Science, tradition and the ultimate in high-technology wearables combined last week for a piece of historic medical research as soldiers taking part in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Birthday Parade donned space age NASA style vests as part of an Army doctor’s quest to discover how to stop or reduce the common phenomenon of fainting while on parade.
It’s an age-old problem that has become the focus of a Ph.D. research project for Major (Dr) Iain Parsons of the Royal Army Medical Corps which, thanks to him, saw 10 volunteers from the Irish Guards wearing the vests among the 1,500 soldiers and 250 horses from the Household Division who paraded in front of thousands of spectators in London.
The Canadian-made smart vests were worn under the iconic traditional woolen red tunics and use the latest technology to monitor every aspect of the soldiers’ physiology. This includes heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, and respiratory status, even measuring how much they move and sway in any direction while on parade.
And all in aid of Major Parson’s quest to find out as much information as possible about the stresses that soldiers are under not only on parades but also during military exercises and on operations. These vests have also been worn by astronauts on the International Space Station.
It has never been done before, no one has ever done a study like this on the Queen’s Guard on the Queen’s Birthday Parade, no field studies like this have been done before. Major Parsons
The research project is being partly funded by the Army’s Headquarters London District, the RAMC Charity, The Drummond Foundation, as well as The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Following rigorous laboratory testing performed at Simon Fraser University in Canada, the initial ‘field testing’ of the vests took place at the rehearsals for the parade with further tests taking place during the event itself.
“It all came about following discussions I’d had with General Officer Commanding London District, General Ben Bathurst, in 2018, who wanted to take a more evidenced approach to prevent fainting on parade, said Major Parsons.
“In 2019, I systematically reviewed the medical evidence to provide practical simple advice to reduce fainting on Parade,” he added.
“Following this, I set about designing my own studies with a view to understanding the problem as well as introducing many countermeasures that are already in place, and in doing so reached out to Prof Victoria Claydon, a professor of cardiovascular physiology, based in Canada. This has proven to be a very fruitful research collaboration.”
The vests collect millions of data points to obtain a comprehensive insight into the cardiovascular demands of modern-day parades.
“We chose these vests after careful consideration,” added Maj Parsons.
“There is a lot of wearable technology on the market using technology such as pulse oximetry and Bluetooth. We required something that could collect data on an individual for several hours and store this data for later analysis. The vests we used are ideal in this regard.”
Major Parsons said the research is the first-ever for the Queen’s Guards.
“It has never been done before, no one has ever done a study like this on the Queen’s Guard on the Queen’s Birthday Parade, no field studies like this have been done before”, he added.
“We will be able to correlate the information we collect against a multitude of measures, including stress hormones and psychological measures. The aim is to predict who is most likely to faint so we can target our developed countermeasures more effectively”.
The study’s objective is to better understand the physiological stresses to develop and better deploy countermeasures to prevent it. Though soldiers on hot parade grounds have historically been trained to sway backward and forwards or clench their muscles and ensure they’re fully hydrated, high-tech tests that gather such comprehensive measurements in real-time are a first for the Army.
Major Parsons said the lightweight vests, similar to sports vests, have a small box fitted to the soldiers’ abdomens to collect all the data which will likely take up to a year or more to fully analyse. Prof Claydon and a team of three Canadian Ph.D. scientists, who flew over to London, especially for the project, teamed up with him to fit the vests at the rehearsals and at the Parade itself.
Fainting is a common occurrence. More than 35% of people will faint at least once over the course of their lifetime and almost anyone can faint under certain circumstances. However, the nature of military duties, physical exercise, exposure to heat, and standing for prolonged periods of time (orthostatic stress) is known to trigger fainting. Ceremonial duties, such as this event, expose our soldiers to these stressors but so do many facets of soldier’s work including on operational deployments.
We will be able to correlate the information we collect against a multitude of measures, including stress hormones and psychological measures. The aim is to predict who is most likely to faint so we can target our developed countermeasures more effectively Major Parsons
Soldiers have been given guidance on how to reduce the likelihood of fainting over the years, but this was commonly based on the experience of the senior non-commissioned officers rather than medical science.
Maj Parsons has had specialist training in the investigation and management of syncope (the medical term for fainting) and has been researching the human physiology which underpins fainting, as well as ways to reduce the incidence of soldiers’ fainting, both on operational deployments and during state and ceremonial duties.
Research is ongoing but Maj Parsons is hopeful that future interventions will improve soldiers’ capability to withstand heat, improve their endurance, and allow them to perform all their duties at the peak of physical performance and preparedness.