According to the National Fire Protection Association, one U.S. civilian dies a fire-related death every 142 minutes. Mike Ralston is working to alleviate that tragedy. The engineer and former firefighter co-founded Qwake Technologies to help firefighters navigate smoke-filled scenes.
“Typically, a firefighter will be walking or crawling, with one hand on the wall, feeling their way blindly,” says Ralston, who spent his 14-year firefighting career in Santa Clara County and Menlo Park. “If you come into a room that’s 10 feet by 20 feet and there’s a victim in the middle of the room, it could take five minutes to locate the victim.”
Qwake’s C-THRU Visual Communication platform is a helmet-mounted, augmented-reality device that delineates the contours of people and obstacles not otherwise visible in fire scenes. C-THRU also streams the images to an incident-command tablet for better communication and situational awareness. The device, which should be available this year, also shortens the time firefighters spend in toxic environments and speeds locating a fire’s source, reducing financial losses to a structure.
Ralston has long advocated for technology to fight fires—he previously led the technology and innovation group within the Menlo Park Fire Protection District—but for Qwake to succeed, he says, technology needs to be built into the public safety ecosystem.
So far, he says, “It hasn’t been economically viable for companies to go out and produce this [kind of] technology. We came at it from a different point of view, ‘How can we make something with an economic incentive to bring to market?’ Saving lives while reducing property loss and health exposure may be the answer.”