Tech advances improve NH firefighter safety, response times

New technology includes lighter air packs, automatic distress signals to quickly locate firefighter in trouble, thermal-imaging cameras

By Sandra Bradley
The Union Leader

MERRIMACK, N.H. — Although the basics of firefighting have remained the same throughout the past century, emerging technological advances are helping to improve firefighter safety and response times, according to local experts.

Whether it be lighter breathing gear, electronic location equipment, thermal-imaging cameras, computerized mapping tools or advanced foam, fire departments throughout New Hampshire and the country are taking advantage of these modern toys.

"Firefighting equipment has come a long way, and the technology is endless," said Brennan McCarthy, a firefighter and EMT with Merrimack Fire Rescue. "A lot of these advances have become the norm for many departments and are not unique to us."

Perhaps one of the most beneficial devices used by Merrimack firefighters are Personal Alarm Safety Systems, or automatic distress signal units.

While not a new concept for firefighters, new technology has improved the devices, which are designed to help firefighters quickly locate an injured colleague through an alert tone and blinking light that is activated when a firefighter remains still.

Previously, Personal Alarm Safety Systems were separate units that clipped onto a firefighter. The newer versions are integrated onto a firefighter's air pack, a self-contained breathing apparatus.

"It is one less thing you have to take with you, and you don't need to worry about separate batteries. With the old units, the batteries could become dead, and at that point it is useless to you," said McCarthy.

Recently, the department used a grant to purchase a waterproof telescopic camera called a Zistos portable video system. The portable camera has a narrow, expandable rod that can adjust and move into tight spaces, assisting firefighters in locating and communicating with someone trapped in a well or other confined area.

The telescopic camera has not yet been used in an emergency in Merrimack, as local firefighters are still training on how to properly use the modern video system, according to McCarthy.

Thermal-imaging cameras are frequently used by the department and have come a long way since they were first introduced. The newer thermal-imaging devices, which allow firefighters to see through smoke to locate victims or hot spots, are smaller, lighter and easier to grip, said McCarthy.

The advanced cameras also have thermostats attached to the units, he added.

And while emergency crews still take advantage of old-school saws, drills and chain saws, newer equipment such as combination spreaders and cutters are vastly different from the traditional tools used to extricate people from damaged vehicles. They have more pressure and are stronger and lighter, said McCarthy.

GPS units are installed on fire trucks, along with computerized mapping tools to help firefighters arrive at the scene of an emergency as quickly as possible. While local firefighters are required to know all 800 streets in Merrimack, McCarthy said the GPS is incredibly beneficial when responding to mutual-aid calls in nearby communities.

The computer also has the locations of every fire hydrant in the nearby vicinity, along with information about known hazardous buildings, such as blueprints and diagrams of certain facilities in town.

Power take-off generators are also being used, quickly replacing older, gasoline-powered generators on fire trucks. The newer generators run off the power of fire engine.

Handheld photo-ionization detectors are now used to monitor and measure volatile organic compounds in buildings or homes, according to McCarthy, who said the electronic devices quickly alert firefighters to unknown chemicals, gases and explosives.

Merrimack's Engine One offers an integrated foam system, providing two types of foam, depending on the type of fire. It also has advanced, computerized pressure-relief valves on its pump panel, rather than the manual valves used on older models.

One of the most noticeable advances in firefighting equipment is the clothing and air packs now used by many fire departments, according to Bill Pelrine, a Merrimack firefighter and paramedic.

"The gear has come a long way," said Pelrine, explaining the jackets and pants now worn are made from high-tech fabrics that are lightweight and more protective. Previously, firefighters were forced to wear heavy leather boots and rubber coats.

Assistant Fire Chief Anthony Stowers agreed, adding the air tanks are noticeably lighter than the old, steel tanks that weighed 45 or 50 pounds.

The newer, fiberglass-coated tanks are even more durable and weigh about 27 pounds, said Stowers.

Ambulances have also come a long way in the past decade, as they are now more comfortable, user-friendly and have improved lighting systems, according to Pelrine. Many of them contain technology that filters out germs while also containing airborne illnesses, he said.

Popular devices such as portable defibrillators, which can jump-start a person's heartbeat, are now common, especially to the public, said Pelrine.

"Thirty years ago when I started in this field, that wasn't typical. The technology just wasn't there yet," he said.

Despite the continued advances in sophisticated firefighting technology, it is still a dangerous job that requires extensive training on many of the new devices, said Stowers, who said the department frequently uses an old hotel in town to train firefighters on how to use the new equipment.

But some things are still done the old-fashioned way at the fire house, said McCarthy. The many hoses stored on the top of the fire trucks are still rolled up by hand even though hose wheels are readily available.

"They cost a lot of money, though, so we just fold the hoses up by hand. It may take a while, but it always gets done," he said.

And of course, the infamous firehouse pole is still a staple - at least in Merrimack.

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