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FEMA awards $1 Million to WPI to develop groundbreaking toxic gas sensors for firefighters

Worcester, Mass. Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have received a $1 million award from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop a sensor that could significantly reduce and potentially eliminate line of duty injuries and deaths of firefighters caused by the inadvertent inhalation of hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, both colorless and odorless toxic gases.

Faculty members in WPI's Fire Protection Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments will collaborate on the research, which will include the development and testingin the laboratory and in the fieldof a wearable, pocket-sized device that will warn firefighters when toxic gases are present.

While toxic gas sensors exist, none can function reliably in extreme conditions such as intense heat and humidity typically encountered on the fire ground. The sensor will protect firefighters continuously from inside a building near the source of a fire as well as outside of the burning structure, where toxic gasescalled invisible killers are often present, but where portable breathing devices are typically not worn.

"This grant will have a significant impact because it will affect every firefighter in the long term," said David Cyganski, professor of electrical and computer engineering, who is the principal investigator for the project. "We believe that this sensor will lengthen the lives of firefighters by greatly reducing exposure to these lethal gases and thus circumventing their long-term degenerative effects."

Cyganski said that "the role of hydrogen cyanide as an important component of the dangers associated with the fire ground has only recently begun to receive increased attention." In the spring of 2006, he noted, 27 members of the Providence, R.I., Fire Department were tested for cyanide poisoning in the aftermath of three separate fires. Eight members of the department were found to have significantly elevated levels of cyanide in their blood.

Cyganski's research cited published reports stating that hydrogen cyanide may be the most deadly product of combustion impacting the fire service today, leading to progressive heart disease. Notably, heart attacks are the number one occupational killer of firefighters.

The FEMA award is the latest in a series of federal awards to fund research at WPI aimed at increasing the safety and effectiveness of firefighting. With funding from the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the U.S. Army, WPI researchers, led by Cyganski and James Duckworth, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, developed and extensively tested a system that can precisely locate firefighters inside a building in 3-D, and monitor their vital signs, displaying their locations, movements, and physiological status on screen at the incident commander's station.

With a 2008 award from FEMA, Cyganski, Duckworth, and Kathy Notarianni, professor and head of WPI's Fire Protection Engineering Department, developed a device that can provide firefighters with sufficient warning to escape an impending flashover.

Notarianni has helped lead a series of national studies funded by DHS and conducted jointly with the Center for Public Safety Excellence, the International Association of Firefighters, and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), that have helped set new standards for optimal crew size and resource management for fire department deployment to residential structure and fires in high-rise buildings.

Members of WPI's Fire Protection Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments routinely collaborate on complex challenges facing the fire service. WPI officials point out that the devices developed at WPI require a strong interdisciplinary approach, which underscores the importance of collaborations such as those in this ongoing research undertaken by WPI's Fire Protection Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments.

Research and testing of the new toxic gas sensors will be made possible through a combination of WPI expertise and support from fire officials statewide. The proposed sensor will be tested and refined through rigorous work in WPI's new Fire Protection Lab at Gateway Park.

A prototype sensor will be tested at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow during training exercises for overall durability and usability. The devices will then be worn by 10 Worcester firefighters during 10 incident responses within the next year and data will be collected to evaluate their effectiveness.

WPI's continued efforts to support the fire service stem, in part, from the 1999 Cold Storage Warehouse fire in Worcester, Mass., in which six firefighters died when they became lost in dense smoke inside the windowless building.

"Receiving this grant is special because it solidifies the faith FEMA and other national organizations have in WPI's ability to conduct research that can improve the lives of firefighters and first responders everywhere," said Notarianni.

U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who has been a proponent of WPI's fire safety efforts over the years, commended WPI on the grant. "WPI's commitment to finding innovative solutions to some of the most challenging fire service issues is very impressive," said McGovern. "I'm confident WPI's latest research will bring us closer to developing a fire safety product that will help first responders worldwide. I will continue to support WPI's initiatives in this important field."

During the application process, WPI received numerous letters of support from local, regional, and national firefighting organizations about the prospect of developing a toxic gas sensor.

Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C., said the sensor would be welcomed by the fire service. "The system envisioned in this proposal, if developed, would provide for a significant and meaningful step forward."

Worcester fire officials are especially pleased to offer their support given their close connection to WPI and their determination to use new technology that will save firefighters' lives.

"I believe the commitment shown by WPI will greatly increase firefighter safety and situational awareness, which will also increase the safety of the public we serve," said Kevin Maloney, district chief of the Worcester Fire Department's Health and Safety division.


Contact: Andrew Baron
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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