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Spanish coders harness tech to track health risks for firefighters

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 15 October 2019 13:00 GMT

Firefighter Joan Herrera (left) and nurse Vicenç Ferrés Padró (right) of Prometeo test their technology to track health risks in the field, in Catalonia, Spain. HANDOUT/IBM

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A device that can monitor health threats to firefighters in real-time has received an award from IBM that will help roll it out more widely

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA, Oct 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As fires gobble up forests from California to the Amazon, a small team of volunteers based in Barcelona is hoping to deploy cutting-edge technology at home and further afield to protect the health of those on the frontline: the firefighters.

After winning a global coding challenge backed by tech giant IBM in New York last weekend, they will receive financial and technical support to deploy more widely their open-source application, named Prometeo after the Greek god of fire Prometheus.

The system uses artificial intelligence and the internet of things to help keep firefighters safe using a device the size of a smartphone that is strapped to their arms.

It has sensors that monitor temperature, smoke concentration and humidity in real-time, and can send colour-coded alerts via a Cloud platform to command centres.

That information can then be used to pull firefighters out if the situation gets too dangerous, as well as tracking their long-term exposure.

"What we are doing here is taking care of the health of firefighters, and we hope that with our project we will be able to... get a better life expectancy (for them)," said Josep Ràfols, an IT worker who leads the Prometeo development team.

He said the goal was to help realise the dream of veteran Catalan firefighter Joan Herrera, who had struggled to find a way to track the rising health risks facing his profession.

Herrera - after suffering headaches and breathing problems from smoke inhalation, and seeing other firefighters die in his arms - launched an effort over a decade ago with emergency nurse Vicenç Ferrés Padró to collect data by following teams in the field.

But new IT devices and technology mean that painstaking task can now be done more cheaply and efficiently, said Ràfols.

The Prometeo dashboard collects vital information on first responders in the field and could be used to notify fire command center teams if a firefighter’s health and safety is at risk. HANDOUT/IBM

As the threat of forest fires intensifies on a warming planet, firefighters are being called in to battle bigger and more frequent blazes everywhere from Spain to Brazil.

U.N. disaster risk reduction chief Mami Mizutori, one of the IBM competition's judges, said authorities in Europe had recorded more than 2,000 wildfires so far this year, three times higher than the average over the past decade.

"It's more important than ever that we do everything we can to protect firefighters, as they risk their lives to protect us," she said in a statement on the award.

In 2019, "Call for Code" - a five-year, $30-million philanthropic project - focused on creating solutions to ease the impacts of disasters and enable first responders to better support survivors.

Daniel Krook, chief technology officer of the IBM Code and Response initiative, said it would work with Prometeo to make the open-source technology available to firefighting teams across Europe, North and South America, and Australia.

The application stood out among the other entries, from 165 countries, because it could make "a direct impact on the lives of the people addressing the natural disaster", and could be deployed fast at a large scale, Krook told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ràfols, who has worked on Prometeo on a pro bono basis with two other IT services specialists, said the plan was to talk to Catalan authorities about rolling it out there first.

The region has experienced very dry weather in recent years, he noted, and will need "happy and healthy" firefighters both to battle wildfires and prevent them with controlled burning.

"We are IT guys... maybe not the typical heroes that fight fires or chase criminals, so we decided to do what we know how to do," he said. "It is the only way that we can contribute."

The Prometeo team pose for a picture in front of a fire engine (from left to right: Salomé Valero, Marco Rodriguez, Joan Herrera, Josep Ràfols, and Vicenç Ferrés Padró) in Catalonia, Spain. HANDOUT/IBM

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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