Worcester Workshop Focuses on Future Technology

What responders want and what vendors want to provide when it comes to firefighter tracking and location systems isn’t that far off, but practical and physical limitations of science and technology are making the solution elusive.

During “working sessions” at the Department of Homeland Security and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking Annual Technology Workshop, users and researcher/developers broke into small groups to talk about “what’s next for first responders.“

Those in the user community were asked to consider how close a practical system is to deployment and what improvements need to be made to create a deployable system.

When the groups got back together, the users reported that they would be willing to accept location systems that are 95 percent accurate rather than waiting for 100 percent accuracy and never achieving it. The group reported they would be willing to accept a product that worked on a “Bell Curve” approach when it comes to accuracy and would also be willing to accept a product that would get rescuers to within three meters of the down firefighter.

Users also want a system that will work on single-family homes and something that would become part of standard operation procedures to ensure user familiarity rather than just being deployed on big fires in multi-story buildings.

Users are also concerned about “information overload,” meaning that a system could be bogged down with superfluous information not necessary to operations, or have too many firefighters being tracked to be effective. The user group suggested a tracker would have to alert to trouble rather than be monitored continuously.

There is also flexibility on how the information is presented, the users said. They are not “handcuffed” to the need for it to be on a laptop. Rather, they would hope the research and development people would come up with a system that works best for the product they develop.

While expressing hope that progress is being made on product development, they also expressed frustration that more wasn’t being done faster.

From the developers’ work session, the manufacturers know they have to make a product that is far more robust than any of the prototypes that have been constructed thus far. They also know batteries have to be lighter and longer lasting and the overall product has to be much smaller.

Regarding the technology itself, the best solution thus far is a “cocktail” approach of a variety of technology to provide the end users with the needed information. Barometric pressure sensors and inertial measurement unit (IMU) and time/space Doppler array sensors are now just part of the hardware used to provide the two and three dimensional images used to track firefighters.

Cost is also a huge issue for the developers who say technology available today would cost about $5,000 per unit to construct. Neither the user group, nor the developer group said that’s an acceptable price.

How to display the available information is also a challenge. It can be sent to laptops, or it can be part of a heads-up display on an SCBA. It could also be displayed in a thermal imaging camera or shared among firefighters within a group making each crew responsible for taking care of itself.

The use of Radio Frequency id tags was also discussed with the eye toward schools, prisons, hospitals and “high value asset”  structures, as suggested by one developer.

A third group was also convened to discuss other technology developments that would be helpful to firefighter safety. That group talked about the need for physiological monitoring of firefighters to help predict when they need to go to rehab and when they have medically resolved to go back to the firefight. Seeing that about 50 percent of all line of duty deaths can be attributed to cardiac issues, many in the group thought that should be given the highest priority.

The group also discussed technology that might predict flashover, but qualified their thinking saying that firefighters should always be aware of their situations at all times and not rely on equipment to predict events.  Some in the group suggested an addition to the SCBA that would help determine when it was necessary to don or doff the breathing apparatus during overhaul operations.

Homeland Security Program Manager Jalal Mapar, one of the primary organizers of the tracker location workshop, said it’s likely that next year’s workshop will expand to include some of the other technology suggested by the group.

“The whole purpose it to investigate all systems and to improve upon common duties shared among firefighters,” Mapar said, noting that the tracker workshops might be just the conduit into the larger technology issues.  “This workshop is known for holding our feet to the fire. Let’s not lose that focus.”