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Heartrate Detection

UW research helps firefighters
(adapted from a UW Daily article by Eric Neusbaum / Contributing writer / November 23, 2004)

Sensors in a fire suit monitor the vital signs of a firefighter in action.

Firefighters put their lives on the line regularly, and to aid them, UW research is helping to increase safety by improving the performance of emergency workers in harsh environments.

Extreme Endeavors, a West Virginia-based company, is developing sensors for fire suits that can help send vital information from the scene of an emergency back to an appliance that will be installed on fire trucks.

With the help of UW researchers, the sensors will have the capacity to track the location of emergency responders inside a building and monitor the vital signs of firefighters.

A research project, led by electrical engineering professor Les Atlas and graduate student Qin Li, produced technology that can monitor the person's physiological traits even in the most chaotic conditions.

According to Atlas, the sensors measure the sound of a heartbeat, making dangerous irregularities easier to identify in even the harshest circumstances.

He said firefighters will be safer and more effective because of this system. For example, if a firefighter is found to have an irregular heart rate, commanders outside the scene will know to deploy a rescue team for his or her safety.

This safeguard will allow emergency workers to focus completely on the task at hand. Compared to other products, the UW technology is "less expensive and more efficient to use," Atlas said.

The technology, called "modulation processing," extracts periodic signals that are deeply buried in noise. It monitors repetitive patterns such as pitch and volume and is very sensitive to changes. It can be applied to human voice, music or any sound that is relatively repetitive. The sensors sharpen the sound they pick up in order to make its structure visible.

While the product is still in developmental phases, the company already has plans to market it commercially. Extreme Endeavors' engineers working on this project are primarily former soldiers and firefighters, adding credibility to the efforts. The support of the project also has the National Institute of Health in the form of a recently awarded grant.

UW research in this field has already been used by the U.S. military in other acoustic applications, such as sniper detection and localization. It has been a project for Washington engineers for a few years. The interest of Extreme Endeavors, is relatively recent, and its partnership with Washington is only in its early stages, according to Atlas.