New Technologies Focus on First Responder “Capability Gaps” and Needs, Part 2


Part 1 was published in the May 2009 issue.

Of the research areas surveyed for this article, the areas of Communications and Firefighter Locator Systems reflected a high number of initiatives and multiparty involvement.


By this time, we have all come to learn the critical value of complete, quality communications in emergencies and disasters, whether they be person-to-person, fireground crew-to-command, all the way up to agency-to-agency when multiple parties respond. Interoperability has been the nation’s goal, especially since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. When asked at Virtual FDIC ( what he considered the most pressing need, technology-wise, for the fire service today, Captain Andrew Stromfeld, Fishers (NY) Fire Department, responded: “Not just to echo all the politicians, but interoperability is very important. Today with the volunteer organizations seeing fewer members joining and remaining, the use of mutual aid had risen significantly. In some cases, this assistance may come from a greater distance than in the past. If that help is from an agency outside your county, direct communication between the two organizations is vital.”

There have been indications that communication between the DHS and states has been improving. In March, a state homeland security directors survey conducted by the National Governors Association revealed that the number of directors satisfied with communications with the DHS in 2008 nearly doubled over 2007—75 percent vs. 42 percent. Forty-three of the 56 directors of state and territorial homeland security offices, divisions, and departments responded to the survey.

The DHS’s National Emergency Communications Plan (NECP) calls for the nation’s 50 states and six territories to identify near- and long-term initiatives for improving communications interoperability.1 Following are the DHS deadlines for reaching specific objectives:

1 By 2010, 90 percent of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) will be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies.(1)

2 By 2011, 75 percent of non-UASI jurisdictions will be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies. (1)

3 By 2013, 75 percent of all jurisdictions will be able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours if a significant incident as outlined in national planning scenarios should occur. (1)

The DHS, through the Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), are to collaborate with state homeland security advisors and statewide interoperability coordinators to develop methods for evaluating progress toward these goals, which will be determined by various factors, including common planning; operational protocols that are shared by all local, state, and federal agencies; common universal standards for testing and evaluating new technologies; shared training systems; and developing shared processes for long-term technology cycle upgrades.(1)

DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate/OEC will oversee the NECP implementation. The Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program will assist in funding capital expenditures. The OEC is expected to issue a status report in its Biennial Progress Report to Congress, due February 2010. (1)

Some states have taken steps toward the overall interoperability goal. Wisconsin, for example, has designed and implemented the Wisconsin Statewide Public Safety Communications System (WISCOM) Plan, which will establish interoperable communications among fire, police, rescue, emergency medical and management, and other government services. The system uses a VHF high-band Project 25-compliant trunked radio system. The Wisconsin Statewide System Management Group will oversee the system. New Jersey, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Missouri reportedly also are designing interoperable communications programs.

  • Satellite Mutual-Aid Radio Talkgroup Program (SMART™). The International Association of Fire Chiefs Technology Council, in cooperation with SkyTerra Communications, published “Model for Interoperable Communications,” which offers an in-depth view at the network of nationwide and regional talkgroups that provide effective, interoperable communications for public safety and emergency response operations. (The paper can be downloaded for free at or at A variety of federal, state, and local public safety organizations manage and administer the program. Chief Charles Werner, chair of the IAFC Technology Council, explains that the paper describes how the program handles the financial and governance challenges often encountered when attempting to develop interoperable public safety communications. An agency must subscribe to SkyTerra’s service to use the SMART™ program.

    The program features push-to-talk satellite technology, which allows each group member to listen to or join in the conversation taking place over the talkgroup. Three satellite mutual-aid radio talkgroup (SMART™) channels—NPHST-1, NPHST-2, and E-SMART—will be available anywhere in the United States. As was demonstrated during the 2008 Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the talkgroup could be the only form of communication for a public health agency or an EMS team deployed to assist during a disaster.

    At the federal government level, the DHS National Communications System is partnering with Mobile Satellite Ventures (MSV), a joint venture between Mobile Satellite Ventures LP (MSVLP) and Mobile Satellite Ventures (Canada) Inc. [SkyTerra Communications, Inc. owns and controls MSVLP (, May 20, 2008)] to provide Satellite Priority Service to the DHS Office of Cyber Security and Communications (NCS). MSV will coordinate the planning and provisioning of national security and emergency preparedness communications for federal, state, and local governments under all emergency circumstances. MSV provides satellite push-to-talk and priority satellite telephony communications through Sprint’s Emergency Response Team (ERT), which will be responsible for nationwide deployment of the Satellite Priority Service for NCS.

