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Carnegie Mellon Engineers Working on Firefighter Location Technology

Professor Anthony Rowe is part of a team working on firefighter tracking technology

Professors at Carnegie Mellon’s College of Engineering are working on developing technology that can pinpoint the location of a firefighter inside a burning building, according to a recent report.

Tracking firefighters in burning buildings is fraught with challenges. Smoke renders laser and vision-based tracking technologies useless; heat and flames will obliterate pre-installed monitoring devices; and GPS isn’t an option either because it doesn’t work indoors. There is also the need for speed: when firefighters arrive on the scene, they don’t have time to operate complex technology.

What emergency responders need is a system that can track individuals inside structures without prior knowledge of a building’s floor plan. Anthony Rowe and Bruno Sinopoli, professors in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and pioneers in indoor positioning technology for over a decade, are currently advancing wireless broadband communications for use in extremely hostile environments.

“We want to create a system that allows firefighters and first responders to find themselves inside a burning structure,” said Rowe. “Systems like GPS don’t actually work indoors, and fire and smoke make it harder for traditional RF systems to accurately locate people within a structure. The system we’re developing combines emerging technologies that will not only accurately reveal where firefighters are in a building, but also their orientation (i.e., direction they are facing).”

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To guide their work, the research team met with firefighters to learn about their operational procedures and analyzed various positioning technologies. From there, they determined it will take a combination of devices — inertial measurement units (IMU), ultra-wideband radios (UWB), and long-range wide-area network radios (LR-WAN) — to pinpoint firefighters.

This new approach would incorporate IMUs and Smart RF Tags into firefighters’ equipment (e.g., air packs, wearable units), which would relay information to outdoor beacons outfitted with GPS, sensors and radios. The data sent from the firefighters to the outdoor beacons would be streamed to and monitored by the fire safety chief. Overall, the system would allow for communications deep within the building by continuously streaming data that would convey where the firefighters are in relation to each other and potential exits.

“We need this technology. Too many times we hear stories about first responders getting lost inside of a structure, meters from potential safety, but they did not know which way to go,” said Rowe. “We believe the combination of these new and emerging technologies will lead to an accurate indoor locationing system that could save lives.”