Menlo Park firefighters test mask that lets them see through smoke

MENLO PARK, Calif. (KGO) -- Firefighters at the Menlo Park Fire Protection District have been testing a high tech tool that could help them, and the people they rescue, get out of a burning building more quickly.

Like something straight out of an action movie, it's a firefighting mask with two green glowing eyes that one firefighter said turns heroes into superheroes -- by letting them see through thick smoke to find and rescue victims more quickly.

"Every once in a while, you hear about firefighters getting lost in buildings, running out of air," said fire chief Harold Schapelhouman. "It's not like Hollywood. You're in hot, smoky conditions. Sometimes, you can't even see the fire. In the old days, we would literally crawl on the floor, listen for people, yell out ... and then hopefully find somebody within a room."

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Handheld thermal cameras were a breakthrough, Schapelhouman said. But between running hose lines, carrying tools and freeing people who are trapped, firefighters rarely have a free hand. The new device, called C-Thru, aims to solve that problem.

"It draws a wireframe or outlines all the objects in the room, to allow firefighters to make a faster decision," said Sam Cossman, the device's inventor.

Cossman, who co-founded the startup Qwake Technologies, is not a firefighter. He's a volcano scientist.

"(I) spend a lot of time in and around volcanoes," he said. "And there happens to be a lot of smoke there."

Cossman went looking in the firefighting industry for a tool that could help his volcanic exploration efforts, but found that what he wanted didn't exist. So he set out to combine a thermal camera with augmented reality glasses from display maker Lumus.

"We've been working with the military for more than a decade now," said Lumus vice president Sivan Iram. "So, very literally, battle tested."
Cossman set about building a tool for himself, but quickly realized he's stumbled upon a much bigger need. A friend put him in touch with Menlo Fire -- a department that puts a priority on the Silicon Valley innovation spirit, and already works with drone companies and other technology startups.

"Part of what we see our position as being, as a fire agency, is giving Sam and the team at Qwake the opportunity to test this in real life conditions with real operators," the chief said.

Right now, those tests are being done with a prototype. Ultimately, C-Thru will have to get regulatory approval by showing it can withstand the heat and impact it could face in a real emergency. Cossman said the next step is to make a prototype that's more rugged.

"To take it into an actual live fire scene where we can expose it to real heat," he said.

In a test using cold smoke, Menlo Park firefighters pulled out pretend victims from a dark training facility more than twice as quickly using C-Thru as they did as with handheld thermal cameras. The current prototype is built on a standard firefighting facepiece, with an external pack of electronics. As Qwake continues making the device smaller, Chief Schapelhouman says Menlo Fire will advise the team on making sure it meets all the requirements necessary for regulatory approval.

"Any time you can get in and out of (a smoky) environment as quickly as you can -- either to clear it or actually rescue a victim -- that's what saves lives," the chief said.
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