Tools & Technologies: Searching for Answers

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...


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Some of the solutions have required elaborate setup with sensors, beacons and antenna arrays, which are all fine for testing and research, but firefighters who were part of the conference said everything has to be ready to go when firefighters arrive at the scene. They said they don’t have time to deploy a tracking system and do all the other customary firefighting tasks, especially when firefighting staffs are being cut everywhere and even volunteers are hard to retain.

“We have trouble keeping the guys in their seatbelts and getting the truck stopped before they are jumping out and going to work,” said Battalion Chief Dean Cox of Fairfax County, VA, Fire & Rescue. “Ideally, having the system going before we get there would be best.”

 

Test Runs for Technologies

One manufacturer working on a user-friendly device is MSA, a maker of personnel protection equipment (PPE). MSA demonstrated its LS1 Personnel Location System at the WPI conference. It’s based on an inertial navigation system, transmitting a “breadcrumb-like” trail from the user to an incident commander, viewed on a computer screen. During a video presentation of the device, contrails from the initial-entry team into a building were traced on the computer screen and then replicated by a rapid intervention team (RIT) who went in to find a simulated down firefighter.

Another system was demonstrated by Trimble Navigation, a provider of advanced positioning solutions. The Trimble system works on a reverse radio frequency identification tag system. Using hundreds of RF tags installed a day before in the Atwater Kent building on the WPI campus, Trimble equipment guided rescuing firefighters to a “down” comrade. The company’s technology holds promise for new construction in which RF tags can be installed initially rather than retrofitted.

Other kinds of technologies being considered include UHF and VHF radio frequency transmissions, a personal “dead-reckoning” system using an inertial measurement unit (IMU) in the boot of the firefighter and near-field electromagnetic ranging systems.

As part of the overall firefighter safety initiative, manufacturers are developing equipment to monitor the overall physical well being of responders. One presenter at the conference was Globe Manufacturing. Mark Mordecai, Globe’s director of business development, said the company has been working on a project called wearable advanced sensor platform (WASP), which is designed to monitor firefighters’ physiology while on the job.

“This is the next step in keeping firefighters safe,” Mordecai said, noting that finding down firefighters is obviously important, but so is keeping track of a firefighter’s health.

The technology, according to Mordecai, will be incorporated in a flame-resistant, base-layer shirt that will be worn as part of the responders’ PPE. That undergarment will be wired with sensors that can measure heart rate, body temperature, respiration and other vital signs.

Globe has partnered with Zephyr Technology for the physiological monitoring and data transmission technology that is now integrated into Zephyr’s BioHarness. Zephyr pioneered remote physiological monitoring. The concept is to monitor firefighters and transmit those vital signs back to a safety officer so command will know when someone is in trouble and appropriate action needs to be taken. With about half of fallen firefighters dying as a result of heart attacks, Mordecai said this kind of technology is needed in the fire service. As for timing, Mordecai said products will be available for sale in 2012 and will be able to be used with new gear as well as retrofitted to existing in-service gear.

The Globe WASP system will be ready to integrate with other relevant technology, including location and tracking devices as part of the DHS Physiological Health Assessment Sensor for Emergency Responders (PHASER), which goes hand-in-hand with the department’s Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER), the driving force behind the firefighter locating system.

One of the hosts of the conference, Jalal Mapar, program manager at DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate, is the head of the GLANSER team charged with developing the firefighter locating device. He said he understands the frustration of responders who wanted this technology yesterday. Nevertheless, Mapar said, there is a genuine disconnect between expectations and funding. And, despite a lack of consensus about what is good enough for tracking accuracy, GLANSER will have at least a prototype at next year’s conference. “We are being forced to move,” he said. “We can no longer have five-year tails on projects. I understand and I promise, next year you will have something to test and to see.”