Urban and industrial fires, fueled in-part by increasing density, also continue to prove dangerous. Emergency response services are a critical part of every well-functioning city. But while more technology is woven into the fabric of our cities every day, first responders rarely see the benefits of new tech, and the fire service has so far lacked investment in bringing its systems into the 21st century.
The particular challenges for firefighters in urban environments include working in smoke-filled mazes of unfamiliar warehouses, factories, apartment buildings or commercial developments, facing infernos with limited knowledge of their surroundings – daunting to even the most seasoned and experienced among them. For volunteer firefighters, the job is even more perilous.
Tackling these blazes, sometimes in their hundreds or even thousands, our first responders need the best systems and equipment to be able to effectively extinguish without endangering their own safety. But constantly monitoring exactly where these brave individuals are located – in the midst of chaos, smoke, and debris – is currently a rudimentary process involving whiteboards and two-way radios, leaving much room for error. Over the past decade, 200 deaths and 9,000 injuries have resulted from confusion during firefighting operations in the US alone.
It’s clear that lateral thinking is needed to help introduce high-tech products and software into the fire service, in order to provide a better tracking system and to save lives. As a volunteer firefighter for five years, Patrick O’Connor witnessed the issues firsthand. Following a tragedy in his brigade, resulting in the loss of two firefighters, he decided to do something about it.
“Really what started it was we suffered a loss of two firefighters due to unseen confusion. They were sent into the building to go find a firefighter because the building was about to collapse. But it wasn’t accounted for correctly, so they went in to find people who weren’t even there, and they ended up falling through the floor,” says O’Connor, founder of 3AM Innovations – an URBAN-X Cohort 06 company.
So while working a full-time job running restaurants , O’Connor began moonlighting into the early hours, spending the best part of two years researching ways he could use technology to develop a more advanced tracking method for firefighters. Regularly crashing out in his home office, O’Connor chose to name his company 3AM as a nod to these late nights.
Founded in 2015, the Buffalo-based startup specializes in technology for the fire service. Specifically, it has developed a new system that allows fire chiefs to monitor the locations of their squad from a custom-designed device, or a smartphone app, that updates in real-time and does not require a GPS signal – which can be disrupted by buildings, topography, or even dense foliage, and therefore prove inaccurate in some of the situations that firefighters find themselves in regularly.
“Really what started it was we suffered a loss of two firefighters due to unseen confusion. They
were sent into the building to go find a firefighter because the building was about to collapse. But it wasn’t accounted for correctly, so they went in to find people who weren’t even there, and they ended up falling through the floor,”
Patrick O’Connor, founder of 3AM Innovations
3AM’s breakthrough came when discovering the tracking technology used in drones and driverless cars, known as ultra-wideband (UWB) radio, which allows computer- programmed objects to monitor and maintain distance from one another.
“The advent of drones and self-driving cars really pushed forward a lot of technology, and miniaturized some technology that we were able to leverage,” says O’Connor. “This is effectively how drones are able to swarm and stay away from each other, they’re telling each other how far away they are from one another so they don’t crash. But we’re taking that piece and putting that on a firefighter.”
So rather than relying on a network of satellites or the internet to relay location information, devices equipped with UWB radar simply emit and receive signals between each other – triangulating the position of each device and providing a clear, accurate map of multiple users at once. This allows a fire chief to continuously keep track of his team members, who usually work and move in small groups.
Once he cracked the concept, O’Connor realized that he needed a partner to help him turn the idea into a usable product. After a 30-minute meeting with product executive Ryan Litt turned into a three-hour discussion about the problem at hand and potential avenues for progression, the pair decided to quit their jobs and go all-in on developing a fully realized solution.
Litt’s experience with startups and project management enabled the duo to create and implement a business plan. By October 2017, they had a fully formed startup and an office space in Buffalo. Dividing up the work and collaborating with key people, O’Connor now handles sales and legal while Litt oversees product and people.
