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Protecting the Bravest: New Technologies For Locating Firefighters Inside Buildings

By Joseph Straw

New technologies under development can be used to help locate firefighters in burning buildings and determine whether they are in distress.

When firefighters enter a burning building, the risk of injury and worse comes in myriad forms. In addition to being at risk from heat, smoke, and structural failures, firefighters are under constant threat of becoming lost in structures—not only disoriented but also off the radar with their commanders, who are unaware of their whereabouts and unable to communicate via radio through heavy building walls and facades.

Another serious threat, less well known but not surprising given the nature of their work, is that close to half of all on-duty firefighter deaths result from heart attacks, with roughly three-quarters of them occurring on-scene, according to U.S. Fire Administration and Harvard University research.

Now the private sector, academia, and the federal government are collaborating to integrate two emerging technologies—non-GPS location tracking and wireless physiological sensors—to both follow first responders and spot physical warning signs in real time.

For faculty at Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the issue hits close to home. Six city firefighters died in the December 1999 Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire after they became disoriented in the smoke-filled structure and their air supplies ran out. The tragedy spawned a research initiative at WPI aimed at developing precision indoor location tracking technology.

GPS does not meet this need for two primary reasons: reception and accuracy. GPS receivers must acquire signals from four satellites to produce an ideal fix, which is difficult to impossible inside most buildings. Even when it can be achieved, GPS accuracy is good only to within a few meters, and that is not even sufficient for determining which floor of a building a firefighter is on.

To find an alternative, WPI developed a system based on traditional radio signals transmitted from small units attached to firefighters’ turnout gear. Simple triangulation, however, would not work, because most radio signals that do make it out of a building have bounced off interior walls. “This ‘house of mirrors’ effect is what makes the numbers you get so unreliable,” says Dave Cyganski, who is developing the technology with fellow WPI faculty members.

(To continue reading "Protecting the Bravest" from July's issue of Security Management, please click here)


photo by DVIDSHUB from flickr

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