August 24, 2010

Product aims to head off heat issues

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The stories hit the news cycle as frequently as the temperature in parts of the country has reached 100 degrees or more this summer:

Tom Bergeron is the Senior Editor for Send ideas, questions or comments to and follow on Twitter.

  • Three football players at different schools in Arkansas are hospitalized for heat-related issues.

  • Six football players on one team in Florida go to the hospital after collapsing at the end of practice.

  • Numerous players in the Atlanta area suffer suffer heat-related issues.

    Was it any wonder the CDC released a report last week that said football players are more susceptible to heat-related issues than any other athletes?

    While trainers and coaches are better prepared to preach hydration and take steps to prevent heat-related issues, the simple fact remains: Few are able to see heat-related problems until after their onset. And players may still be reluctant to admit they are starting to feel the heat.

    With this in mind, Hoover (Ala.) High was happy to become one of the first high school football programs to experiment with a new product from Hothead Technologies, an Atlanta-based company.

    The product puts a sensor inside the helmet of every player to monitor his body temperature. Those readings are instantly transmitted to a PDA device monitored by head trainer Brandon Sheppard.

    When a player's temperature reaches 102.5 - the degree where it is believed heat-related issues start to develop - Sheppard gets a warning, enabling him to give the player help before his symptoms get too bad.

    "I think it's good; it's more information," Sheppard said. "It's not the end-all for heat illness prevention, but it's the highest-quality technology that can give us more information.

    "It enables us to make better decisions and provide a better quality of care."

    Hothead Technologies founder and CEO Jay Buckalew said the goal is to provide a warning sign.

    "It's an early-warning device," he said. "It can't detect heat stroke, but it can detect when the players temperature is getting into that zone and allow you to be proactive instead of reactive."

    Sheppard already has seen the benefits.

    "We pretty much have someone every day (reach the number)," he said. "We'll pull them out, give them Gatorade, take their helmet off and take their shoulder pads off until they cool down."

    The impetus for the product came in an unusual place - atop a 22-story building under construction in Puerto Rico in 2005.

    Buckalew, who was helping to install communications equipment at the time, was overcome by the heat - but didn't want to admit it.

    Luckily, his co-workers got him down to safety.

    "I was disoriented," he said. "I knew the effects of the heat had hit me, but I continued to work through it and did what you're trained to do as men: Tough it out ... don't appear to be weak ... don't let your guys down.

    "What was happening to me was very close to heat stroke."

    Weeks later, he came up with the idea of a sensor that would enable others to know when co-workers were in trouble. And while he had industrial workers in mind when he applied for the first patent in 2006, he realized it applied to athletes as well.

    "I wanted to put in a hard-hat environment: Fire, military, industrial," he said. "But when I looked at the technology that was out there, it became apparent this was very big problem in football.

    "Growing up in the south with football and heat, I realized this was a problem that had to be solved in football first."

    This is the first football season the product is on the market; Hoover is one of roughly a dozen pro and high school teams that are using it.

    The device costs roughly $5,000 to $7,500 to outfit a team, depending on its size. Buckalew estimates the cost (which includes a sensor for the helmet and one PDA) to be $72 per player.

    He said his company is trying to keep the costs down - and says it's at the same cost point as other items for high school athletes.

    "People will pay $400 for a bat, $100 for a mouth piece or $50 for a shirt," he said.

    Both Sheppard and Buckalew are quick to point out the device is not a cure-all for all heat-related issues.

    "I'm excited to have it," Sheppard said. "I think we're on the cutting edge, but I wouldn't put my reputation on the line until I learn all I can about it."

    Buckalew said the product is in its infancy and is eager to make adjustments as needed. That's why he's keeping the distribution low at this point.

    He realizes though, the biggest issue will be getting teams to trust the technology at all times: "You have some people saying, 'I know my players more than some device. If you think I'm going to pull my player out when it's third-and-9 because some warning is going off.'"

    Buckalew answers the question the same way every time: What if it's your kid?

    "When you personalize it," he said. "You start to see a change of attitude."

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