Technology to Track Lost Firefighters Evolves

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


As part of the workshop, Mapar sponsored a user focus group that discussed various issues identified by the user community and to provide feedback to the system developers. This focus group was chaired by Deputy Fire Chief Mark Amatrudo of the Wilton, CT, Fire Department. The focus group discussion centered on what had been learned at this year's workshop. The group agreed on the following main summary points:

  • The standards process is now being considered
  • Vendors don't realize that procedural differences exist among departments (operational prospective)
  • There may be legal ramifications of decisions based on Physiological Status Monitoring (PSM) data on the scene
  • There is no silver bullet solution (combination approach
  • Limited money from federal organizations is being provided, which is slowing progress to solve the problem
  • It is time to relook at requirements and prioritize them
  • A broad-based public safety users group should be formed
  • The tracking system needs to operate in the background

The final session consisted of the demonstration of three systems. The WFD conducted a simulated search and rescue mission in a large building on the WPI campus using each system. The actual demonstrations took place earlier that day and were recorded by cameras at the command site and a camera that followed the firefighters. During the final session, the audience viewed a picture-in-picture replay of the three demos while the incident commander, Deputy Chief John Sullivan of the WFD, described the action. This session was well received by the attendees as it provided a unique opportunity to see how well technology has improved over the last year by providing a realistic environment to evaluate the systems.

The three systems were:

  • Heuristic Navigation for Tracking in GPS Denied Areas (Kent Garland, NAVISEER product manager, SEER Technology Inc.)
  • Near-Field Electromagnetic Ranging (NFER) Technology for Emergency Responder (Dr. Hans Schantz, chief technical officer, Q-Track Corp.)
  • Personal Dead-Reckoning (PDR) System for Firefighters (Johann Borenstein, research professor, Mechanical Engineering Department, University of Michigan)

The workshop organizers are extremely grateful to the developers of the three systems for volunteering to take part in this exercise and to Deputy Chief Sullivan for organizing the scenario and providing the many firefighters needed (using a fresh team for each of the system demonstrations). This evaluation provides a chance for everyone at the workshop to assess the present state of the art and to provide valuable feedback to all developers for the areas that still need improvement.

The simulated search and rescue mission assumed that a firefighter had become lost and incapacitated when evacuation was necessary during a primary search at the scene of a fire. The building used for the exercise was a large (24,000 square feet), four-story building on the WPI campus. The scenario assumed the last known location of the lost firefighter was somewhere on the top floor and this was the information provided to the rapid intervention team (RIT).

Prior to the workshop, the WFD conducted the same exercise, but in this case the members of the RIT had no location technology to guide them; instead, they used classical search techniques to search the floors and rooms by hand to find the lost firefighter (who was placed in a room on the third floor of the building). The time to find the "lost" firefighter was 24 minutes, requiring two RITs for this baseline.

During the workshop, three fresh crews repeated the exercise, but this time each crew used one of the three location and tracking technology systems and the information they provided, to guide the RIT directly to the location of the firefighter. In previous workshops, or similar exercises, the use of technology has actually slowed the time to complete the search and rescue, since in many cases, the technology provided erroneous information and sent the RIT to the wrong floor or room. In many cases, the scenario even had to be abandoned since it was obvious that the system was never going to guide the rescuers to the lost firefighter. However, this year we are pleased to report that all three systems successfully allowed the RIT to locate the firefighter and in all cases faster than the unaided baseline result.