Fighting fires

New technology helps city keep its firefighters safe

Dressed in full turnout gear, Altoona Fire Department firefighter Josh Konkle demonstrates Tuesday how the MSA Hub interfaces with firefighters’ self-contained breathing apparatuses. Mirror photo by Ike Fredregill

Fighting fires is a dangerous endeavor, but the Altoona Fire Department’s newest Bluetooth-capable gizmo is making the job safer and more efficient, Fire Chief Tim Hileman said.

Affectionately dubbed by firefighters as the “fish finder,” the MSA Fire Service Hub is a wireless gateway for on-scene data collection, which the city fire department primarily uses to monitor oxygen levels of firefighters’ airpacks, called Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus or SCBA.

The Hub uses Bluetooth technology, creating its own wireless network when needed, to connect with firefighters’ SCBA units, feeding logistical data back to the department’s on-scene command team, said Adam Free, the Altoona Fire Department fire inspector.

“It gives us an extra set of eyes on the inside,” Free said.

Hileman said his department was the first in Blair County to purchase the equipment upgrade, but other departments are following suit.

Navigating the MSA Hub dashboard, Altoona Fire Department Fire Inspector Adam Free highlights the department’s new logistical capabilities. Mirror photo by Ike Fredregill

In recent weeks, the Newburg Volunteer Fire Department also received the Hub; however, the equipment is not in service just yet, said Newburg fire Chief Mike Zeigler.

With the Hub, team commanders can issue a mayday order, which informs on-scene firefighters they need to exit the building immediately.

“We don’t have a problem with our radio signals getting inside the building,” Hileman said. “But they can be garbled by interference sometimes, and that’s no good when we’re trying to get everyone out.”

Now, however, the command team can activate an emergency indicator — a red, blinking, running man icon — inside firefighters’ SCBA face pieces, signaling the need for a hasty exit.

Altoona Fire Capt. James Campbell said the technology provides a measure of reassurance when considering strategies for attacking a fire.

“Knowing I have an extra set of eyes on my oxygen levels, and they can pull us out immediately if something goes wrong — this allows us to push further inside,” Campbell explained.

Forging a path

While the Altoona Fire Department started using the Hub in March, Hileman said the department spent years preparing for its arrival.

In 2017, the department purchased new, Bluetooth-capable airpacks with a $289,000 U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters grant, he said.

“We’ve been working with MSA for a while now to test the tech’s capabilities,” Hileman said.

A small, black box with a dome and antenna attached to the top, the Hub and its accessories, including two computer tablets and software, cost the department $8,000, which Hileman said was paid for with grants from the Pennsylvania Office of the State Fire Commissioner.

On screen, the commander team can monitor oxygen levels in real time as they input vital location information for each crew member, streamlining the accountability process.

Prior to the Hub, firefighters used a tag system to track who was inside a burning building. Before entering, a firefighter would hand off his tag, and when they exited, they retrieved it.

In a worst-case scenario, the command team previously could use the tags to determine how many and who was still inside.

Now, the Hub’s software updates users when oxygen tanks are in use, and because the Altoona Fire Department’s standard operating procedure is to engage oxygen use before entering a building and discontinue use when they exit, Free said the system is a de-facto accountability measure.

“From the logistics side, it allows us to better allocate our resources,” he said. “We can forecast when a firefighter is about to exit to renew his air supply, and we can see which teams have full tanks when we need to assign them tasks.”

In addition to oxygen levels, the Hub also provides data from firefighters’ hazardous, off-gas metering devices, said Justin Smithmyer, Altoona’s assistant fire inspector.

With more eyes on the meters, Smithmyer said hazmat teams can focus more on the task at hand and spend less time checking a shoulder-worn monitor through an often foggy mask.

‘Future of firefighting’

On the volunteer firefighting front, Newburg is anticipating being able to deploy its own Hub soon.

“We’re in the process right now of getting it all put together,” Zeigler said. “We’re all really excited to add this to the rest of our equipment. This is huge for us.”

Newburg also purchased its Hub with a grant from the Office of the Fire Commissioner, though the total amount of the grant was not disclosed.

While volunteer fire de­­partments can receive financial contributions from their municipalities and are eligible for state and federal grants, the majority of equipment is funded through public donation.

“It takes a lot of fundraising just to keep a firefighter in turnout gear and other (personal protective equipment),” Zeigler said.

The majority of funds that volunteer departments receive are earmarked for operating costs and minor upgrades. With a recent uptick in public contributions, however, Newburg has been able to expand its capabilities to better serve the community.

“(Technology like the Hub) is helping us move into the future of firefighting,” Zeigler said. “This will, no doubt, better protect our firefighters, and we can’t wait to get it in service.”

Although the full extent of the Hub’s capabilities remain to be seen, Hileman said it’s already made a significant impact in the way his department approaches fighting fires.

“With a smaller department like us, one of the challenges we face is sending everyone in at the same time to do all the rescue and extinguish the fire, which means everyone runs out of air at the same time, and we lose ground against the fire,” Hileman said. “This tech allows us to stagger the entry of our groups so they aren’t all running out of air at the same time.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.

Mirror Staff Writer Calem Illig is at 814-946-7535.


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