Workshop Tracks Progress on Firefighter Locator

More than 10 years ago, six Worcester, Mass., firefighters perished in a huge maze of a warehouse fire that prompted many to think the fire service needs something to guide rapid intervention teams (RIT) to quickly locate and rescue downed firefighters.

Earlier this week, a group of prominent scientists, researchers and product developers gathered at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), just a few miles from where the fire occurred, to hear how much progress had been made to make that firefighting locating device.

Several fire service leaders and fire chiefs had an answer to that question: not as much as they would like.

"We need something right now and, frankly, I'm a little disappointed we haven't got something yet," said Dean Cox, a battalion chief with Fairfax County (Va.) Fire & Rescue. "We've been here for six years and there's nothing here that says 'wow.'"

Cox was a moderator of a user forum at the sixth annual Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking International Technology Workshop held on the WPI campus Monday and Tuesday. About 150 people attended, including a handful of fire chiefs, firefighters and others with intimate knowledge of the fire service.

Everyone who attended was pleased to have brilliant minds focusing on the challenge of finding firefighters inside smoke and fire filled buildings and the dedication and resources that have been committed to the problem.

Nevertheless, there was frustration that a device was not already in the field saving lives.

One of the hosts of the workshop was the Department of Homeland Security and its moderator was Jalal Mapar, program manager at the Science and Technology directorate. He has been heading up a team of scientists working on a firefighter location device called Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER).

"They beat me up pretty good in the user session," Mapar said to the audience. Holding up his left hand and indicating a space of about two inches between his thumb and index finger, Mapar said; "Funding is this big and expectations are this big," he concluded, holding his arm out wide.

Scientists from Sweden, Germany and all over the U.S. were unanimous in their verdict that finding firefighters inside a building without the benefit of Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) locating assistance is a very complicated challenge to which a solution is elusive.

Mapar took the heat graciously and promised the workshop attendees that the GLANSER prototype would be available for testing next year. On the day Congress wrestled to the floor a bill to help the country from financial default, Mapar said he was concerned there may not be enough funding for a seventh annual workshop.

He also said there's clearly pressure from not only the users, but from the feds to get the project completed.

"We are being forced to move," he said. "We can no longer have five-year tails on projects. And we understand we are working with a community who wanted it yesterday. I get it and I promise, next year you will have something to test and to see."

One area that seems to be a stumbling block is getting scientists and firefighters to speak the same language. Researchers are looking for pinpoint accuracy, down to a meter or less when locating firefighters, almost searching for a Holy Grail of location devices -- one that will not only tell rescuers where a down firefighter is, but how to get that person out with a "breadcrumb" trail that illustrates the path taken by the firefighter.

Users -- firefighters -- on the other hand said they don't need that level of specificity.

"I think we'd be happy with floor and quadrant," Cox said, to a room of 20 or 30 users and manufacturers. "We can take it from there with our training and experience."

And, on top of that, the users said they would be happy with 80 percent accuracy and reliability, thinking that something is better than nothing and recognizing rescuing down firefighters in the thick of the battle is a risky proposition at the outset.

The message was also clear that whatever device science and innovation develops, it has to be intuitive and always on without any set up or additional intrusive procedures.

"We have trouble keeping the guys in their seatbelts and getting the truck stopped before they are jumping out and going to work," Cox said. "Ideally, having the system going before we get there would be best."

WPI Professor John Orr, one of the original people involved the school's firefighter locating project, said he was pleased with the progress he learned about this year.

"We have to keep in mind this is a really complex and complicated challenge," Orr said, noting the science and research demonstrated this year has been exponentially better than it was six years ago when the workshops started.

Live practical testing of two systems during the workshop, conducted by members of the Worcester Fire Department under the direction of Deputy Chief John Sullivan, served as witness to technical difficulties of tracking firefighters.

One system, developed by Trimble Navigation, a provider of advanced positioning solutions headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., worked on a reverse radio frequency identification tag system.

Using hundreds of RF tags installed a day before in the Atwater Kent building on the WPI campus, Trimble equipment guided rescuing firefighters to a “down” comrade in four minutes and 28 seconds.

A video of the demonstration was presented to the audience which showed a RIT going into the building and being directed to the down firefighter by Sullivan via a computer screen tracking the rescuers.

A spot on the screen showed the location of the down firefighter and the technology traced the advancing team as they conducted the blind search.

While the technology performed well, the audience recognized that a one-day set up time was not a possibility in a live fire situation. For new construction, the reverse ID tag technology holds promise, the developers and even end users said.

The second system was a product called LS1 Personnel Location System developed by Mine Safety Appliances (MSA).

As a prototype, close to market, the device tracks firefighters as they move through the building, leaving different colored contrails on a computer screen, depending on the team assignment, and all monitored by the incident commander.

As the Worcester firefighters did with the Trimble system, they entered the building with the LS1 deployed and proceeded to do a search as their training has taught them. Using the information witnessed by Sullivan, the RIT tried to navigate through the classroom building trying to find the down firefighter.

Sullivan said there was a problem with the base unit having a low battery which had to be changed out as the search was going on and disrupted the information. The test with the MSA equipment took 22 minutes and 44 seconds.

The baseline test for Worcester firefighters to find the down colleague in exactly the same place, unaided, was 22 minutes 47 seconds, Sullivan said.

Sullivan in his comments said they were both different technologies and both had some potential of being used in the field with further development.

Part of the benefit of having the workshop, according to Mapar, the DHS representative, was to learn about the technologies and the challenges -- anything that would advance the solution.

"I learned a bunch of stuff," Mapar said. "We had presentations... and comments from the user community all pointing us to a critical design review. I promise, you will have a GLANSER prototype here next year for field testing. I give you my word."

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