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...


"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...


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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.