The Charger Blog

Students Develop Virtual Reality Heart Monitoring Program to Help Firefighters Monitor and Manage Stress

Four seniors and Professor Mehdi Mekni, Ph.D., collaborated with a West Haven-based virtual reality training developer and the Cleveland Fire Department to develop a program that could one day impact first responders everywhere.

May 22, 2024

By Jackie Hennessey, Contributing Writer

Left to right: Kyle Muldoon ’24, Sean Vargas-Altamirano ’24, Matthew Lamour ’24, and James Mok ’24 present their senior capstone project at the University.
Left to right: Kyle Muldoon ’24, Sean Vargas-Altamirano ’24, Matthew Lamour ’24, and James Mok ’24 present their senior capstone project at the University.

Wearing virtual reality headsets, firefighters and fire department leaders were placed in dangerous, stress-inducing situations they would face on the job. As part of the training, firefighters battling a raging blaze suddenly found themselves in the midst of a partial building collapse. A fire official in charge of the fire scene at a high-rise apartment building had to respond to a “Mayday! Mayday!” call from a firefighter trapped on the 11th floor.

Was there a way to see how the stress of the situation was affecting their heart rate during that training? Was there a way to build in reminders so those undergoing the training would use breathing techniques to center themselves and regulate their heart rates?

As part of their senior capstone project, four Tagliatela College of Engineering students – James Mok ’24, Sean Vargas-Altamirano ’24, Kyle Muldoon ’24, Matthew Lamour ’24 – set out to develop just that.

Under the guidance of Mehdi Mekni Ph.D., professor and director of the Computer Science program, the students collaborated with Fred Caserta, founder and CEO of Pleiadian Systems, Inc., a West Haven-based company that creates cutting-edge computer hardware and software training systems for first responders. Caserta was developing a firefighter training program for the Cleveland (Ohio) Fire Department.

‘Reduce stress and be more high performing’

For two semesters, the students built upon the existing virtual reality training platform. They incorporated a heart-monitoring system by HeartMath, a leading heart-monitoring company that uses biofeedback – “breathing techniques to bring about coherence, to align the physical, mental and emotional systems to work in sync.”

Each week, the student team met via Zoom with Caserta and Brendan McNamara, the Cleveland Fire Department’s chief of health and safety, as well as Dr. Jennifer Franklin, the stress consultant/wellness coordinator for Cleveland’s Department of Public Safety. They discussed how best to build up stressors the firefighters would experience through virtual reality. Then they wove in reminders to breathe and meditate.

“So, when firefighters go into the actual environment, their heart breathing will be like second nature, and they can reduce stress and be more high performing on the job,” Mok said.

‘Value, Purpose, and Meaning’

Chief McNamara said this tool – SMART-VR – is vitally important for firefighters and fire department leaders. “The main things that kill firefighters are cancer, heart disease, and suicide,” he said. “In the last three years, four Cleveland firefighters committed suicide.”

He and Dr. Franklin talked with the student team about the mental health issues firefighters can experience, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Dealing with stress in the middle of a critical incident “will lead to better health outcomes,” McNamara said.

During the Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control in 2023, stress reduction was a major topic, including a discussion about a study from the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. The researchers found “approximately 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress at some point during their careers, compared to a 6.8 percent lifetime risk for the general population.”

“This is the best type of project because it has value, purpose, and meaning, and it’s an experiential journey for the students to develop skills – interacting with a CEO, learning from the chief and a doctor of psychology,” Dr. Mekni said.

Mok, who graduated in May and was hired as a software engineer by Electric Boat, said it was a continual learning experience, “having stakeholders to adhere to and a product to deliver.” He and his fellow students felt very invested, he said, because of the impact the project could have on so many first responders. “It’s one of the reasons I gravitated to the field of computer science because it can reach across every field,” he said. “I like that I can help in some way.”

Mok said it was powerful to hear McNamara describe the training firefighters undergo and the work they do daily, “rescuing people from burning buildings, doing underwater search and rescue in water. They’re real heroes.”

‘An extremely exciting and rewarding journey’

Central to the students’ challenge was building out the platform so firefighters encountered more stressors in each scenario, while also being reminded to breathe.

“It’s really difficult to train that mindset so we are trying to turn the fire scene into a firefighter’s yoga studio,” McNamara said. “We want them to be in a relaxed state, so they are mentally prepared for anything.”

McNamara said he isn’t certain the students “understand the magnitude of what they accomplished. It’s the first time mindfulness and breathing has been woven into virtual reality training in this way.”

In a letter of thanks to the Tagliatela College of Engineering, Chief McNamara and Dr. Franklin praised the student team for their unwavering commitment. “You spent months listening to our problems, researched multiple solutions, and created something useful,” they wrote.

Added Caserta, “It’s been an extremely exciting and rewarding journey to work with such a creative and bright-minded group of students.”

Several students were hired by Pleiadian Systems Inc., and another capstone group will work next fall on SMART-VR 2.0. “For us, this story is not over,” Dr. Mekni said. “There is so much yet to explore.”