Firefighter Locating Systems Not Yet Ready for Real Time

Review of Worcester Polytechnic Institute's fourth annual Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders workshop
By John Sullivan

The fourth annual Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders workshop was held Aug. 3–4 at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. This workshop is the only national opportunity for researchers and developers of various tracking technologies to come together and share their results from the previous year’s research. The momentum gained by sharing ideas and results is driving the technology toward a final product faster than would be possible if each entity worked within the confines of their own research.

Doug Freitag of Zephyr Technology, right, explains his company’s products during the workshop’s technology demonstration session.
Photo courtesy Michael Dorsey, WPI

Members of the Worcester, Mass., Fire Department prepare to conduct a real-world assessment of location technology during the 2009 WPI workshop.
Photo courtesy David Cyganski, WPI

Wicked Smaaaart
This forum is truly a unique blend of characters. Participants come together from diverse areas of interest, including academic researchers, entrepreneurial start-up companies, multi-national corporations, government agencies and community partners, such as the Worcester Fire Department.

While listening to these folks give their updates every year, I’m always reminded of the quintessential Boston-area quote from the movie Good Will Hunting: “My boy is wicked smaaart!” These researchers are highly intelligent and are working hard to solve the many technological problems with 3-D location so we can ensure that everyone goes home at the end of the day.

We all know the history behind Worcester’s involvement in this endeavor, following the tragic loss of our six brothers in 1999. Almost 10 years have passed since that fateful night, and still no validated three-dimensional location system is available for incident commanders (IC) to accurately track their folks in real time.

As frustrating as that is to us “jakes” who are used to instant gratification, I can say unequivocally that it’s not for lack of trying that we haven’t reached our goal. With the brightest of the bright folks working on this project at institutions like MIT, Harvard, WPI, Carnegie Mellon (and the list goes on), it’s a slow, complex series of hurdles to overcome that even the eggiest of egg-heads didn’t anticipate.

The role of the Worcester Fire Department is to provide end-user product testing and feedback; it’s sort of a blunt reality check for the researchers who don’t thoroughly understand the what, why and how of our working environment: “Why did that fireman crawl down those stairs backward?” asks the shocked geek. “We didn’t know you did that. Our sensors won’t know which way he’s going. This is bad. This is really bad!”

“Dude,” says the end-user, “Get over it and figure it out.” (I relish the role of reality checker; finally I know more about something than they do!)

Gaining Perspective
Seriously and truthfully, the fire service is blessed to have so many fine people working on our problems. Their passion and dedication to solving the puzzle of 3-D location is a professional challenge for them, but I believe that these very influential and powerful folks are coming to appreciate the complex and dangerous environment in which we operate every day. Their growing empathy for the many obstacles that have plagued us for decades, such as radio transmission problems, zero-visibility issues, IDLH environments and so on, has piqued their curiosity and given them some new and unique academic and intellectual challenges to overcome on our behalf. The researchers are finding that there are many more facets to our profession that require investigation and exploration.

The players are also coming to realize that the tools they’re developing have multiple applications, which is driving the bus faster as well. The more potential customers a product has, the more incentive there is to get the product out on the market. The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate under the supervision of Jalal Mapar is pushing these issues at the federal level and securing much needed funding for research and development. Recently, three teams of researchers were awarded substantial federal grant funding to conclude research and development and begin manufacturing and distributing a system that we can start to use.

Tracking Technologies & Challenges
The tracking systems are still mostly in the prototype phase of development, but generally speaking, the set-up for each system is a basic transponder/receiver. At this stage, the transponders are bulky (think Walkman radio size) and consist of some form of accelerometer and inertial navigation components, which researchers feel are best placed on or within the firefighting boot. The tracking mechanism on the boot is currently hard-wired to a transponder that transmits the data out of the building. (In the future, this connection will be wireless, using blue-tooth or similar technology.) The signal is received at the command post via radio signals linked to a laptop software program that the incident commander (IC) or accountability officer can monitor. The platforms that you see on the laptop vary, but some standardization will occur over time.

The developers are trying to overcome several issues, the least of which is the ability to get the radio signal out of the different building construction types—an issue we’re all too familiar with in the fire service.

