By James Duckworth, David Cyganski & Michael Dorsey
Published Sunday, November 1, 2009
| From the November 2009 Issue of FireRescue
It’s been nearly a decade since six firefighters lost their lives fighting a massive fire that destroyed a cold storage warehouse in Worcester, Mass. The loss of life on the bitter cold night of Dec. 3, 1999, was all the more tragic because several of the firefighters were found within feet of exits they couldn’t see through blinding smoke.
Just over a mile from the site of the fire, engineering faculty at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) wondered why there was no technological solution to pinpointing the location of first responders inside a building so they could be easily rescued or guided to safety.
That issue was the impetus for the creation of WPI’s Precision Personnel Location (PPL) research program, which has garnered more than $5 million in federal funding, and has grown to encompass both monitoring the physiological status of firefighters and the environmental conditions inside burning buildings.
The Creation of a Workshop
WPI is not alone in its endeavors. The WPI team is one of several groups based in universities, companies and government labs working to solve what has proven to be a daunting technological challenge.
Three years ago, the WPI team conceived of a national workshop to bring all the research groups together, along with key government funding agencies and the first-responder community, to discuss the state of the field, share and demonstrate new developments, and seek consensus on the best direction for research and development. Each summer since 2006, the Workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders has brought more than 100 professionals to the WPI campus.
In 2008, the workshop provided for the first time an opportunity for teams, including WPI’s, to have their technology deployed by members of the Worcester Fire Department in a real-world scenario that involved locating a firefighter “lost” inside a WPI building.
In the fall of 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) TechSolutions Program awarded WPI a contract to assist in the design and implementation of a far more comprehensive assessment of five location and tracking systems (WPI’s systems were excluded to avoid a conflict of interest).
Conducted in the spring of 2009 at the Massachusetts State Police Academy and overseen by the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), the assessment involved scenarios that took place inside a two-story, wood-framed house and a multi-story steel and concrete building.
Firefighters and police officers from around the state, as well as the Massachusetts state police and state police and fire academies, volunteered to assist in the scenarios. Teams searched for a “lost” colleague or a “missing” person, relying on location information provided by the systems being tested. The results were compared to baseline runs made without the aid of location technology.
The eagerly-awaited results of the assessment were shared for the first time at the 2009 WPI workshop, held in early August. Gregory Price, director of the DHS TechSolutions program, and Scott Ullery of NSRDEC, reported that none of the systems tested are ready for operational use.
Problems encountered include:
• In general, too much time was needed to set up or calibrate systems, which delayed operations.
• Errors introduced by movements of first responders impaired accuracy.
• Systems didn’t integrate well with the gear firefighters and law-enforcement officers already wear, and some weren’t rugged enough for real-world use.
• Displays for location and tracking data often weren’t easy enough for incident commanders to interpret.
• Most systems seemed designed primarily for indoor use and didn’t anticipate the need to track law-enforcement officers outdoors.
Most disappointing, the systems weren’t accurate enough, and their accuracy tended to deteriorate as the scenarios progressed.
In essence, although location technology has advanced considerably in the past decade, the assessment demonstrated that there’s a disconnect between the capabilities and functionality of existing location and tracking technology, and the real-world needs of the first responder community.
This point was reinforced during another workshop session by Ric Plummer, an engineer and member of the Berlin (Mass.) Fire Department, and trooper Jeffrey Lenti, a member of the Special Tactical Operations Team for the Massachusetts State Police. They explained that firefighting and law enforcement are highly physical, dangerous jobs where things can go from bad to disastrous in moments.
They also pointed out that firefighters wear up to 80 lbs. of equipment; therefore, they need light, rugged, reliable technology that turns on automatically and provides accurate and intuitive location information, particularly which floor they’re located on in a fire building.
Making Some Headway
Although a considerable amount of time and effort was devoted to developing and managing the national DHS-funded assessment, WPI’s PPL research team continued to develop and expand its own location technology.
Recognizing early on that GPS technology would be ineffective inside buildings due to low signal strength, signal bouncing (off walls and floors) and inadequate precision, the PPL researchers developed novel technology that uses advanced radio and radar capabilities for precise 3-D location and tracking.
In 2008, with funding from the U.S. Army, the team figured out how to use its new technology to track moving vehicles over large outdoor distances in GPS-denied or unavailable environments. That work led to some key improvements that will benefit the indoor location system, such as wireless receiving stations that can determine their own locations as they’re set up outside a building.
With a major 2006 award from FEMA, the WPI team enhanced its locating and tracking system by implementing the capability to monitor a first responder’s vital signs (heart and respiratory rates, temperature and blood oxygenation). This ability allows the system to address two of the three leading causes of firefighter deaths: stress-induced heart attacks and becoming lost or trapped in buildings.
Recently, the team was informed that they’d be receiving a new $1 million grant from FEMA to augment the system even further by developing the Fireground Environmental Sensor System. Working with engineers from WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering Department, Foster Miller Inc. and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), the PPL team will develop and test a small, automatically deployed sensor that will compile a room’s floor-to-ceiling temperature profile to help incident commanders determine the flashover potential at any given moment. This new award will enable WPI to develop a single, integrated system that will, for the first time, give incident commanders a comprehensive picture of what’s happening inside a burning building, the precise location and path of every firefighter, as well as their physiological status, along with the progress of the fire and the nature of the risk firefighters are facing. This will represent a major step forward in firefighter safety. Had such a system been available 10 years ago, the outcome of the Worcester Cold Storage Fire might have been profoundly different.
This is another indication that technology is finally maturing to the point where it may impact the basic landscape of risk for the firefighter and many other dangerous but essential occupations.
There’s obviously still much work to be done and many trials and tests to be completed before firefighter locator and tracking technology is ready for regular fire department use, as was proven by this year’s workshop; however, the researchers participating in the session demonstrated new progress and continue to work in earnest as they believe that solutions to the remaining technological problems are imminent. Research is ongoing and determination is strong. The question is not “if” but “when” will the technology be ready?
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