Wearable tech helps in a crisis

When an alarm sounds for a fire in a high-rise across town, tech-savvy firefighters jump into their truck and consult a hands-free, flat-screen monitor for the shortest route to the inferno, the number of people typically in the building, the kinds of material stored in the building, the nearest fire hydrant, and the building's structure.

"We have a three-ring binder full of important information about the community, but the binder is this thick," says Eric Might of the Sterling Volunteer Firefighters in the US, spreading his fingers several inches apart. "With this (technology), that information can actually come with us."

The portable database typifies the so-called wearable gear on display at the Eighth International Conference on Wearable Computing. Much of the equipment is designed for use by emergency response workers.

Data on the Run

The hands-free devices are used by firefighters, police, school protection units, and (more recently) by ship inspectors around the world.

"The first models were developed for the Coast Guard," says Jim Tootell, enterprise solutions developer for Anteon, one of the participating vendors. He describes his company's product as a wearable computer attached to a Canon camera, equipped with a Global Positioning System and wireless capability. "The Coast Guard wanted ways to track ongoing problems, like oil spills," he says.

Anteon partnered with Xybernaut, which has patented some of its own wearable computers, to design a portable device combining GPS location technology with the ability to take and transmit photographs so viewers elsewhere can pinpoint the location of the photograph.

"The real problem is that incidents happen in the field, and the people around don't have all the expertise to fix them," Tootell says. "This technology allows the people in the field to send images back and get expert advice instantly."

The device has changed the way the Navy Pacific Fleet handles problems in the field, says Michael Binko, a Xybernaut spokesperson.

"Typically they had to bring the ship back to port and wait for someone qualified to work on it," Binko says. "Now they can take a photo, send it to the high-level technician on call 24 hours a day and work through the problem."

Though most users continue to work with still images and phone connections, the technology can also handle streaming video, Binko says. Video needs more bandwidth than is usually available, Tootell says. "Until more space is available, we can't use the technology," he adds.

Fast Research in a Crisis

Xybernaut's most common wearable computer is its MA5, a portable device that can run the same applications as an IBM ThinkPad, according to Binko. Frequently, the MA5 is incorporated into body armor. It's the basis of the portable database that fire crews rely on, too.

Held in a side pocket of the protective suit, the MA5's flat-screen hand-held accessory fits neatly into a front pocket for easy access. The emergency worker can pull out the screen and view a building's blueprint, for example. In case of a hostage situation, for example, police can see not only the layout of the building, but the direction in which the doors open.

Emergency crews didn't have the software and database during the deadly shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, Binko says. But after that incident, many school systems installed such tools for handling future incidents.

The Xybernaut wearable computing system can be combined with Tactical Survey software to provide detailed information useful in an emergency, Binko says. Emergency responders can locate electrical systems, public address systems, furnaces, and other infrastructure information to help crews communicate and take control in an emergency situation.

"The biggest question of SWAT teams is always 'What's behind that door?' With this device and technology, they know things like the door opens left, so our blind spot when we get into the next room will be left," Binko says. "Or (they can know) that the red pipes represent the boiler." The MA5 costs approximately US$2500 without the body armor.

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