Wearable devices such as smartwatches have become increasingly popular in recent years, given their effectiveness in monitoring the physiological condition of the wearer. In particular, they have been used in sports to provide targeted feedback to enhance the wearer’s performance.
The Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) believes that emergency responders can benefit likewise, and has embarked on a new frontier of using such technologies to optimize their performance and enhance their safety. This article elaborates on SCDF’s journey in the use of smart wearable technologies.
Smart technologies around responders’ needs
SCDF has consistently invested in technologies that can enhance the capabilities of our responders. With Industry 4.0 bringing about rapid developments in the Internet of Things (IoT) and Data Analytics (DA), amongst others, the ensuing network of gadgets and back-end computational capabilities have made it possible for us to redefine the way we track performance and warning signs. This has allowed data-driven decision-making, and an evidence-based approach to training our responders.
Since July 2020, trainee officers from SCDF’s Civil Defence Academy (CDA) have received smartwatches to wear during training. Data from these smartwatches, such as the trainee’s heart rate and training load, have given instructors meaningful insights into the physiological work strain faced by individual trainees, and allowed instructors to tailor their training programmes. This first phase of SCDF’s foray into smart wearable technologies has shown promising results, and demonstrated the importance of designing such technologies around responders’ needs. SCDF plans to progressively equip all SCDF trainees and frontline officers with smartwatches.
Optimizing individual performance and training load
Physical fitness is a critical aspect in emergency response – the unique nature of our work comes with heavy bodily demands, to ensure that responders remain prepared for the most gruelling conditions. However, every individual is different – differences in initial physical fitness condition, motivation level, and physiological features necessarily mean that everyone starts from a different base. Trainees may respond and adapt differently to a standard training programme,1 given the same level of training stress and same amount of recovery time. If such differences are not catered for, trainees may experience episodes of under- or over-exertion, leading to issues such as suboptimal training outcomes, non-functional overreaching and overuse injuries.
The smartwatches issued to trainees will provide a quantitative analysis of each individual’s performance. Longitudinal profiling will aid in the development of a predictive algorithm based on physiological responses and rest (including sleep) accrued from each day of training, to determine the readiness-to-train level of each trainee. This allows the personalization of training programmes, beginning with three broad groups: undertrained, optimally trained and over-trained.
Each of these groups will receive dedicated physical training programmes for each day. For instance, undertrained trainees will take part in more physically intensive workouts to maximize their training potential, while trainees belonging to the over-trained group may receive a less intensive physical workout to reduce the likelihood of overuse injury. This cycle will recur daily throughout the training period, forming a positive adaptive feedback loop. This progressive training strategy is envisioned to nudge each trainee into their individual optimal training zones, and at the same time reduce the occurrence and severity of training-related injuries.
As the algorithm is refined with more data points, a bespoke set of physiological targets can be formulated for new trainees, to enable a holistic overview of their progress and allow them to achieve targeted training goals in a systematic manner. Trainers can also make real-time adjustments and enhancements to training programmes, and maximize training efficacy by matching the training load to desirable heart rate performance zones. Over time, training programmes can be more closely tailored to the each trainee’s needs, to optimize their individual performance and training load.
Enhancing training safety – Alert, Assess and Adjust (A3)
Over-exertion during training could lead to dangerous outcomes, and has to be assiduously prevented. Traditionally, trainers do this by observing for visible signs and symptoms of bodily stress such as disorientation and hyperventilation. However, this could be subjective, as the perception of what entails exertion varies across individual trainers. There are also challenges in maintaining continuous and absolute vigilance over a large group of trainees. With trainees having varying thresholds of tolerance to exertion, signs of distress could also be difficult to spot.
The physiological monitoring by SCDF’s smartwatches can provide critical early warning of individuals at high risk of physical stress, allowing the strategy of Alert, Assess and Adjust (A3). Such warning signs could be transmitted in real-time to the Safety Officer’s hand-held tablet, forming the ‘Alert’ when a particular trainee’s heart rate reaches a pre-determined threshold, signalling the trainee being ‘at-risk’. The Safety Officer can then ‘Assess’ the trainee and swiftly provide necessary intervention. If necessary, trainers would be able to ‘Adjust’ the training load on the spot.