    MSV provides the capability to participate in nationwide SMART™ quickly and effectively in times of urgent need, regardless of location and infrastructure. MSV says it is developing a hybrid satellite-terrestrial communications network that will provide seamless, transparent, and ubiquitous wireless coverage of the United States and Canada to conventional handsets.

    The Indiana DHS Response and Operations Division will manage and monitor the Mid-West Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup operating on the MSV satellite communications network. The talkgroup includes 14 states.

    The California OES established the Western Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (W-SMART), which is comprised of 12 states.

    The Fairfax County (VA) OEM and Department of Public Safety Communications will create and manage the Southeast Satellite Mutual Aid Radio Talkgroup (SE-SMART), which will also operate on MSV satellite communications.

  • Radio Over Wireless Broadband (ROW-B). In September, at a pilot demonstration on Capitol Hill, the DHS introduced a working prototype of Radio Over Wireless-Broadband (ROW-B) technology2 that connects existing wireless radio systems with computers, smart phone, and other devices firefighters and emergency services providers use. A “Bridging Systems Interface” (BSI) that relies on standard IP/session initiation protocol (SIP) provides voice over IP access to Land Mobile Radio networks. It also integrates data applications, including real-time location mapping; detects the presence of users on the network; and enables location-based group calls. DHS’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility, NIST’s Office of Law Enforcement Standards, the Institute for Telecommunications Sciences, and a variety of industry partners are jointly developing the pilot program.

    Washington, D.C., Deputy Fire Chief Demetrius Vlassopoulos is pleased with the system’s potential and its ability “to facilitate dynamic talkgroups and locate responders in an emergency”; he is eagerly waiting to see how ROW-B will perform in field tests. He expressed some concern about maintaining wireless broadband service during emergencies and about the availability of funding for the long term. (2)

  • Terrain Analysis Package Software (TAP)™ rf modeling tool. This SoftWright, LLC device can identify areas of the path between a transmitter and a repeater—including the side lobes of the protected Fresnel zone—that would cause signal deterioration.

    (1) The TAP™ rf modeling tool identifies areas between the transmitter and a repeater that may present barriers to receiving signals. (Photo courtesy of SoftWright, LLC.)

    French physicist Augustine-Jean Fresnel developed the Fresnel zone modeling technique, which predicts an invisible envelope to transmitted energy that surrounds the line of sight on the entire path between a transmitter and a repeater; if an obstruction penetrates this envelope, the received signal level is reduced and sometimes causes degradation so severe that the path is not usable for radio or data links. If the entire portion of the Fresnel zone to be protected is above the elevation of the ground and obstructions along the path, the maximum possible signal is received. Knowing where these obstructed locations are enables an engineer to employ strategic solutions to eliminate locations where the signal is unreliable.

    Up to now this degradation would have been undetected. If radio coverage is problematic, the TAP™ software can evaluate proposed solutions to improve the system’s reliability.

  • DHS Bridging Systems Standard.3 The DHS is expected to complete an enhanced version of its Bridging Systems Interface (BSI) technical standard this summer, which will allow for better connections among systems that link disparate radio systems, according to Luke Berndt, chief technical officer for DHS’s Office of Interoperability and Compatibility.

    The DHS and its partners developed the BSI during the past two years to enable more effective use of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) digital radio systems. Theoretically, those systems could be easily patched together; however, the configuration of the system determines how effectively they could work together because of different manufacturers and different linkages. Communities use patchworking boxes to link the VOIP radio systems.

    In winter 2008, DHS tested the standard in tying together a half dozen radio patchworking boxes. In March 2009, it demonstrated the standard with 12 patchworking boxes. Berndt explains: “With VOIP, there are lots of standards, and people are implementing them differently. There are also different technologies and configurations. To simplify things, the bridging systems interface suggests standardized basic settings, coding, channel labeling, and transport methods. Eventually the goal is to leverage the power of the standard to transmit radio information and data. The system can be leveraged to connect more advanced devices in the radio system.”

