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Over the past year, we’ve watched the world burn. Fires have devastated Australia, consumed parts of California, and caused outrage in the Amazon – all in the space of 12 months. With climate change causing longer, hotter, drier spells, experts predict that wildfire seasons across the globe will extend and become more extreme. This will put additional pressure on first responders in the fire service and require more resources to prevent the obliteration of communities that lie in the paths of the flames.
Urban and industrial fires, fueled in-part by
increasing density, also continue to prove dangerous. Emergency response services are a critical part of every well-functioning city. But while more technology is woven into the fabric of our cities every day, first responders rarely see the benefits of new tech, and the fire service has so far lacked investment in bringing its systems into the 21st century.
The particular challenges for firefighters in urban environments include working in smoke-filled mazes of unfamiliar warehouses, factories, apartment buildings or commercial developments, facing infernos with limited knowledge of their surroundings – daunting to even the most seasoned and experienced among them. For volunteer firefighters, the job is even more perilous. Tackling these blazes, sometimes in their hundreds or even thousands, our first responders need the best systems and equipment to be able to effectively extinguish without endangering their own safety. But constantly monitoring exactly where these brave individuals are located – in the midst of chaos, smoke, and debris – is currently a rudimentary process involving whiteboards and two-way radios, leaving much room for error. Over the past decade, 200 deaths and 9,000 injuries have resulted from confusion during firefighting operations in the US alone.
It’s clear that lateral thinking is needed to help introduce high-tech products and software into the fire service, in order to provide a better tracking system and to save lives. As a volunteer firefighter for five years, Patrick O’Connor witnessed the issues firsthand. Following a tragedy in his brigade, resulting in the loss of two firefighters, he decided to do something about it. “Really what started it was we suffered a loss of two firefighters due to unseen confusion. They were sent into the building to go find a firefighter because the building was about to collapse. But it wasn’t accounted for correctly, so they went in to find people who weren’t even there, and they ended up falling through the floor,” says O’Connor, founder of 3AM Innovations – an URBAN-X Cohort 06 company.
So while working a full-time job running restaurants, O’Connor began moonlighting into the early hours, spending the best part of two years researching ways he could use technology to develop a more advanced tracking method for firefighters. Regularly crashing out in his home office, O’Connor chose to name his company 3AM as a nod to these late nights. Founded in 2015, the Buffalo-based startup specializes in technology for the fire service. Specifically, it has developed a new system that allows fire chiefs to monitor the locations of their squad from a custom-designed device, or a smartphone app, that updates in real-time and does not require a GPS signal – which can be disrupted by buildings, topography, or even dense foliage, and therefore prove inaccurate in some of the situations that firefighters find themselves in regularly.
“Really what started it was we suffered a loss of two firefighters due to unseen confusion. They were sent into the building to go find a firefighter because the building was about to collapse. But it wasn’t accounted for correctly, so they went in to find people who weren’t even there, and they ended up falling through the floor,”
Patrick O’Connor, co-founder of 3AM Innovations TRACKING THE BREAKTHROUGH
3AM’s breakthrough came when discovering the tracking technology used in drones and driverless cars, known as ultra-wideband (UWB) radio, which allows computer- programmed objects to monitor and maintain distance from one another.
“The advent of drones and self-driving cars really pushed forward a lot of technology, and miniaturized some technology that we were able to leverage,” says O’Connor. “This is effectively how drones are able to swarm and stay away from each other, they’re telling each other how far away they are from one another so they don’t crash. But we’re taking that piece and putting that on a firefighter.”
So rather than relying on a network of satellites or the internet to relay location information, devices equipped with UWB radar simply emit and receive signals between each other – triangulating the position of each device and providing a clear, accurate map of multiple users at once. This allows a fire chief to continuously keep track of his team members, who usually work and move in small groups.
Once he cracked the concept, O’Connor realized that he needed a partner to help him turn the idea into a usable product. After a 30-minute meeting with product executive Ryan Litt turned into a three-hour discussion about the problem at hand and potential avenues for progression, the pair decided to quit their jobs and go all-in on developing a fully realized solution. Litt’s experience with startups and project management enabled the duo to create and implement a business plan. By October 2017, they had a fully formed startup and an office space in Buffalo. Dividing up the work and collaborating with key people, O’Connor now handles sales and legal while Litt oversees product and people.
Once established, 3AM set about developing its software, which needed to work both from a specialized device and be compatible with smartphone operating systems. The interface also had to be clean and easy to use. Named Florian, the software they created measures inertia and other factors in order to record and transmit a personal “path” of each firefighter through space. A “metaphorical fire hose of communication,” as Litt describes it.
THE FIREFIGHTERS HEALTH SCORE
Using machine learning, the software generates a “health score” for individuals based on how accurate the prediction on their position seems to be. Firefighters with a low health score receive position updates automatically from other firefighters.
Each firefighter’s position is then reported back in real-time to a mission control screen on site, making it easy to know where firefighters are at all times. The software also provides a communication portal, which includes auto-translation feature, so that team members can send messages to their chief and each other when necessary.
Once logged in, a user is able to see all of the active incidents in their district. Selecting a particular incident opens up a communication channel with all other active participants; provides notifications; sends directions or instructions from chiefs – all while tracking their position simultaneously.
A key feature was to ensure compatibility between different fire departments who might work together to put out larger blazes, like industrial infernos or rampant wildfires. If one division is paying for the software, any team that joins them to tackle a fire will also automatically have access to the system via an app on their smartphones that is currently invite-only. The software is therefore accessible to those who need it, but not available to simply anyone who is in range.