Technology to Track Lost Firefighters Evolves

In August 2010, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, with support from the U.S.

In August 2010, Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), hosted the fifth annual technology workshop on "Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for First Responders." As in past years, this workshop provided a forum for researchers and developers working in the important area of indoor location and tracking of emergency response personnel to share technical knowledge and to define the state of the art.

The focus of this workshop was zero pre-installed infrastructure tracking; that is, systems that do not require any previously installed wiring or equipment in the target building. Further, the focus was on systems that provide complete tracking and position information on all equipped personnel to the incident command post.

This workshop resulted from WPI's research effort to develop a location and tracking system that started as a result of the tragic fire in Worcester in 1999 in which six firefighters lost their lives in a cold storage warehouse fire, just a few city blocks from WPI, as a result of getting lost and disoriented. A search team of two firefighters became lost in the labyrinthine structure, as did two successive rescue teams. The technology to provide exit guidance or to locate a firefighter in trouble - ropes and personal alert safety system (PASS) devices - was inadequate in such circumstances as the Worcester warehouse fire. This motivated researchers at WPI and elsewhere to apply modern technology to solve this important problem.

To ensure the quality of the workshop from the perspective of both presentations and audience participation during the focus group and plenary sessions, attendance is subject to a proposal and review process. More than 140 people were accepted to attend the workshop and the interest was so great a waiting list had to be created. The attendees included researchers and developers from academia and industry, government representatives and members of the fire service. The agenda consisted of a unique mix of presentations, demonstrations and exhibits, posters, keynote presentations, working sessions and system demonstrations by the Worcester Fire Department (WFD). The poster session was a new addition this year and was required to accommodate all the attendees wanting to report on their excellent progress made over the last year.

The workshop started with a powerful session titled "Fireground Injury and Death: Not Everyone Goes Home!" given by Chief Billy Goldfeder. He provided case studies analyzing tragic fire deaths and their impact on their families and colleagues. Follow-on sessions provided presentations on Government and User Perspectives, Inertial and Integrated Navigation Systems, and RF and Other Technologies. For the first time, presentations and posters featured the use of location and robotics for first responder applications. This year, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) representatives hosted a new session investigating standards development for the new technology of location and tracking systems that were starting to move from laboratory prototypes to commercial systems. These types of systems are more complex than existing electronics carried by firefighters and it is anticipated that new standards and procedures will be required before they can be deployed.

Three keynote speakers provided their agencies' perspective on indoor location and tracking: Jalal Mapar, program manager, DHS Science and Technology Directorate; Dr. Nancy Merritt, senior policy advisor for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development branch of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Dr. Stefanie Tompkins, program manager, Strategic Technology Office, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

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