Workshop Tracks Progress on Firefighter Locator

Despite progress, there was frustration that after many years of development, a device is not already in the field saving lives.

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."