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University to Build Toxic Gas Sensor for Firefighters

House fire (A. Kotok)

(A. Kotok)

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts received a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop a portable sensor that alerts firefighters to the presence of toxic gases in burning buildings. The $1 million award will support the work of researchers in WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering departments.

The project aims to create a a wearable, pocket-sized device that will warn firefighters when toxic gases, particularly hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, are present at a fire scene. Both hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide are colorless and odorless gases. Sensors for these gases are now available, but none of the devices have been shown to function reliably in intense heat and extreme humidity encountered at a fire scene.

The sensor developed by the WPI team is expected to protect firefighters continuously both inside a building near the fire’s source as well as outside, where toxic gases can still be found, but portable breathing devices are typically not worn. Engineering professor David Cyganski, the project’s principal investigator, says “This grant will have a significant impact because it will affect every firefighter in the long term.”

Cyganski’s previous research highlights the role of hydrogen cyanide as an important component of the dangers associated with fire fighting. He notes that in the spring of 2006, 27 members of the Providence, Rhose Island Fire Department were tested for cyanide poisoning after three separate fires, and 8 of the firefighters were found to have significantly elevated levels of cyanide in their blood.

In earlier studies, Cyganski cited reports showing hydrogen cyanide among the most lethal by-products of combustion affecting firefighters, leading to progressive heart disease. While the number of firefighter deaths from heart attacks decreased from 2010 to 2011, heart attacks remain the leading occupational killer of firefighters.

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