Fighting fire with science: New tech to protect firefighters
Published 26 Jul, 2023 · 6-minute read
UQ is a place where ambitions can become realities – and often much sooner than you might expect. This is something Tiarna McElligott discovered less than a year into her Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours).
Tiarna has already taken some incredible steps in turning an idea into a viable product, never mind the fact that she’s only been at UQ for a couple of semesters and isn’t even studying a business degree.
And being a few steps ahead of the pack isn’t exactly a new phenomenon for Tiarna. She was only 15 when she first started developing the concept that would eventually become Oxersense.
Introducing Oxersense (formerly IntelVest)
During a visit to the Taigum fire station, Tiarna learnt a statistic that caught her off guard – that 54% of firefighter deaths occur due to overexertion.
“This fact greatly surprised and concerned me,” she says.
“Yes, being an emergency first responder is an inherently risky activity, especially for firefighters. Entering an emergency site, such as an unfamiliar burning building, is dangerous and not consistent with the occupational health and safety standards that most of us enjoy today. Yet it’s overexertion that poses the greatest risk, and no one seems to be doing anything about it.”
“It became my goal to fix this problem, and to provide an easy-to-use and unobtrusive way to monitor firefighters’ vitals and save the lives of those who work tirelessly to save ours.”
The Oxersense device, previously known as IntelVest, has been Tiarna’s labour of love ever since. She’s working to disrupt the status quo, which relies on firefighters to estimate (and, too often, underestimate) their own exertion levels.
Each firefighter currently needs to evaluate on the fly whether they can continue or need to evacuate themselves. And if they push themselves too far, collapsing from a heart attack or falling unconscious, it unfortunately leads to an extra person who needs to be rescued – or, worse, another person who can’t be rescued.
“This leaves the individual firefighter in the position of having to choose whether to abandon the mission or to continue and potentially risk collapse, and even death, from overexertion,” says Tiarna.
That’s where her innovative device will come into play.
What is the Oxersense, exactly?
“The device is the marriage of a radio transmitter, a processing unit, and a collection of existing electronic sensors, packaged into a light and flexible unit that can be incorporated into a firefighter’s personal protective equipment (PPE),” explains Tiarna.
“The technology collates and relays clinical data, such as pulse and respiration rate, to a central control unit monitored by the Firefighter BA entry officer. This method allows for the monitoring of overexertion in firefighters without impeding the deployment phase of emergency management, and it removes the burden of self-monitoring of exertion from the individual firefighter, thereby reducing the frequency of firefighter deaths and injury from overexertion.”
What brought Tiarna to The University of Queensland?
For Tiarna, there were 3 key factors that attracted her to UQ.
1. The Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours) program
“I really liked the advanced science degree, which is what I’m currently studying,” says Tiarna.
“I liked how it was focused towards going into research and had specific advanced courses that worked really well towards what I’m interested in.”
The program so far has given Tiarna the chance to meet and engage with like-minded people while pursuing the scientific topics that most fascinate her.
She has already:
assisted an advanced genetics PhD candidate with research and experiments
worked with professors to design her own research project proposals
“I’m planning to pursue majors in Genetics and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, along with a minor in Developmental Biology,” says Tiarna.
“I chose these based on my interest in the courses and their relevance to my career goals.”
“Something I really enjoy about the Advanced Science program is how flexible it is, so I’m also planning to take some electives within Chemistry, Biophysics and potentially Forensic Science.”
What I’ve loved most is the opportunity to expand my skill sets and gain new experiences through a range of extracurricular activities.
Bachelor of Advanced Science (Honours)
Myth: UQ is all about theory.
Tiarna’s experience, even just 2 semesters in, has proven this to be a misconception.
“There is much more of a practical focus than I would have expected,” she says.
“Each of my science courses often consist of 3 hours of lectures and 3 hours of practicals a week, occasionally accompanied by a workshop or tutorial.”
These practicals have given Tiarna a diverse range of things to try out, from designing and conducting her own experiments to genetically modifying bacteria.
“They have been very enjoyable and a great way to meet and work with other students,” she says.
2. UQ Ventures
“I first learnt about Ventures during high school and was keen to become involved when I started university,” says Tiarna.
“During semester 2 of 2022 I participated in the LeadHers program, from which I was able to make several connections with other like-minded students.”
Tiarna’s most impactful involvement with UQ Ventures so far has been through the ilab Accelerator program, which she was delighted – and honestly a bit shocked – to get into.
“My proudest moment since beginning my studies would have to be getting accepted into the ilab Accelerator.”
“I applied to ilab as a last-minute decision, thinking there’s no way and that it was too early,” she says.
“I was very happy to receive the phone call telling me we had been accepted.”
This was the next major milestone for Tiarna and Oxersense, since she had already received a patent, developed a prototype (or two), and won several innovation competitions/awards between 2019 and 2021.
Just as important, though, is the personal growth that Tiarna has achieved through the program.
“I think the Accelerator allowed me to develop a lot of skills of independence and putting myself out there,” she says.
“And I think those skills are extremely transferrable to any industry and to anything else.”
Ventures is the core of UQ’s entrepreneurial spirit. It features co-working spaces for collaboration, innovative tools such as 3D printers and design studios, and an ongoing series of events, workshop and programs (including the ilab Accelerator) to help students bring their brightest ideas to life. See for yourself.
For other students considering taking a shot at ilab, Tiarna has two key pieces of advice.
“First and foremost, thoroughly understand your target market, as this is crucial for effective preparation,” she says.
“Secondly, take a leap of faith and give it a go – there is no harm in applying.”
In fact, Tiarna believes the application process (successful or not) is a hugely valuable one, as it will prompt you to consider essential questions like:
What’s your target market?
What’s your competitive advantage?
Where should you go from here?
What are your goals?
“Being able to think through a lot of that can help your business immensely, even if you don’t get accepted into it,” she says.
“And if you do, then it’s just an absolutely amazing program and can completely skyrocket the business.”
3. Clubs and societies
The UQ Chemistry Club is just one of over 220 clubs and societies here