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Monitoring first responders

Published July 26, 2004

Team tests equipment in rescue simulation

Engineers, known for their ingenuity, must cultivate some social skills to push their projects forward. For example, Dartmouth researcher Sue McGrath met the right people at the right time last spring, and it led to the chance to try out her remote medical monitoring equipment during an emergency responder workshop in mid June.

Bourne Bridge
A team of first responders carries a person posing as a patient to safety on the Bourne bridge, 120 feet above the ground, in Bourne, Mass., as part of a rescue simulation. A Dartmouth team tested equipment it's developing to monitor the condition of the first responders. (Photo by Aaron Fiske '02)

"We were invited to a training exercise at the Bourne Bridge on Cape Cod," says McGrath, Director of the Emergency Readiness and Response Research Center at Dartmouth's Institute for Security Technology Studies (ISTS). "We jumped at the chance to be able to see how our equipment handled in a real-world situation."

McGrath, who is also a lecturer at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, develops devices designed to be worn by first responders, such as EMTs, firefighters or medics, as part of the  ARTEMIS project (Automated Remote Triage and Emergency Management Information System). The small units she builds are equipped with a pulse oximeter, which measures blood oxygenation and pulse rates. To monitor the condition of the first responders, the data is wirelessly transmitted to the team's medical coordinator or chief of operations. It's intended to help rescue personnel monitor each other during stressful and dangerous missions, helping ensure their safety while their attention is focused on completing the mission.

McGrath sent two of her researchers, Michael DeRosa '03 and Aaron Fiske '02 to Bourne, Mass., to participate in the rescue exercise. On the weekend of June 19-20, they met a group of about 20 Massachusetts-based emergency medical personnel at a parking lot under the 70-year-old bridge that spans the Cape Cod Canal. The simulated scenario involved rescuing an injured construction worker, who was underneath the bridge's roadway, administering medical care, transporting him along a series of catwalks, and eventually lowering him to the ground. The Dartmouth devices were deployed on two rescuers.

Mike DeRosa '03, Suzanne Wendelken '01 Th '04, Thayer School researcher Sue McGrath and Aaron Fiske '02
Left to right: Mike DeRosa '03, Suzanne Wendelken '01 Th '04, Thayer School researcher Sue McGrath and Aaron Fiske '02 display the equipment DeRosa and Fiske used to monitor first responders' medical conditions during a simulated rescue in Massachusetts in June. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

The devices utilized a technology called wireless mobile computing or ad hoc networking. These are computers that can communicate among themselves using wireless networks that are not connected to any existing infrastructure.

"We learned a lot about how our units worked in the field," says Fiske, who is from Easton, Mass. "The wireless connection had some interference from the concrete and metal in the bridge, as we expected. Luckily, the wireless signal could bounce between the two remote units, travel around the obstacles, and send the medical information back to the data collector without too much difficulty."

Not only did the exercise test the wireless networking capabilities, the team also learned how well the pulse oximeter sensor on the rescuers worked. The sensor was attached to the inside of a headband held in place by a helmet. A thin wire from the head band connected to a small computer, about the size of a PDA (personal digital assistant), which was in a pouch worn by the rescuers. The computer collected medical data from each rescuer and transmitted the information via the ad hoc wireless network to a third person monitoring the rescue operation.

"We had one sensor on one of the guys leading the exercise," says DeRosa, from Philadelphia. "At first he said the headband felt fine, but after a few hours, he told us it was a bit tight and the sensor was hurting his forehead. We need to improve that."

Overall, the researchers say they are pleased with the performance of the device. They were able to collect at least 30 minutes of medical data from each of the units. McGrath is now analyzing the data to make sure it's worthwhile, useful and accurate in monitoring first responders.

"If I find that at some point the data indicates a heart attack or severe bleeding, then I know something wasn't working properly and needs to be fixed. Since it was a simulation, the responders weren't injured; so if the data implies they were, I know something wasn't quite right."

Fiske and DeRosa will work on upgrading the equipment with more testing this summer, and then both are heading to graduate school in the fall; Fiske is going to law school at Boston University, and DeRosa is beginning a doctoral program at Carnegie Mellon University.

McGrath, whose research is supported by the Office of Domestic Preparedness, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is already preparing new researchers for the next emergency response training opportunity.

She says the team hopes that future versions of the system can incorporate the ability to monitor casualties as well as the responders.

By SUSAN KNAPP

Questions or comments about this article? We welcome your feedback.

Last Updated: 12/17/08