Yet another call comes in – and our frontline responders are off into action. From the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) personnel conveying critically injured individuals to hospital to the Disaster Assistance and Rescue Team (DART) specialists extricating motorists from serious road traffic accidents, our frontline responders are always ready to respond when needed. But the load they face every day can be daunting. For instance, in the week of 15-21 October 2021 alone, the SCDF 995 Operations Centre received 5,500 calls for assistance. Frontline responders work tirelessly day in, day out, responding to emergency situations to save lives. Ensuring their wellbeing and that they are protected from injuries while carrying out their dangerous duties thus becomes even more critical. But who is responsible for that?
That’s where HTX Human Factors and Simulation (HF&S) Centre of Expertise scientists step in. They test and work on science and technology solutions that help frontline responders carry out their duties effectively and safely. The soft exoskeleton is one such solution. In emergencies, responders are often assigned with multiple tasks that require high physical strength and endurance. Performing these tasks numerous times over long hours exerts stress on responders in the long run, increasing the risk of repetitive stress injuries. Research has shown that overexertion and strain are the leading cause of injury for frontline responders in their operations. Mr Ying Meng Fai, Director of HF&S, explained, “Seeing the potential in using the soft exoskeleton to ergonomically augment Home Team frontline responders to perform their roles, we made it our mission to design a rigorous trial to assess the suitability of using soft exoskeleton for emergency operations. The trial provides SCDF with a deeper understanding on how best to reap the most out of the exosuits, in function and efficacy, and hopefully reduce accumulated fatigue and stress on frontline responders, especially in the face of the pandemic.”
Assistant Commissioner (AC) Mr Yong Meng Wah, Director of the EMS Department in SCDF, concurred. “Over the years, SCDF has been responding to an increasing number of emergency calls in an increasingly complex operating terrain. This has put a physical strain on our most crucial resource – our frontline responders. SCDF’s exploration of soft exoskeleton technology aims to reduce the stress on our responders so they can serve the public more effectively and safely.”
An SCDF EMS personnel wearing the soft exoskeleton (Photo: HTX)
If what came to mind when you heard the term ‘exoskeleton’ is a suit like the one worn by Iron Man, that isn’t quite it. The soft exoskeleton is a wearable technology that supports the torso and redistributes part of the load away from the spine during operations. By reducing repetitive stress on responders, injury rates are reduced, allowing less time for recovery and more ready deployment of responders. The exoskeletons are also easy to don and adjust seamlessly to the responder’s natural postures and movements. Such characteristics ensure unrestricted range of motion, speed and agility.
At present, the exoskeleton has completed testing in a controlled environment with SCDF’s EMS personnel and DART specialists, where it received encouraging results. It will soon undergo operational trials at selected fire stations from January 2022, to ascertain practicality for implementation.
Ensuring the soft exoskeleton suited the needs of first responders was no easy task, however. Soft exoskeletons are usually used in manufacturing and agricultural industries, not so much emergency services. HF&S Scientists first needed to evaluate whether the exoskeleton was even feasible for emergency responders, given their unique local operating environment. Ms Leong Hin Fong, Senior Scientist from HF&S commented, “There was very little information available to help us in our research for this particular use case. Moreover, it’s one thing to read published studies, but another to translate these findings into real operational work.”
On what the trial entailed, Hin Fong explained, “We first had to identify what tasks emergency responders needed to carry out, and then design a trial tailored to their needs. To design the trial appropriately, we really had to work closely with EMS personnel and DART responders. We conducted a detailed task analysis which involved discussions and interviews, and us observing them in action over multiple sessions. I also personally tried out most of the tasks, to better understand the requirements of emergency responders and how the exoskeleton could help them.”
Leong Hin Fong, HF&S Senior Scientist, pictured adjusting the soft exoskeleton on the EMS personnel (Photo: HTX)
To Hin Fong, however, the effort was worth it. “Knowing that what I do could potentially help to enhance the well-being and operational performance of frontline responders is definitely something that keeps me going. I think of myself as doing behind-the-scenes work that keeps Home Team officers safe and secure as they put themselves on the frontline. It might go unseen, but it is no less important. I’m proud of the work I do.” We’re proud of you too, Hin Fong!
The people involved in this project are:
Ying Meng Fai – Director, Human Factors & Simulation
Leong Hin Fong – Senior Scientist, Human Factors & Simulation
Lowell Chong – Scientist, Human Factors & Simulation
The soft exoskeleton was also covered in the Straits Times on 29 October 2021.
SCDF to trial soft 'exosuit' for emergency medical officers and rescue teams