Prototypes Promise Improved Firefighter Safety

HONOLULU --

The Interstate Building fire of 2000 was the Honolulu Fire Department's worst high-rise fire.

Those who were there remember it well.

More than a decade later, the battle to keep firefighters safe on the job is going strong with the creation of the next generation of first responder technology.

On April 1st 2000, 13 firefighters were treated and 2 captains were hospitalized when fire and smoke choked the First Interstate Building.

"It was pitch-black. I couldn't see anything," said one firefighter.

"It just kept moving and moving for about 3 hours," said Richard Soo.

Soo, a former HPD Captain, was there that day at the Interstate building on King Street.

"A lot of the guys and gals that responded to the First Interstate ate smoke that day," said Soo.

"At night sometimes I see flashbacks when I close my eyes," said Captain Jeff Young.

In the aftermath, Captain Young spoke of the black smoke that burned his throat.

The firefighters that pulled him from the building spoke about the equipment that saves lives - despite some shortfalls.

"You can't use the buddy system so it's kind of hard," said one of the firefighters.

It's a constant battle: improving training, equipment, and communications, to keep firefighters alive in the heat of danger.

"We have multiple layers of safety," said Captain Gordon Villa at the McCully-Moiliili Fire station on Date Street.

11 years later, Captain Villa said air tanks are smaller, lighter, and hold more air.

He said their helmet mics are clearer, and small units sound when a firefighter isn't moving.

But in a smoke-filled, steel and concrete maze, it can be hard to hear, impossible to see, and communications can fail.

"Anything that can make our job safe and easier is what we're looking for," said Captain Terry Seelig.

"So think of it as a trail of bread crumbs," said Engineer David Siu, holding a device about the size of two cans of tuna.

The Department of Homeland Security has been awarding grants across the country to help first responders.

Oceanit got one and Siu and his team have finished a prototype.

"As a firefighter walks into a building, it automatically spits out repeater nodes that boost the communication strength of the network as firefighters travel inside the building," he said.

The WISPER, as it's called, is a self-powered router system that can penetrate walls.

Nodes or "breadcrumbs" drop if the device senses its signal is getting weaker, because of distance or a wall.

A base station laptop signals if a firefighter stops moving by changing from green, to yellow, to red.

"It's a very valuable project to work on, since we're going to try to save the lives of people that protect us," said Siu.

It's just one of many projects and time is ticking, before the next danger tests the system and our brave firefighters again.

"Some of them did come back and return to the scene and fight again!" said Soo.

Siu says the WISPER is not perfect yet, because it still has some glitches.

But if all goes well its router system could help other prototypes in the works:

-There's the GLANSER: a wearable device that tracks a firefighter's every step.

-And The PHASER: which monitors and relays body temperature, blood pressure and pulse.

Despite the dangers in high-rises, Captain Villa says hazmat calls can be worse, because of the dangers you can't see.

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