As the SCDF algorithm gains more data points, it is also expected to identify potential incidences of under- and over-training more accurately, to reduce the occurrence and severity of training-related injuries. The quantitative data will allow a more objective approach to identifying over-exertion, and instil confidence in necessary intervention.
Data for further research and integration
To further SCDF’s evidence-based approach to improving responders’ performance, SCDF has established the Emergency Responders’ Fitness Conditioning and Enhancement Laboratory (EXCEL) in CDA. Physiological data from smartwatches are critical for research insights, especially when read alongside other metrics – examples include gait, balance, reaction time and muscle activation, collected through the Strength, Conditioning & Rehabilitation in a Virtual Environment (STRiVE).2 The multi-modal profiling facilitates continual optimization of responders’ performance through early intervention measures such as customized corrective training programmes. This would allow further customization of training programmes to individual-specific training needs, allowing responders to perform better, faster and longer.
Future applications in frontline operations
In the next phase of SCDF’s use of smart wearable technologies, smart devices will be extended to frontline officers, for similar optimization of performance and real-time monitoring for signs of over-exertion. To further the Ops-Training nexus, physiological data of responders at incidents could be collected, to determine the intensity and realism of scenarios which need to be created at CDA to replicate real-life conditions.
The smartwatch will also be able to serve operational functions. Responders en route to an incident site could receive a summary of incident details on their smartwatches, for a quick appreciation of the situation. At the scene, the smartwatch transmits the responders’ physiological signals and locations to the staging point for monitoring, using GPS technology. Those in distress and who need urgent assistance can use the smartwatch to send man-down alerts. This serves to communicate responders’ status with certainty, and enhance the safety of responders in risk areas.
For the smartwatch to serve the responder comprehensively, it will also aid in administrative duties prior to operations. In daily routines, the smartwatch provides a digital platform for responders’ attendance to be registered, upon reporting for duty. The data is then matched against a centralized database, which automatically assigns responders to rosters based on the team’s collective profile of skills and competencies. This makes for a seamless work experience for frontline officers, and improves the accuracy of data captured.
Several features of the smartwatch that were trialled with trainees have also proven to be effective in strengthening scene management. One example is the ability for voice and text message broadcasts to disseminate instructions to a large group, which allows for precision and immediacy. The smartwatch’s connectivity with trainers’ hand-held tablets, and the network’s ability to monitor personnel location in real time within CDA has demonstrated the system’s potential in managing incidents with a large scene of operations. After instructions have been given to responders, information can be piped to a command and control dashboard which visualizes such crucial operational logs, providing a comprehensive overview of the scene for commanders during operations.
Investment in our people for the future
Moving forward, SCDF will continue to harness the potential of evolving technologies. We hope to build better predictive algorithm models, to further enhance the active monitoring of responders and spot for potential hazards during operations. This involves the gathering of other physiological parameters such as SpO2, body temperature, respiratory rate and ECG. SCDF is also exploring other forms of wearables which can provide fall detection and hazardous gas detection. All these will enhance our ability to protect our responders, enhance their performance and design better training programmes.
SCDF’s investment in smart wearable technologies is really an investment in our people – the organization’s most valuable resource. The adoption of such devices signals a new way of maximizing the performance of our responders, and keeping them safe. The network of gadgets, supplemented by DA, marks SCDF’s move towards an evidence-based approach to training our responders, using objective and quantitative metrics.
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- Presently, SCDF trainees undergo a standard training programme. Their physical standards are assessed through various proficiency tests such as the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) and Breathing Apparatus Proficiency Test (BAPT).
- A key feature in EXCEL, STRiVE is a 360° immersive virtual environment built around a six-degrees-of-freedom motion platform equipped with a dual-belt treadmill, combining physical and cognitive training into a gamified immersive training simulation.