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Workplace fires cause billions of dollars in damage each year. Unfortunately, in many cases much of that damage could be prevented if an individual who happened to discover the flames early enough knew how to properly use a fire extinguisher.
Engineer John Blackburn aimed to find a way to train people safely and effectively on how to use this life-saving device. With colleagues Ryan O’Donnell and Tom Rossi he created the Intelligent Training System, or ITS, which later became the foundation of BullEx Digital Safety, Inc., in Menands, New York.
Blackburn was born in 1984 in Squamish, British Columbia, where he enjoyed a childhood filled with hours spent tinkering with toys and gadgets and coming up with his own creative ideas. He began his studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, where he completed a B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2005.
As a student, Blackburn’s robotic creations were featured on TLC's “Robotica” and Comedy Central's “Battle Bots.” Also while enrolled at RPI, he worked with students enrolled in RPI’s Inventors Studio program. The program offers classes to help teams of students develop their own concepts into working prototypes. Participants may also get assistance in securing patents and, in some cases, funding for further development.
Through the Inventors Studio program, Blackburn became involved with a project that began as research into ways for disabled individuals to extinguish kitchen fires. Later the idea evolved into a fire extinguisher that could instruct a person as to whether he or she was properly extinguishing a fire. The idea was, in part, inspired by a mandate by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which requires all employers that have fire extinguishers in the workplace to provide annual training for all employees.
In order to do this, trainers would need to gather several fire extinguishers, light flares in parking lots or other open areas, and expose themselves and employees repeatedly to toxic, dry-chemical coatings. Blackburn and his team realized this was an incredibly inefficient way to teach, not to mention an unsafe and messy process. The team began working on the ITS with the aim of making it simple, efficient, safe, and easy to use by just one qualified trainer. The result was a system with an electronic ignition that uses a clean burning propane-based flame. ITS also allows for the use of SmartExtinguishers, a trademarked unit that requires only water and air, which enables realistic training without discharging chemicals into the environment.
Four sensors on the base ITS unit make it possible for individuals undergoing training to be easily evaluated. The sensors are able to vary the flame for a realistic training scenario, thus users get immediate feedback as to their efficacy in aiming and sweeping in an attempt to extinguish a fire. The ITS can fully mimic the characteristics of particular classes of fires: combustibles, liquid, and energized. A trainer operates the system via a handheld controller that allows him to select different classes of fire, select different difficulty levels, and grade the user based on his or her performance.
Blackburn and his team founded BullEx in 2003 to market and distribute ITS. The firm opened its doors in 2005. As of this 2007 writing, Blackburn serves as BullEx’s Chief Technology Officer, a position he has held since 2003. He holds one patent with at least two pending for fire-safety related technologies.
Today BullEx sells its products all over the world, with systems in place in approximately 40 countries. To date, more than one million people have been trained using BullEx technology. In addition to ITS, BullEx has launched two new products, the HotShot and the BullsEye. These new systems give our company a broader product offering and better reach. The HotShot was designed specifically to for fire-safety training in sensitive environments such as mining and off-shore oil and gas; it recreates a live fire through the use of an LED flat-panel screen. BullsEye takes the HotShot one step further: It can be used with specially designed laser-based training extinguishers that allow training to be conducted with no byproducts at all.