Innovative biosensors for first responders

6 November 2023

“TECNALIA improves effectiveness and safety when deploying first responders”

TECNALIA develops a system to monitor the health of first responders in vivo using tactile biofeedback

TECNALIA puts technology at the service of health and people, developing a prevention system aimed at first responders. In the situations they deal with on a daily basis, it is important that key physiological parameters of these professionals are monitored in order to provide timely and actionable information, without hindering their operational capacity.

The number of natural disasters, many of them in inaccessible rural areas, is increasing. And these situations mean that first responders are being increasingly exposed to extreme conditions, often caused by forest fires or search and rescue missions for mountaineers. Nowadays, the risks are increasing for these professionals.

Our first responders are real-life heroes, but who looks after our rescuers?

Effectiveness and safety when deploying first responders

This is the origin of SIXTHSENSE, a multidisciplinary innovation aimed at improving the effectiveness and safety of the deployment of first responders (emergency staff) in dangerous environments, optimising the coordination of teams on missions and ensuring staff health at all times.

SIXTHSENSE is a portable health monitoring system with tactile biofeedback, which enables the assessment of the health of professionals through a “smart” patch attached to their skin. This enables early detection of risk factors that could compromise a person’s health or performance. In potentially dangerous situations, this system anticipates possible health problems of these professionals and warns them, and even informs the team if a colleague is struggling.

This is possible thanks to the use of predictive models based on multimodal biosensor data developed by TECNALIA, also taking advantage of predictive models based on biosensor data: lactate, ions such as sodium or potassium, cortisol, heart rate and temperature.

This system also enables real-time monitoring of all deployed staff, thus increasing team effectiveness and operational safety. Because having physiological data on first responders can make a difference to the outcome of a mission.

In this line of work, we focus on the condition of emergency staff, beyond critical environmental and vital parameters, where our sensors are aimed at monitoring biomarkers related to fatigue, dehydration and stress, as these professionals are exposed to dangerous environments and extreme physiological or psychological stress,” explained Goran Bijelic, coordinator of this project at TECNALIA.

For these professionals who are working in extreme conditions, having information on fatigue, stress or dehydration can make the difference between a successful mission and a tragic one.

Innovative biosensors for first responders

These extreme professions require optimal physical conditions. These professionals work under high stress levels when they are deployed and the risks to their well-being are very high. Increasing stress levels can directly affect their performance, thus putting at risk their own health and that of people affected by fire or avalanche, among other emergencies. “Key physiological parameters, such as fatigue, stress or dehydration, must be monitored in a way that provides timely and accurate data”.

In this context, recent technological developments are addressing several challenges for multi-sensor devices. The search for state-of-the-art technologies is based on sampling methods compatible with the operational requirements of these missions. “It is not feasible to ask these professionals to take a blood sample or a mouth swab during a rescue mission.

Technology must adapt and provide systems that they can wear on their suits, which are inexpensive and easy to operate to detect risk factors that affect their health and work,” explained Bijelic. The systems integrated into their suits have great potential: “They avoid direct contact with the skin and non-invasively extract biofluids for real-time monitoring and to significantly improve quality of life with timely and reliable data”.

Innovative non-invasive portable biosensors

TECNALIA has developed innovative non-invasive portable biosensors that are suitable for the continuous monitoring of biomarkers such as lactate, sodium and cortisol under extreme conditions and for long periods of time, up to 6 hours. “Interstitial fluid and sweat are rich sources of specific biomarkers, but due to a number of technological challenges in their application, they remain a largely unexplored niche in the context of wearable sensors. The main challenges of non-invasive monitoring include a reproducible sample collection, analyte transfer to the sensor, cross-contamination and selective detection of the analyte in real time, as well as sensor-body interface and environmental stability of the sensor,” he explained.

The approaches TECNALIA has worked on take advantage of different technologies such as iontophoretic extraction of analytes, ion-selective electrochemical sensors, enzymatic biosensors, conductive and biofunctional polymers in combination with printable and flexible electronics. And TECNALIA’s Biomaterials team has expert knowledge of these technologies.

A test passed in a mountain rescue scenario

After months of research, it was time to deploy the system in the real-life conditions of first-responder operations. The European consortium of this project met on the Kopaonik Mountains (Serbia), hosted by Serbian mountain rescue teams to test the system under the conditions of a winter rescue scenario.

Milos Kostic, Health Researcher at TECNALIA, was there, together with more than 40 researchers, developers and professionals from 10 different organisations. In total, 17 rescuers from the Serbian Mountain Rescue Service and the Association of Mountain Rescue Organisations of Bosnia and Herzegovina took part in the tests, which were conducted over four sessions.

The activity took place in a circuit with four exercises relevant to mountain rescuers, where the SIXTHSENSE electro-tactile communication system was fully functional in the harsh conditions of the field tests.

Emergency professionals received more than 400 individual messages during the tests. After only a few minutes of training to use the electrotactile communication system, and despite the intense physical activities, the overall success rate in recognising messages was over 70%, with some subjects scoring over 90%.

In addition to testing electrotactile communications and collecting physiological data during these activities, the cognitive load and the effects of fatigue on the decision-making process were assessed in tests designed and delivered by the researchers.

A European consortium with 21 organisations

SIXTHSENSE started in 2020 and is coming to a successful end. This European consortium has involved 21 organisations from nine European countries, coordinated by TECNALIA. Various organisations have also taken part, such as the Serbian Mountain Rescue Service, the Association of Mountain Rescue Organisations of B&H, four fire companies – Gumpoldskirchen (Austria), Postojna (Slovenia), Rijeka (Croatia) and Pavia (Italy) – as well as a fire rescue expert and risk management experts: IFR (Austria).