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With devices tracking everything from planes in the sky to stolen cars in a city to the tiniest of screws in a vast warehouse, one would think it would be easy to track firefighters inside buildings. It’s not.
Some of the brightest minds in the world who are working on this problem gathered at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts Aug. 1 and 2 to discuss firefighter tracking and share technological advances. It was the sixth annual “Precision Indoor Personnel Location & Tracking International Workshop,” sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and WPI. More than 145 people attended the workshop, including research and development scientists, manufacturers and those in the fire service who represent the end users.
The workshop was born out of the Dec. 3, 1999, tragedy where six Worcester firefighters died in a massive and complex vacant cold-storage warehouse. The firefighters initially entered searching for a homeless couple who were reportedly still inside the structure. The rescuers, and those who were sent into rescue the firefighters, got lost in the maze-like structure. The homeless people had long fled and were not in danger.
Touched by the loss, faculty and researchers at WPI decided to develop a firefighter tracking and location device, hoping to prevent future losses in similar situations. While it is a noble goal, the solution has been elusive, as illustrated by the more than 35 agencies represented at the workshop all saying a deployable, reliable product is a long way from going to market.
Tragedy Breeds Need
To illustrate the importance of a firefighter locator and tracker, Worcester Deputy Fire Chief John Sullivan recalled that fateful day when the firefighters were lost.
The building had 12-inch asphalt-impregnated cork on the walls with no windows and, at the time of the fire, an unknown number of floors and limited egress. It also had a fair amount of polystyrene in its construction, according to Sullivan.
“It was not an ordinary construction building,” he said. “We were facing a Class B fire.…We were never able to get the GPMs to BTUs to work. We were losing the firefight.”
In addition, the building was huge. Sullivan estimated it was the equivalent of 54 ranch-style homes. There were not enough firefighters on the scene to do a safe and effective search, he said. That’s why it would have been beneficial to have a firefighter locator tool available.
“You need to know how intensely important it is for us to have some sort of 3-D tracking device,” Sullivan said. “We can’t do it ourselves. We need you.”
Make no mistake, researchers and manufacturers are looking at existing technologies for the answers and some hold promise, but there haven’t been any revolutionary breakthroughs yet. While technology has made it possible to track planes, ships, trucks and even people outside using global position satellite (GPS) technology, GPS doesn’t work inside. Research and development call that GPS-denied or GPS-jammed locations. The inside of a building like Worcester’s cold-storage building is a perfect example.
A variety of technologies are being used to create firefighter tracking, including radio frequencies, inertial-based, dead-reckoning systems, with most promising a combination or suite of technologies. Tracking a firefighter in a building, with the receiver also inside, is very close to being perfected, but transmitting that signal effectively to the outside of a building to an incident commander or safety officer (with 80 percent or better accuracy) has proven to be the most challenging aspect of the solution.
Firefighters and end users seem to be divided about what is acceptable and what level of accuracy will work. Some who attended the conference said they needed the “breadcrumb” trail that showed exactly where the firefighter had traveled and his location. Others said they would be happy knowing the quadrant and floor on which a downed firefighter is located. Manufacturers are striving for pinpoint accuracy to within three feet, a goal that has proven elusive thus far.