Once established, 3AM set about developing its software, which needed to work both from a specialized device and be compatible with smartphone operating systems. The interface also had to be clean and easy to use. Named Florian, the software they created measures inertia and other factors in order to record and transmit a personal “path” of each firefighter through space. A “metaphorical fire hose of communication,” as Litt describes it.
Using machine learning, the software generates a “health score” for individuals based on how accurate the prediction on their position seems to be. Firefighters with a low health score receive position updates automatically from other firefighters.
Each firefighter’s position is then reported back in real-time to a mission control screen on site, making it easy to know where firefighters are at all times. The software also provides a communication portal, which includes auto-translation feature, so that team members can send messages to their chief and each other when necessary.
Once logged in, a user is able to see all of the active incidents in their district. Selecting a particular incident opens up a communication channel with all other active participants; provides notifications; sends directions or instructions from chiefs – all while tracking their position simultaneously.
A key feature was to ensure compatibility between different fire departments who might work together to put out larger blazes, like industrial infernos or rampant wildfires. If one division is paying for the software, any team that joins them to tackle a fire will also automatically have access to the system via an app on their smartphones that is currently invite-only. The software is therefore accessible to those who need it, but not available to simply anyone who is in range.
“The chief’s number-one goal is the well-being of their people,” says Litt. “If that’s the case, I don’t need to broadcast all this information to the world. In order to be successful, I need to broadcast it to the chief. And as long as the chief knows where everybody’s operating, that’s the top priority.”
“Working closely with their team, we turned their technology into prototype devices, ready to be deployed and tested with first responders in the field. This is the unique value we provide to a lot of our startups – taking great technology and productizing it to put it into the hands of early customers.”
Johan Schwind, design director at URBAN-X
By the time 3AM joined URBAN-X Cohort 06 in 2019, the team had largely developed its software, but not the usable hardware product needed to house the technology. Working closely with URBAN-X Experts in Residence, Johan Schwind and Dean DiPietro, they were able to turn the cumbersome initial prototype into a much more user-friendly device.
“3AM joined the URBAN-X program with some breakthrough location tracking technology and a clear purpose in mind,” says Johan Schwind, design director at URBAN-X. “Working closely with their team, we turned their technology into prototype devices, ready to be deployed and tested with first responders in the field. This is the unique value we provide to a lot of our startups – taking great technology and productizing it to put it into the hands of early customers.”
One of the most critical steps in the design process was finding a casing material that could withstand the extreme conditions that firefighters are constantly exposed to: high temperatures, high-pressure water jets, falling debris. “A lot of companies don’t make enclosures that can withstand fire,” O’Connor says. “It wasn’t something we could just go to Best Buy and purchase – we had to do a lot of research and work on that as well.”
The team researched a number of specialty polymers that are suitable for high-heat applications, like Aerogel or PEEK, but few of them turned out to be easily sourceable and none of them would be suitable for use in the URBAN-X prototyping lab. So they instead opted for a cheap, industrial grade material that would be relatively easy to work with, and that would meet basic requirements of high-impact strength, high- tensile strength, and some resistance to heat. The material that seemed most suitable was Polycaprolactam (more commonly known as Nylon 6), which possesses incredible tensile strength combined with good elasticity. On top of that, Nylon 6 comes in filament form and can be 3D printed.
Over the course of the six-month program, they settled on a device smaller than a cellphone that attaches to the inside of a pocket – compact enough for fire chiefs to transport and use easily. Instead of a typical clamshell design, where two flat rectangular plastic shells are held together by a screw in each corner, a design was developed consisting of one large shell that was capped at the top with a chamfered cover and held closed by a single screw.
A hefty two-millimeter wall thickness ensures the safety of internal components and a three-dimensional gasket between both parts keeps water out. The PCB and battery slide into the shell sideways, being held in place through a press-fit, which makes assembly easier by reducing the amount of screws that have to be put into place. The chamfered and rounded corners, and the low profile of the device ensure that the wearable doesn’t get stuck in tight spaces, while a slanted surface on the front should allow for a secure grip.
