Firefighters Pop High-Tech Pills to Monitor Vitals Wirelessly

Firefighters in Oz take the red pill because it might save their lives.

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Firefighters control the fire of a burning house.

What if keeping tabs on someone’s vitals remotely could save an emergency responder’s life? What if all it took was swallowing a Tylenol-sized capsule that harbored tiny sensors and a wireless transmitter instead of atomized medicine? What if someone had a way to do this now?

It turns out they do: Firefighters in Australia are popping a purplish capsule that harbors a micro-sized thermometer and wireless transmitter as part of a trial designed to help authorities better understand how the human body manages heat stress while dealing with life-threatening blazes.

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“If we see their core body temperature increasing then we know to remove them from the fire and put them into the rehabilitation area,” says Peter Langridge, Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) health and wellbeing officer (via Langridge says working in high-temperature situations can stress individuals differently; the capsule thus becomes a way to “personalize” how individual firefighters are both deployed and managed in dealing with a fire.

“There is no set formula for how long a person can fight a fire before they start suffering from heat stress or dehydration and management is the key to protecting our fire fighters,” adds Langridge.

The capsule is carefully sealed, of course, and no, it doesn’t dissolve in the stomach/intestine, or, you know, unleash a tiny submarine dubbed the Proteus carrying microscopic scientists miniaturized with a shrink-ray (though that’d be pretty cool, too). It’s actually made of plastic — unlike medicine capsules, which are composed of dissolvable gelling agents — so it simply passes through the system in a day or two.

The capsule, otherwise known as an “Equivital EQ02 LifeMonitor,” is made by a U.K. company called Equivital [Note: This article previously identified the company as Vivonoetics, which merely resells the monitor] that specializes in body-worn physiological monitoring. It actually works in tandem with a small, lightweight external device called a Sensor Electronics Module (SEM) that’s worn in a Holter-like belt around the chest. The capsule measures the individual’s core temperature, then talks to the SEM using Bluetooth, and the SEM — which is itself tracking metrics like skin temperature, heart and respiration rate — then relays all of that data to an external computer. The SEM can run for up to 48 hours working all-out, and comes with 8GB of storage, allowing up to 50 days of data logging, according to Vivonoetics.

CFA says the capsule/SEM approach was a reaction to the limitations of external core temperature probes in prior trials. According to Langridge, firefighters would show signs of stress, even though the probes — located in their ears — were reporting everything was normal. Also: The CFA tests found that individuals’ core temperatures rose before external temperatures did.

As you’d imagine, the temperatures firefighters have to function under can be extreme, ranging in the CFA’s tests from -3C (27F) to 124C (255F). Langridge says future tests will push those numbers up to between 100C (212F) and 600C (1,112F).

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In the U.S., firefighter deaths per year have been on the decline — 83 in 2011, according to FEMA. But 60% of those deaths were due to on-duty heart attacks: 45 of the 83 specifically in emergency-response situations, 28 in actual “fireground operations.”

According to FEMA:

Of the 28 firefighters killed during fireground operations in 2011, 21 were at the scene of a structure fire, and 7 others were at the scene of a wildland or outside fire. The average age of the firefighters killed during fireground operations was 43, 13 from volunteer fire departments, 11 career, and 4 wildland (2 each full time and part time).

While FEMA’s data doesn’t single out heat-related stress as a causal factor in any of the heart attacks, it stands to reason that better understanding of how individual firefighters handled stress might have saved additional lives. In its 2011 “Fatalities by Cause of Fatal Injury” report, FEMA says fully 50 of the 83 total deaths were due to “stress/overexertion.”

Equivital’s device isn’t just for emergency responders, either: The very same system was used to track Austrian sky-jumper Felix Baumgartner’s vitals when he pulled of his record-breaking dive from space last October.