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A collaborative project
with Longford County
Fire & Rescue Service

The problem

Firefighters are limited to 1-watt radios when navigating the structure of a fire, this is because any wattage higher than this can cause sparks within the radio and these can cause rising gases from the fire to ignite and cause an explosion. The 1-watt radios often fail to provide a clear line of communication between firefighter inside and outside of the building. This is due to the structure of the building acting somewhat like a faraday cage and preventing the 1-watt signal from passing between radios. This leads to firefighters not being able to communicate with each other in certain scenarios.

User centred research

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I took a user centred design approach and involved firefighters from Ballymahon fire station and Longford fire station. This was done to best understand firefighters and their roles. It was determined early on that this project would seek as much feedback and information from firefighters as possible to create a collaborative project that would address genuine issues within the fire service.

I sat down with Tomás, the Deputy Fire Chief of Longford fire station. He explained the task and responsibility firefighters go through when entering a structural fire and helped document the step by step process they do along the way. He also explained the Entry Control Officers role at a fire and their responsibilities.

Understanding key stakeholders roles

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Entry Control Officer

The ECO records information, informs firefighters of the situation and accounts for them in the building, they also control the entering and exiting of teams and communicate with them constantly.

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Firefighter Search Team

Teams of three firefighters enter structural fires to search for casualties and threats, they follow ECO orders and report all information back to the ECO via radio.

User journey mapping / Storyboarding

A journey map showing an entry control officers role at a structural fire and how they communicate with their firefighter's navigating a building.

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A storyboard highlighting a firefighter's

navigation through a burning building while trying

to communicate back to the entry control officer.

=        Pain points along the firefighters journey

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Key Findings & Insights

Radios are limited to 1 watt due to rising gases within a fire and the possibility of an explosion.

Findings

Information from teams in the building is recorded on an entry control board (gridded whiteboard) in short hand by the Entry Control Officer and is then verbally communicated and explained to firefighter teams preparing to enter the building.


 

Entry Control Officers try to

keep in constant contact with firefighters in the building so as

to record information.

Insights

This ultimately creates a breakdown in communication between the Entry Control officer and the firefighter team due to the low signal output of the radio.

This
prevents the recording of information from the fire and the passing of that information back to firefighters preparing to enter the building. Such as building layouts and landmarks along the way that are used as guides.

 

Firefighters use this info to create a mental map / picture of the environment they are about to enter such as landmarks along the way. If info is recorded wrong by the Entry Control Officer due to poor radio communication or is explained wrong, a firefighter team could enter a building with wrong info. It is somewhat like Chinese whispers, info get changes as it comes down the line.

 

This is actually also a method used to account for firefighters safety and tracking. Once there’s constant communication the Entry Control Officer can render the team safe and can track teams location and movement by verbally communicating with them.


 

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Value of radio communication

Tomás - ECO

"

Without the ability to communicate, I struggle to understand the changing environment my firefighters are going through and account for their safety

 

"

How might we

How might we help firefighters communicate clearly

so that they can navigate burning buildings and

keep track of each other.
 

Concept generation

Conceptualisation was started by creating a number of how might we questions from the research gathered, these were how might firefighters communicate with each other, how might firefighters navigate a building and how might firefighters track each other. From these, a number of concepts were generated all while using analogies in everyday life to inform the concepts as seen below.

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Chosen Concept 

The chosen concept was selected using a decision matrix along with firefighters feedback on feasibility, desirability and viability of each concept. The chosen concept as seen below addressed the boosting of the 1-watt radios signal navigation through the building using the devices as almost a breadcrumb trail

and environment updates in the form of zonal temperature sensing of each device.

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Radio Signal Boosting

Breadcrumb trail

Temperature sensing

Concept Walkthrough

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Prototyping

Initial low fidelity prototyping was done with cardboard to test assumption and to get feedback from firefighters on basic features and forms. Cardboard prototypes were bottom weighted using rice to test device orientation when dropped so as the light would emit upwards at all times. Holster carrying methods were tested with firefighter. Firefighter feedback suggested that the device is not cylindrical as it may roll down elevator shafts or stair wells if thrown. From here prototyping using cnc, vacuume forming and laser cutting were used to validate human factors and functional requirements of my prototype.

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An Arduino was used to create a functioning version of the device to validate device features and to carry out a wizard of oz test with it. The prototype would measure zonal temperature of a room and if the temperature was under 22 degrees C it would emit a blue LED and if over 22 degrees C it would emit a red LED. This would represent the devices temperature sensing of zones and its indicating of unsafe temperatures over 171 degrees C, this would be shown on the device and tablet. 

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A 3D printed device was created using individual parts that could function and be assembled to understand the manufacturing and assembly of the device. Holsters to carry the device were also prototyped to get user feedback on such as methods of device attachment and access to the device.

Tablet Wireframe

The wireframes were used as an interactive app when carrying out Wizard of Oz Testing with firefighters. The wireframes create a scenario where devices are being dropped in a building and feedback is being received via the interface of the application.

 

A heuristic evaluation was carried out on the wireframes with Tomás an Entry Control Officer to determine usability problems within the application.
 

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Wizard of Oz Concept Testing

The test was carried out using the interactive Adobe XD app, a 3D printed device to act a mock device and the Arduino prototype. The ECO had the situation and prototypes explained to him and were asked to interact with the app. When the screen indicated the device was at an unsafe temperature the temperature sensor was heated up to display a red LED.

This helped to clarify the function the device would have for firefighters and were this sort of device could be implemented in their process of searching and tackling structural fires. It also helped gain valuable insights into what features of the device would be useful for the firefighters which was clear and accurate feedback due to their interaction with prototypes.

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ECO & Adobe XD interactive app

Mock device to show breadcrumb trail of devices

Arduino indicating high temperature LED

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Tomás - ECO

"

firefighters are required to monitor their own temperature if they feel uncomfortable, they are to exit the building, however, this is hindered by PPE, by warning firefighters of unsafe temperatures around devices with LEDs, this could reassure them. Also these devices could act as landmarks to follow out of the building

"

Holster Interaction 

Prototyped holsters for carrying the device were tested by firefighters in Longford fire

station to get feedback and to validate or contest the assumptions about the holsters

created. These used magnets to hold the devices or gravity and supports to hold the device.

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Feedback

Feeback cards were used to document feedback from firefighter, they suggest that the holsters created wouldn’t be suitable for use. Firefighters worried about magnets interfering with technical equipment. Also, it was highlighted that devices could easily fall off or out of holsters when firefighters are searching floors. Firefighters are required to access spaces by crawling and if the device got caught they could get stuck in a vulnerable position, for this reason, the holster would have to detach under reasonable force but hold the device in while carrying out normal tasks.

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Iterations From Feedback

Firefighters suggested using Velcro to hold the device. It was decided to change the design

and use a cummerbund to hold the device and a pull tab to prevent the device from falling out.

The attachment method of the holster to a firefighter’s harness would be industrial Velcro which would separate from a firefighters harness if tugged. The elastic cummerbund would stop the device falling out when bending over and the device could be accessed with one hand.

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Velcro attachment

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One-handed operation

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Vertical access 

In-context Scenario

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Process video