Enginuity 2011

Emergency alert

Driven to make vehicles safer

You’re driving your car, listening to the radio and talking on your cell phone. You’re paying attention to the traffic signals and the other cars around you, but suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there’s an ambulance behind you with its siren blaring and lights flashing. You throw your cell phone down and scramble to get out of the way, just like other drivers caught unaware.

This situation happened to William “Bo” Kelley 13 years ago. He was driving with his manager to a sales call, talking and listening to the radio. They both jumped when a fire truck’s horn blew behind them. They hadn’t heard the emergency vehicle approaching. “We neither heard him nor saw him,” Kelley said. When his heart stopped racing, an idea hit Kelley like a Mack truck. Cars needed to be equipped with devices to alert drivers of oncoming emergency vehicles.

He knew it was a great idea, but he didn’t pursue it. When he was caught off guard by an emergency vehicle again a few years ago, he knew it was time to act. He was on the Eastex Freeway feeder road when an ambulance tried to get through the traffic. It was only when the vehicle was about 40 yards behind him that he heard the siren. Kelley was able to get out of the way, but the other drivers ahead of him were taken by surprise and had to move fast to clear the path. Kelley thought, “Something’s got to happen. We’re slowing them down.”

He went into action. He made some contacts, and the first prototype of his emergency-alert device was built in 2008. “It was crude, but it worked,” he said.

Harley Myler and William KelleyKelley took his idea and prototype to David Mulcahy, the director of the Lamar University Small Business Development Center. He wanted to know if Lamar’s engineers could downsize the device. Mulcahy directed him to Harley Myler, professor and chair of the Phillip M. Drayer Department of Electrical Engineering. “I really knew I had something,” Kelley said.

Myler liked the idea but was skeptical about the original design concept that required vehicles to be retrofitted with the device connected to the radio. “It would be like mandating seat belts,” Myler explained.

Plus, there was already a similar warning device available. Cobra Electronics Corp. sells radar detectors that also detect safety-alert signals and warn drivers of oncoming emergency vehicles. But there are problems with radar detectors, Myler contends. They are an expensive piece of equipment costing about $100 or more and not legal in all states. Myler wanted the device to be a small, inexpensive, stand-alone unit that wasn’t tied into an auto’s existing equipment. He came up with something that he and Kelley think fits the specifications extremely well.

In 2009, Myler showed his prototype to Lamar University’s patent committee. The members agreed it was a good idea and should be pursued, but the university doesn’t want to manufacture and market products, so Kelley founded Beaumont-based Kelley Emergency Alert Systems and Project TEAM IVENS took off.

TEAM stands for Texas Emergency Alert Module, the device that will go in emergency vehicles, and IVENS stands for In-Vehicle Emergency Notification System, the device that will go in passenger vehicles. The patent committee submitted the patent application in January. Assuming all goes well, when the patent is awarded in about two years, it will be Lamar’s first. Myler and Kelley can’t disclose specific design information because of the patent-pending status.

According to Kelley, the average distance for someone without distractions to respond to an emergency vehicle is 70 to 80 yards. It drops to 30 to 40 yards with distractions including talking on a cell phone and listening to a radio. IVENS will signal drivers up to 1,000 feet, or about 333 yards, from an emergency vehicle. “What we’re doing is putting an audible and a visual alert inside the car,” he said.

Kelley gave a presentation to Beaumont Fire Department officials who listened politely to his power-point presentation. They then told Kelley they already had the Opticom System, which triggers traffic lights ahead of an emergency vehicle to turn green. “That’s great,” Kelley said. “Why don’t you finish the job?” He reiterated a fact they already knew. There’s still a risk of having an accident in an intersection because the light suddenly changed and the drivers of other vehicles haven’t heard the sirens or seen the flashing lights of the oncoming fire engine. The firefighters agreed.

IVENS will also work to alert drivers of other situations that require caution, including highway construction zones. Kelley is currently talking with Texas state legislators about the device.

The current prototype will soon be sent to the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) at the University of Iowa's Oakdale Research Park in Iowa City. Kelley is confident it will pass all its tests, and the data will help convince more people of its need.

Kelley believes the device will help make emergency-response time quicker, which will in turn save lives and reduce litigation for emergency responders by reducing accidents on the way to and from emergencies. Once the device is approved, Kelley expects to build a manufacturing plant in two to three years in Southeast Texas. Manufacturing, marketing and distribution will all be in one place. If all goes as planned, the device will hit the market in 2012. The first task will be to fit the modules into first-responder vehicles, including police cars, ambulances and fire trucks.

A statistic to keep in mind, Kelley said, is that the second cause of death for first responders is having an accident going to the scene of an emergency. That’s one of the reasons why he’s so passionate about TEAM IVENS. “It’s not just how quickly they can get there,” Kelley said, “but how safely they can get there.”