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Keeping Firefighters Safe

Atlanta, GA

Zack Braun was at a bonfire when he thought of a new way to protect firefighters.

Braun, a computer engineering major, was chatting with a family friend who is a firefighter. He described the chaotic environments they face and explained the protective gear they wear.

“I was really surprised they didn’t have sensors or technology to help them,” Braun said. “What they did have seemed really crude.”

Braun teamed up with Tyler Sisk, an electrical engineering major, and together they invented FireHUD. A heads-up-display attaches to a firefighter’s mask and measures heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygen level, body temperature, external temperature and other vital signs. This information will help firefighters determine whether they are overexerting themselves and are at risk for cardiac arrest.

The invention won first place in last month’s Georgia Tech InVenture Prize, which rewards students with cash prizes and free patent filings for inventions that aim to solve societal problems. Now FireHUD will represent the Institute in the inaugural ACC InVenture Prize. This contest, which will be held on campus Tuesday and Wednesday, involves student startups and inventions from each of the 15 universities in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Friends since middle school, Braun and Sisk previously worked together on Science Olympiad projects and once built a robotic arm.

For this invention, they were inspired by the health bar displays found in video games.

“I play, and it was the first thing that came to mind because you can keep track of all your vitals,” Braun said.

They also wanted a way to share this information with officials on the scene. The device transmits data to the incident commander, who can view it on a computer through an app.

The device itself is about the size of a cell phone. It doesn’t make the mask noticeably heavier or impede vision, said David Phillips, a member of the Fairburn Fire Department who has tried out the invention.

One of the biggest risks firefighters face is overexerting themselves because most don’t recognize when they are putting themselves in danger, Phillips said. FireHUD lets firefighters know when they are in harm’s way so they can take steps to be safe, he said.

“The idea is awesome and it really could save a firefighter’s life,” Phillips said. “You do wonder how we went this long without something like this.”

Braun and Sisk started working on the invention last summer. The original design had the heads-up-display outside the mask but it was too difficult to read, Sisk said. They moved it inside the mask and used a near-eye display, which is meant to be looked at up close.

Braun and Sisk fine-tuned and improved the design through Tech’s Idea to Prototype class.

The class provides students with undergraduate research credit and a grant to build functional prototypes based on their ideas. It is part of CREATE-X, an array of programs and initiatives designed to build entrepreneurial confidence among Georgia Tech students.

Students in the program talk with potential customers to discover what they need and want. During the fall semester, Braun and Sisk spent nearly every weekend visiting fire departments to learn from firefighters how to improve the device.

They are in the course again this semester and are still talking with firefighters. They’ve learned firefighters don’t like the flashlight currently on the device, so Sisk said they will likely remove it.

A key point in the customer discovery process came when they visited the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth. Several firefighters tried on the device, and one of trainers wore it in a burning building to see how it worked and make sure the electric components didn’t melt.

Visiting the center remains one of the highlights of the entire invention process, Braun said.

“Seeing their faces and excitement as they tried on the masks was amazing,” he said. “I think it was then that we realized this can really save lives.”

The device measures biometric data with a sensor that goes in a firefighter’s ear, and the heads-up-display uses a microcontroller. While earlier iterations were 3D printed, the current design uses Teflon and fiberglass, which makes it able to withstand high temperatures.

The team built much of the devices in Sisk’s basement. They did some 3D printing in the Invention Studio – a student-run, design-build-play maker space on campus – where Sisk is one of the prototyping instructors.

Braun and Sisk are still improving the device and will soon file for the patent, a prize that came with winning the Georgia Tech competition.

Over the past couple of weeks, FireHUD was featured on FireRescue1, one of the nation’s premier firefighting websites, and highlighted as an emerging technology in the internal newsletter of a leading manufacturer of firefighting equipment.

“Our goal is to keep working on FireHUD,” Sisk said. “We want to manufacture this and make it a reality for firefighters.” 

Additional Photos

ACC InVenture Prize logo

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FireHUD - 2016 InVenture Prize winner

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Last revised May 15, 2020