Secondly, and equally challenging, is the issue of superimposing tracking data onto building and floor plans. The vast majority of fire departments simply don’t possess the necessary information (let alone the technology to store and disseminate), such as electronic/digital building plans for the occupancies in their jurisdictions. Right now, if departments wanted to upload this information into a tracking system, it would require thousands and thousands of hours of data entry in some cases, presupposing that the plans exist in a usable form.

There are also some highly technical hurdles to overcome with the inertial navigation components. There must be a starting point at which the tracking is initialized, ideally outside the building using GPS satellite coordinates. This means a link to the system must be up and running as soon as the firefighter exits the apparatus.

The tracking system has an inherent “drift”; that is, (because of reasons I won’t pretend to understand), based on several factors, including the amount of time, distance, and elevation, the farther away you travel, the more inaccurate the tracking becomes. Each of those variances must be overcome (compensated for) with mathematical calculations that I’m confident the researchers will figure out—math is their strong suit!

Durability and meeting the NFPA technology standards are issues for the final product “package,” which I’m also confident the researchers will overcome.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in the quest for tracking/monitoring technology: cost. Most of the people I spoke with at the workshop are trying various things—software programs, more advanced components, etc.—to overcome obstacles, but they have strict budgets, so they use the technology they can afford, which isn’t necessarily the highest quality. More sophisticated components would work more accurately, but the cost would be outrageous.

Monitoring Technologies
An equally important segment of the workshop is dedicated to physiological monitoring technologies. Clearly the capability to monitor physiological data from every firefighter on the scene will save many lives, likely many more lives than will ever be saved by 3-D tracking. The good news is that this capability will be available sooner rather than later.

With nearly 50 percent of all emergency service line-of-duty deaths occurring as a result of cardiac and stress-related events, the ability to identify when a firefighter is approaching or has passed certain threshold values related to heart rate, body temperature and other vital statistics, will enable the IC to remove and rehab firefighters perhaps before the onset of an acute event.

Our folks will push themselves above and beyond the limits of their bodies for the common good, no doubt a valorous and meritorious distinction of our profession. But at what risk and for what reward? Relatively few firefighter lives are lost when attempting to save another human life, and certainly in those instances all efforts must be exhausted. But ICs and safety officers will have to use experience and good judgment when they inherit this capability. Knowledge is power, but with it comes awesome responsibility. Friendships aside, when the data says it’s time to get out, the IC must act quickly and soberly to remove the firefighter from the fireground. It’s better to live to fight another day than to die trying to save a few roof rafters or personal belongings that will be replaced with an insurance check.

Slow & Steady Wins the Race
Progress in this initiative seems painfully slow to those of us who sit and wait, especially in the realm of 3-D tracking. As much as we all want something in hand yesterday, we also want a product that actually solves our problem. The researchers estimate that it’ll be another 1 1/2–3 years until a realistic working product is commercially available. I think some manufacturers may meet the 18-month mark, but the product will be costly and inferior (but it’ll be “first”!).

More likely, we’ll see an evolution similar to what we saw with thermal imaging cameras, a steady drop in price over a 10–15-year period as demand increases and technology catches up. They will be costly and bulky at the beginning, but they’ll slowly get smaller, better and cheaper as the years go by.

“Just get us close and we’ll do the rest” has been the steady message from the fire professionals. The research is close to “getting us close,” which means the finish line is in sight, so don’t give up the race now.

District Chief John F. Sullivan, EFO, is a 22-year veteran of the Worcester (Mass.) Fire Department (WFD), currently serving as an operations chief for the WFD and as an instructor/examiner for both the WFD and the Massachusetts State Fire Academy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science and a master’s degree in Public Administration. He also serves an adjunct professor at two Worcester colleges in the Fire Science division and has served on the National Fire Academy’s FESHE and TRADE committees.

Chief Sullivan lectures nationally on firefighter safety, and is the current director-at-large for the IAFC’s Safety, Health and Survival section. He has collaborated on several projects with the National Fallen Fire Fighter’s Foundation and is a member of FireRescue magazine’s editorial board.

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