Safety device donated to St. Paul Fire Dept. in honor of woman killed in 2009 accident

At the St. Paul Fire Department, firefighters are still haunted about the life they couldn’t save seven years ago.  It was a life they took.

Margaret Kuehn stepped out of her garage along an alley in the Highland Park neighborhood and didn’t hear or see the ambulance backing up.  The driver didn’t see Kuehn either. Her death on June 20, 2009 was a turning point for both her family and the St. Paul Fire Department.

“It was hard,” said her daughter Lisa Kline.  “Originally I just focused on our loss. But then, over time, I understood how it affected the fire house, the driver, the guys on site as well as the entire department.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, for Capt. Jovan Palmieri, that necessity was the Kuehn tragedy.

Palmieri was already working on a device to allow a spotter to stand well behind a fire truck and wirelessly transmit a signal to the driver that his backup path was clear. After Kuehn’s death, Palmieri stepped up his efforts to perfect and market his idea. He enlisted the help of electrical engineering students at Minnesota State University-Mankato. Two patents and a manufacturing arrangement later, his device, called Backsafe, is now in use.

“There are hundreds of people who are backed over and killed. There are thousands injured every year,” said Palmieri. “And a lot of the people getting backed over are the spotters that the driver knows they’re back there.  They just lose track of them in the mirrors and the person trips behind the truck and falls down or slips on the ice they’re not able to tell the driver to stop in time. So this will give them an instant stop signal if something like that were to happen.”

Backsafe president Mike Brusseau presented the St. Paul Fire Department with a Backsafe device with serial number 1 for it to use in the very firehouse that is home to the rescue rig that struck Margaret Kuehn. 

Brusseau presented it to Kuehn’s family and the fire department in her honor on Tuesday.

“I’m very honored that they remembered my mom, and it’s still in their thoughts and they’re doing this in her honor to help preventing this in the future,” said Kline.

Backsafe’s Brusseau says the technology can be used for more than just fire departments. Although the Eden Prairie company is now beta testing the devices at the Eden Prairie and St. Paul Fire Departments, it has hopes of cross purposing the devices for the construction industry and other safety applications that require two-person crews to back up large objects and vehicles.
Capt. Palmieri admits he’s had a couple of close calls himself over the years as he’s spotted for fire rigs trying to back out of tight spots. 

“As I developed the Backsafe system I’ve had lots of firefighters come up to me and tell me about their close calls and how they see that this is going to make a difference,” said Palmieri.

What is Backsafe?

Backsafe is a wireless communication system that allows the vehicle's driver and spotter to communicate by a color code of two small devices.

Backsafe System CEO, Mike Brusseau donated a Backsafe System for Medic 19 in honor of Kuehn. Kuehn’s daughter, Lisa Kline was there to accept the Backsafe device in honor of her mother.

The Saint Paul Fire Department will have Backsafe Systems installed in all of their new fire and emergency medical apparatus.