-filled environments. AR helmets and masks can also help with training. 

Further, AR technology can help firefighters navigate out of buildings too, which can truly be lifesaving

“Injuries and fatalities occur, sometimes within two or three feet of an actual exit,” Menlo Park Fire Technology Specialist Mike Ralston told CBS News, “simply because they can't see, they can't find an exit that's right next to them.”

Menlo Park Battalion Chief Tom Calvert added: “Most firefighters who die inside of buildings, that’s where we get lost and trapped. I don't want to overuse the ‘game-changing' phrase for this technology, but it is, it truly is.”

What Is an AR Mask and How Does It Help Fight Fires?

Firefighters have recently started carrying thermal vision cameras with them into burning buildings to help them see through flames and smoke. However, the drawback of these technologies is that they do not permit firefighters to operate with their hands free. 

“Current imaging solutions require the first responder to stop, divert their attention to a small screen and try to remember hazards in a complex scene,” notes Qwake, a startup AR firefighting mask firm that is developing a technology dubbed C-Thru. “Due to the rapid deterioration of cognitive abilities in high-stress hazardous environments, these solutions are ineffective.” 

AR masks and helmets attach thermal imaging cameras inside the mask or helmet. They then use computer vision via a computer module to take in thermal images and bring them directly into the firefighter’s field of vision inside the mask. 

“It can be pitch black in broad daylight inside a home with all the lights on,” Kirk McKinzie, captain and technologist for Cosumnes CSD Fire Department in Elk Grove, just south of Sacramento, Calif., tells CNET. “I’ve been unable to see my hand in front of my face many times.” 

McKinzie tested C-Thru back in 2017 and was impressed with the technology. “Where there is darkness, C-Thru brings light,” McKinzie says. “The comparison equivalent is like night and day.”


MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover the operational benefits of cutting-edge public safety tech. 

How AR Firefighter Helmets Help with Training

Augmented reality technology can help firefighters improve training ahead of actual emergency calls. AR helps to train firefighters to navigate locations and look for digital beacons in smoke-filled environments that are created digitally. It can also help commanders provide real-time feedback for how firefighters are engaging with the training scenario.

First responder training methods have stayed largely unchanged for decades despite the emergence of new technologies, according to the Shared Reality Lab at McGill University. “This is due in large part to the learning curve associated with any new technology as well as the problem of relying on a complex system that is more prone to malfunction than the simple tools already used,” the lab notes. “Many advantages of new technology are currently being ignored for these two reasons.”

The lab produced a project, Augmented Reality Tools for Improved Training of First Responders, which won a US Ignite award in 2014. Although the project used Google Glass and not a specialized AR firefighting mask, the benefits of the use of AR in training for firefighter response seem to be analogous. 

Part of the project’s aim is to provide first responders with training scenario information through a hands-free, heads-up display.

“This would let the responders visualize the path they have followed and allow for display of virtual beacons that indicate important positions or objects in the environment,” the lab says. “It would also allow the coordinators to offer real-time guidance, as needed, for example, prompting the responder with the recommended search pattern. Coordinators could also modify the training scenario at any point to introduce appropriate challenges.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how EMS agencies use tablets to achieve their missions in the field. 

What Firefighting AR Masks Are on the Market?

There are several AR masks or helmets for firefighters that are on the market. Qwake’s C-Thru is probably the most prominent, and it features thermal imaging, edge detection and toxicity sensors, as well as livestreaming. 

Another option is 3M’s Scott Sight In-Mask Thermal Imager, which uses a small thermal camera mounted to the side of the mask. “A miniaturized display mounted inside the facepiece allows the firefighter to always see the image without the need for reaching down and handling an imager,” the company notes. The camera “projects a small thermal image inside the mask, at nine frames per second,” CNN Business reports.

Epson and DJI Enterprise partnered late last year with the Menlo Park Fire Department in California to test their technologies. Using DJI drones and Epson Moverio AR smart glasses, the firefighters conducted an experiment to get a bird’s eye view of a fire scene beamed into the glasses. Though not, strictly speaking, a mask, the AR glasses combined with the drone allow firefighters to help their fellow first responders navigate the terrain from a safe, remote location and warn them of any dangers, Next Reality notes. That can improve operational efficiency, including for search and rescue, and improve the safety of firefighters and civilians.

How Much Does an Augmented Reality Firefighting Mask Cost?

Qwake CEO Sam Cossman told CBS in late 2018 that his company’s device was still at least a year away from being commercially available to fire departments. However, he said he expects it will cost less than the $4,000 to $6,000 fire departments currently spend on each two-way radio they deploy. 

According to CBS Boston and FireRescue1, 3M’s Scott Sight costs $1,500 for the mask and thermal imaging camera. According to FireRescue1, $1,900 buys the mask, thermal imaging camera and a self-contained breathing apparatus harness. The site notes that a standard mask sells for about $400. Epson Moverio’s AR glasses can be purchased for around $700.

gorodenkoff/Getty Images

Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.