April 23, 2024
Good Vibrations

Photo: Ease Alert

Blake Richardson's idea for his EaseAlert startup started in an entrepreneurship course at Flagler College in 2019. His wearable device that gently awakens firefighters before any alarm sounded was one of four concepts chosen for the semester-long class project to research and build a business plan around.

NextGen

Good Vibrations

Blake Richardson created a vibrating wristband that gently rouses firefighters when they get an emergency call. The device is designed to reduce the stress of traditional fire alarm systems, which can take a toll on first responders' health.

Nancy Dahlberg | 3/11/2024

The Entrepreneur
Blake Richardson, 26

CEO
EaseAlert, Tampa Bay

Blake Richardson grew up around a North Florida fire station. His dad was (and still is) a firefighter in Fernandina Beach, where Richardson saw firsthand the joy but also the stress the job brought. When visiting the station during his high school years, he’d hear the heart-racing alarms and thought of a potentially healthier way to alert the firefighters but put the idea in the back of his mind.

Then, in his entrepreneurship course at Flagler College in 2019, Richardson presented that idea — a wearable device that would vibrate to gently awaken and alert firefighters before any alarm sounded. It was one of four concepts selected as part of a semester-long class project to research and build business plans around.

He learned that loud sounds create an auditory startle reaction — think of it as a fight-or-flight response that can send the heart racing. Firefighters face this multiple times daily including during deep sleep. By replacing or preceding the sound with a tactile notification, you mitigate that auditory startle reaction — and that’s the basic science behind why the technology created by his startup, EaseAlert, is less stressful for emergency responders than traditional alarms, Richardson says.

The potential impact is huge. The leading cause of on-duty deaths for firefighters is heart attacks, not burns or accidents, and firefighters are up to 14 times more likely to die of a heart attack during an alarm response than during non-emergency duties, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine. And there are more than 1.2 million firefighters in this country alone.

In addition to winning over his father, Brad, with his heart-smart startup idea, Richardson won Flagler College’s entrepreneurship competition in 2019 and a month later placed in the top five at a statewide competition at the University of South Florida. That’s where he met his future co-founder and CTO Elezar Tonev, then a University of Florida engineering student who had co-founded a manufacturing company. “I needed help building out an idea, and he had the means to build an actual product, so we came together and put together the initial prototype,” Richardson explains. The Fernandina Beach Fire Department was a pilot tester, and Richardson and Tonev continued to make improvements.

EaseAlert incorporated in 2020 and currently markets its wrist-worn device and suite of related products to fire departments. Its BunkAlerts device provides visual alerts with red LED lights that can improve alertness. Recent studies have shown that the long-wavelength red light reduces sleep inertia, the temporary period of grogginess and confusion many people feel upon waking up. An optional attachment can deliver a vibration to the bed.

EaseAlert’s wireless systems can be set up at a station in a matter of hours, and the company is out in front of any potential competition. “We have two patents and we’re the only ones that do tactile alerts in the fire service. We’re definitely the first to the market,” Richardson says.

His company was awarded a $384,782 phase one Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health to do a clinical study for EaseAlert. The ongoing study, led by fire service researchers from the non-profit Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, is monitoring firefighters at two fire departments that are using Ease- Alert’s systems to examine their cardiovascular response and sleep habits. It’s the first clinical study to look at tactile alerts compared to audible alarms in the fire service.

“Winning the grant is validation that this is a real problem that science cares about,” Richardson says.

EaseAlert is in use at the Stillwater Fire Department in Oklahoma and the Central Jackson County Fire Protection District in Missouri as part of the NIH study. Other customers include the St. Augustine Fire Department and two U.S. Air Force bases. The startup also works with two resellers. “It’s not just a fun idea or an interesting theory. It’s a solution that taxpayer dollars are supporting so that first responders can have healthier careers, and ultimately a healthier life after retirement,” Richardson says.

The startup — today a team of five full-time and part-time employees — raised seed funding from Gainesville venture firm OneSixOne and angel investors. The EaseAlert team was part of OneSixOne’s first incubator cohort. Growing sales and developing new products are on the company's 2024 roadmap.

“Now that we've really locked in higher quality service and products, and we've made a repeatable process for manufacturing and outfitting the systems, we're really excited to expand our services, not just in the United States, but internationally.”

Alleviating Stressors

THE PROBLEM: Sudden cardiac events, such as a heart attacks, are the No. 1 killer of on-duty firefighters and accounted for nearly 52% of fatalities in 2019. Alarm bells are among the many stressors in the job that can affect the heart by causing a sudden arousal that can make it go into overdrive.

THE BIG IDEA: EaseAlert’s wristbands awaken firefighters gently, vibrating for five seconds before auditory alarms in the fire station sound.

IMPACT: A study is underway to assess the physical impact of the system on firefighters’ health, but EaseAlert's preliminary feedback has been positive, says Richardson. “We’ve seen across the board that EaseAlert is both less stressful on their psychological and physiological health and also more efficient when it comes to understanding dispatch information and responding,” he says. User feedback from the company’s anonymous surveys showed that EaseAlert improved firefighters’ health during the alerting process by 53%.

Tags: Feature, NextGen

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