The Natick Soldier Systems Center is the U.S. Army’s R&D department. Talented designers, engineers, materials specialists, researchers, etc. are marshaled to study soldiers’ problems, then design solutions for them. (We’ve covered their work before, from better first-aid bags to footwear to a machine gun ammunition holder inspired by the movie Predator.) Soldiers have Natick looking out for them.
Like the Army, U.S. firefighting departments also have large groups of people performing life-risking feats. But unlike the Army, there is no central R&D lab looking out for them. (If there was, the thumb-crushing handles in this firetruck would never have passed muster.)
Thus there is a history of firefighters inventing their own tools. The Halligan is perhaps the best example: This multi-purpose breaching tool was created in 1948 by FDNY Deputy Chief Hugh Halligan, and so useful was the design that it has become a standard piece of firefighting kit.
More recently, Washington-state-based firefighter Scott McCann developed the BadAxx, a multi-purpose axe that contains a lot of very clever design. Take a look:
McCann used his thirty years of firefighting experience to design the BadAxx, which was successfully Kickstarted earlier this year. Absent the imaginative McCann, this object would probably never have been dreamt up by an industrial designer.
That’s because few designers have an accurate idea of what a firefighter might encounter on the job. Sure, on TV or in the movies we see them breaking doors down, working hoses or carrying unconscious people. But to give you an idea of a challenge you’ve likely never thought of, look at this insane entanglement problem they must be trained to get through:
Are you kidding me? If a single thing strapped to his body becomes snagged, he’s in serious trouble. Now imagine trying to work those cutters while wearing thick gloves, and laying in that position, in a blazing hot room filled with smoke so thick you can’t see.
I have no doubt that the four levels of solutions shown in the video are the most effective things that veteran firefighters could develop. But don’t you think there’s something that could be done, from a design perspective, to make that task easier?
I know that some of you reading this are talented industrial designers with entrepreneurial streaks, and/or a strong desire to work on designs that really matter. Others reading this are design professors planning out your students’ semester projects for the future, looking for areas with unmet needs and organizations you can partner with. It’s worth considering what you might learn on a visit to your local fire department—there is undoubtedly one near you.
Consider that no matter where you live, if your house/dorm/apartment catches on fire, a truck loaded up with firefighters will appear within minutes. These folks are trained to use their skills to help you out in an emergency. It would be nice if we could, as designers, return the favor.