About 20 iterations of the enclosure were designed, drawn up in CAD and 3D printed before arriving at a suitable shape that would fit well in a hand and pocket, house all the required components and be easily printable. A high-quality selective laser sinter (SLS) prototype served as a final design validation before kicking off a small production run before the end of Cohort 06.
The benefits of 3D printing the device included the possibility of small-batch manufacturing. Making runs of between 10 and 100 or so devices is not easy to do by hand, and minimum quantity orders from most factories are typically much higher. But in recent years, the introduction of industrial-grade 3D printers based on desktop technology – like the German-made BigRep Studio that is part of the URBAN-X Prototyping lab – has allowed for reliability and repeatability in fiber-deposit modeling (FDM) printing for limited runs while prototyping.
This ability to 3D-print a larger number of parts in batch and at low cost (the overall part cost for 3AM’s prototype was about $15), without the hassle of hand-operating a small desktop 3D printer – a big deal for an early-stage hardware startup. It allowed 3AM to move into testing more quickly, without investing significant amounts of money into making prototypes by hand.
3AM graduated from the URBAN-X program with a full hardware design, a small batch of manufactured devices and a comprehensive roadmap for testing and larger-scale production. The team successfully raised $1.7 million in its first round of funding. Part of this came from a National Science Foundation grant, which allowed them to travel around the United States – from Alaska to the Florida Keys – and speak to firefighters about their wide-ranging needs. The team discovered what specific requirements were needed from the various fire departments, and were able to incorporate
these into their system. 3AM Innovations has also demonstrated its product to the US Department of Homeland Security, and to hundreds of patrons and associated businesses at the FDIC, the largest Fire Service trade show in America. All gave very positive feedback. Testing of the prototype devices and software has been underway during spring and summer of 2020. This has involved training several fire departments to use the technology and deploy it in the field, offered by a network of former fire chiefs who are familiar with the old systems and have been given experience using 3AM’s product. The training provided is intensive, because gadgets that can’t be operated effectively under pressure become useless, says Litt: “With tech, the minute you don’t know how something works, they’re just going to throw it to the side. When adrenaline is pumping, they’re not going to mess around dealing with buttons.”
Although sometimes hesitant to introduce new tech into their operations, the fire chiefs quickly realized the product’s benefits and implications for increasing safety. “As decision makers, the fire chiefs and commissioners saw the level of exploration being applied to 3AM’s solution, they revealed that it brought confidence to the risk of adopting technology,” says Litt.
Feedback from the field-testing sessions, along with lab tests to ensure the product meets the required standards and regulations, will allow the team to hone and perfect the hardware and software ahead of making it available to market.
Partners and advisors that the team met through the URBAN-X program continue to support 3AM’s development, and have become a valuable network for the founders to exchange ideas. “We met some really smart, interesting, capable people who are still helping us now,” says Litt. “Some of the other companies [in the URBAN-X program] are adjacent,” and are able to share and integrate technologies through partnerships and working together.
The urgency to equip firefighters with the tools to work effectively is becoming greater and greater. Once again, California is experiencing some of its largest wildfires to date, and large parts of Colorado are also ablaze due to a significant drought in the state. Other parts of the world are equally as vulnerable, and incidents like the recent catastrophic explosion in Beirut could happen at any time, without warning. Meanwhile, the threats of climate change continue to loom.
“The world is getting hotter. The environment is changing, and if you talk to firefighters, they’ll tell you that. So we have to collaborate, we have to work together,” Litt says. “The world’s preparedness for disaster is so low. So the best probability [for success] we have is if we’re all connected.”
3AM hopes that a season of successful testing will allow its technology to be approved for wider distribution as soon as possible, to enable fire departments globally to begin to use the product and improve the safety of first responders. Without giving away details, the team mentions that they are expecting to announce “powerful partnerships with notable names” in the near future, and hope to act as a gateway between fire services and other technology companies.
Ultimately, the company’s goal is to extinguish the confusion and safety concerns of firefighters worldwide. “The vision is to connect the world’s best firefighters to the world’s worst disasters,” says Litt.