Precision Location Meets the Real World

"It would give us a great sense of accomplishment if we have been able to communicate to the technical community what you need to do to save our lives." That is how Ric Plummer, an engineer and member of the Berlin, MA, Fire Department, summed up his feelings at the conclusion of the 2009 Workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, MA, in early August.

The annual workshop, now in its fourth year, is the only major meeting in the nation focused on research and technology development related to indoor precision personnel location for first responders. This year, more than 120 leading researchers from industry, academia and government; members of the first responder community; and representatives of federal, state and local governments took part. The two-day event included presentations on technologies such as inertial navigation and radio frequency-based positioning, a session on the use of physiological monitoring technology to help reduce stress-related heart attacks in firefighters, technology demonstrations by more than 15 corporate and university teams, and a real-world assessment by members of the Worcester, MA, Fire Department.

Attendees heard an address by U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who hailed the progress that has been made by teams at WPI and elsewhere over the past decade on precision location systems, and said, "We will work with all of you to make sure funds are there to perfect this technology and save lives." Delivering keynote addresses were Joseph Heaps, deputy chief of the Information Sensor Technologies Division, Office of Science and Technology, National Institute of Justice; and Jalal Mapar, program manager in the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security.

Mapar used the forum to announce the much anticipated news that the Science & Technology Directorate had selected two teams to receive funding through the new GLANSER (Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders) program, whose aim is to develop robust and flexible technology to accurately locate, track and monitor personnel inside structures during an incident.

Plummer's statement helped bring to a conclusion an ongoing discussion that began with the workshop's opening presentations and extended into a working session during the afternoon of the second day that included thoughts from the user community, particularly members of the firefighting and law enforcement communities, about the state of position location technology. The conversation centered on the need for location technology to be in synch with the needs of the first responder community and to be able to operate effectively in the real world in which firefighters and law enforcement officers work. To open the workshop, Plummer and Trooper Jeffrey Lenti, a member of the Special Tactical Operations Team of the Massachusetts State Police, talked candidly about that world.

Plummer said the fireground is a loud, unpredictable place where things can go wrong in an instant. Visibility is generally near zero and firefighters typically crawl to stay under the heat. Fighting fires is an intensely physical job that involves chopping through walls, dragging hoselines, climbing stairs and searching rooms with an ax handle — all while wearing up to 80 pounds of equipment. Time is always of the essence. Firefighters depend on the on their airpacks, which limits their survival in a burning building to a half-hour or less. In the confusing environment of a fire, firefighters are often uncertain of their location.

Firefighters, Plummer said, need location equipment that is rugged, lightweight, and reliable. It must turn on automatically — and immediately — and preferably be integrated into equipment, like airpacks, that firefighters already wear. It must be accurate and present useful information to incident commanders in a way that is intuitive and easy to comprehend. And, in a sentiment expressed multiple times during the workshop, Plummer says it must tell incident commanders what floor a firefighter is on. "If we need to rescue someone, there is no time to search multiple floors," he said.

Police officers face different challenges, but have some similar needs in location technology, Lenti said. They need equipment that is light and that can be integrated into existing equipment, like radios, since their equipment belts are already full. They work outside and inside buildings, and need systems that can track them in both environments and move seamlessly between them. Unlike firefighters, law enforcement offers often work alone, with their exact whereabouts unknown to dispatchers. When they are in need of aid, their location must be determined quickly and accurately. Accurate location information is also critical in situations like an active shooter scenario, where the risk of officers shooting fellow officers is always elevated.

Gregory Price, director of the DHS Tech Solutions program, and Scott Ullery, with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), followed Plummer and Lenti to the stage to deliver an overview of the results of an assessment of five location and tracking systems conducted at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree in the spring of 2009. Designed and executed by researchers in WPI's Precision Personnel Location (PPL) research team, funded by DHS, and overseen by NSRDEC, the assessment involved fire and law enforcement scenarios conducted in a two-story wood-frame house and a multi-story steel and concrete building. Teams of firefighters and police officers searched for a lost colleague or a missing person, relying on location information provided by the systems being tested. The results were compared to baseline runs made without the aid of location technology.

The bottom line, Price reported, is that none of the systems tested are ready for operational use. In many cases, the systems failed to meet the real-world requirements that Plummer and Lenti outlined. In some cases, the time needed to set up or calibrate the systems introduced delays in first responder operations. In other cases, movements and other physical activity by first responders introduced errors in the systems' performance. Systems did not integrate well with the first responder's gear or were too delicate to handle real-world use. The systems did not always provide information that was easily digested or simple to communicate to firefighters or law enforcement officers who needed it. None of the systems seemed to anticipate the needs of law enforcement officers working in large areas outdoors. And, perhaps most important, the systems were not highly accurate, and in many cases their accuracy degraded over time.

While the results of the assessment were ultimately disappointing, Price said the workshop gave him a feeling of optimism. The state of technology has advanced steadily, he said, and a great deal has been learned about what seems to work and what doesn't. The frank dialogue between the user community and the developers of location technology during the workshop had gone a long way toward closing the gap between technology development and the real world. And the commitment of resources from the federal government, epitomized by the new GLANSER program, will help accelerate research and development in the field. "I look forward to being here a year from now," he said, "and seeing the progress we have made."

MICHAEL DORSEY is director of research communications at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he has contributed to various aspects of the university's marketing and communications operation over the past two decades.