Apparatus & Equipment, Tech Zone

POINTER: A Pocket-Sized Lifesaving Device for First Responders

In 1999, six career firefighters lost their lives responding to a five-alarm fire. They were part of a group of 73 responders dispatched to a smoke-filled warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts. Lost inside the building’s tight corners, they were unable to find an exit before running out of oxygen. In large-structure fires under high heat and heavy smoke, firefighters can quickly succumb to poisonous gases and become disoriented and lost even in the smallest of structures. Outdoors, firefighters can use GPS to track one another, but when they move into steel and concrete buildings, the technology becomes unreliable. Many responders can coordinate their locations only by radioing each other, or the command post, and providing a detailed message on their exact location. This process can be time consuming, and the details can change every second if they are in an emergency situation or on a call—and radios can be less reliable indoors as well. Avoiding a tragedy like Worcester has been a technical challenge for decades; the stakes for tracking a precise location are high. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS S&T) has been on a quest for an accurate locating system for inside a structure—including above and below grade—to guide the lost out and navigate rescue teams in.

“To this day, the ability to track and locate first responders is a number one priority for first responder agencies across the country,” said Greg Price, First Responder Portfolio Director for DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T).

The goal of this effort was ambitious but possible, thanks to a partnership between DHS S&T and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratories (JPL). A research team at NASA JPL has developed a tracking system that will be a game-changer for first responder safety: the Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER) technology. After several years of testing funded by DHS S&T, JPL has refined the technology to give a location reliable within one meter allowing a command post to visualize the near specific location of the first responder who is wearing the mobile receiver, which is comparable to the size and weight of an iPhone 11. Also, the new three-dimensional tracking capability allows the system to identify the location, orientation, and floor the responder is located on in structures two to three stories high.

“DHS S&T is uniquely positioned to facilitate research and development with academia and private industry, while providing access to first responders who ensure technologies like POINTER provide the operational capabilities needed to perform their jobs faster, safer, more efficiently and effectively,” Price continued. “The POINTER technology will truly be a life-saving game changer.” POINTER is both a technological and a mathematical breakthrough. JPL’s research technologist and program manager Dr. Darmindra Arumugam, solved a problem researchers have been looking at for decades. Most research has focused on radio waves, which have the advantage of spreading energy over long distances. However, they’re quite unpredictable indoors, ricocheting off walls and lacking the ability to penetrate far underground. Other widely used technologies, such as ultra-wide band and GPS, also struggle underground and behind structures made of steel and concrete; the signal bounces off metal objects and accuracy and performance suffers in non-line-of-sight and indoor environments. “Their capacity to locate is very coarse at best, near buildings or in the downtown of a large city,” said Dr. Arumugam. 

POINTER transmitter
POINTER transmitter
POINTER receiver
POINTER receiver

Instead, to develop the POINTER system, Dr. Arumugam explored quasi-static electromagnetic fields—magneto-quasi-static fields (MQS), to be exact. He developed the theory and algorithms to analyze both the electrical and the magnetic components of MQS fields—all of which are key to interpreting the MQS fields and their signaling. These fields have been greatly overlooked by researchers because they cannot carry energy or signals to the very long distances needed for example in cellular communications or radars. They’re limited to just a few hundred yards or meters, but they don’t behave like waves; penetrating walls, and offering increased non-line-of-sight capabilities. They can even be used to sense the different device orientations, alerting a team commander as to whether a firefighter is crawling along the ground or standing still. This is where POINTER sets itself apart—it does not share the same limitations as radio and GPS—particularly inside of buildings.

Once in use, the POINTER system is unobtrusive to the first responder and can be self-deployed on arrival and activated at the scene of an incident or emergency. Transmitters will elevate from the fire engine, while MQS fields will transmit signals through any building materials and therefore can be used for navigating and tracking in environments where traditional devices don’t work. In a scenario where a responder becomes immobilized by fallen debris in a building fire,, the responder’s mobile receiver will signal the command post visualization system with  their condition and precise coordinates, triggering a response from the rescue team.

“POINTER is a great example of leveraging research across government in a way that allows for first responder input to create a product that can be game changing,” notes Josh Dennis, First Deputy Director of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. In addition to assisting the first responder community, this technology could be used for a variety of response capabilities, such as a mine collapse to pinpoint the exact location of trapped individuals. San Diego firefighter Steve Vandewalle observes: “the POINTER system being developed through NASA JPL has the potential for being a game changer for responders of all kinds. Anyone who puts their life in peril by entering a hazardous environment in which they could become lost or disoriented will soon have a tool at their disposal to know exactly where they are, as will rescue teams tasked with finding them when their need is greatest.”

As innovative as it is, POINTER is only getting better. The POINTER technology is set for commercialization in 2021 and will be available to all first responders. Version one will be designed for use in single family homes, warehouses, and buildings that are three stories or less. Future versions will accurately track first responders in high-rise buildings, outdoors, and subterranean environments at a greater distance. For more information about POINTER please contact [email protected].