  • Multi-Band Radio (MBR). The DHS S&T Directorate awarded a contract for $6.275 million at the end of February (2009) to Thales Communications, Inc. to demonstrate the first-ever portable radio prototype that would allow emergency responders to communicate with partner agencies regardless of radio band.

    (2) Field and lab studies of the MBR are underway. A final case study report is due later in 2009 or early 2010. (Photo courtesy of NIST.)

    The radio is to be equal in cost, size, and weight to existing portable radios. The contract has a performance period of 12 months. S&T’s Command, Control and Interoperability (CCI) Division will manage the multi-band radio demonstration to determine how well the technology meets the needs of frontline emergency responders.

    The DHS S&T Directorate’s Office for Interoperability and Compatibility (OIC) accepted delivery of 10 prototype MBRs in January 2009 and immediately began lab testing and evaluation. OIC is conducting limited demonstrations with emergency responders across all disciplines at several locations in addition to the ongoing lab testing. All these results, along with the results of longer-term pilots, will be compiled into a final case study report expected to be released in late 2009 or early 2010. OIC is in the process of identifying potential pilot locations that offer the best mix of users from local, tribal, state, and federal agencies.

    OIC relies on the emergency responder community to tell it what its wireless communications needs are. Responders are involved in every step from inception to transition. As the project proceeds, OIC encourages the end-user community to participate in the lab testing, demonstrations, and pilot programs and to give honest feedback on how the products will affect the responders’ mission. To date, input suggests that the emergency response community has a high level of interest in a multi-band radio capable of operating on the disparate radio bands as licensed. Production is expected to begin later this year. Issues that may impact that date include final hardware design changes, software releases, and the need for specific Federal Communications Commission certification.

    OIC will periodically publish details on the MBR project status in its publications available on the SAFECOM Web site ( and hold demonstrations regularly at industry events around the nation. As additional manufacturers announce the release of their equipment, they are encouraged to approach OIC for inclusion in demonstrations and pilots. The DHS goal is to encourage manufacturers to step forward with a multi-band radio that meets the needs of the emergency response community and to encourage competition within the market.

    Firefighter Locator Systems

    This area also has been one of the nation’s long-standing priorities and has undergone much research and development in recent years, especially since the death of six firefighters on December 3, 1999, in the Worcester (MA) Cold Storage Warehouse. It is also a priority among firefighters themselves. “If I had one technology wish, it would be the ability to accurately and consistently track every firefighter operating in the hazard zone,” relates Firefighter Matt Thomson of the Charleston (SC) Fire Department. “Too many line-of-duty reports list firefighter disorientation as a contributing factor. A system where an incident commander can watch a floor plan of the structure and track the movement of each firefighter inside would allow him to accurately deploy rapid intervention teams or possibly just provide a lost firefighter with simple directions to find an exit. I realize that these types of systems are already in development stages, and I look forward to seeing them in use at every fire scene.”4

    Some of the technologies and updates that took place in this category in 2008-2009 are presented in “Advances in Locator System Development.”


    Following is a scant sampling (in alphabetical order) of some other areas identified in my research.

    Structural Material

    Mulalo Doyoyo, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has developed Cenocell™, a structural material based on fly ash and bottom ash left over from combustion at coal-burning power plants, steel mills, and similar facilities in the United States. The high-strength and lightweight material has good insulating properties and fire resistance and, according to the researchers, could replace concrete, wood, and other materials in construction, transportation, and even aircraft.

    Cenocell™ requires none of the cement or aggregate—sand and rock—used in concrete. It emerges from curing ovens in final form and does not require a lengthy period to reach its full strength. Its properties make it competitive with concrete, especially the new classes of autoclaved lightweight concrete. Among its applications in the building and construction industry are infrastructure materials that provide sound, crash, and fire barriers; ultralight truss stiffeners; and foam. For protective installations, it can be used for fire-resistant blast walls or structural fillers for hazardous fluids. Doyoyo and his research team have made only small samples for testing so far. They are working with a Georgia-based maker of autoclaved concrete to produce larger samples for additional testing.5

    Fabric Radiation Shields

    Demron® Fabric Radiation Shields, introduced in 2002, have been in use in the medical field for some time. The manufacturer, Radiation Shield Technologies, began reaching out to hazmat departments in large metro areas in 2008 and is offering them a free suit for testing. According to the company, the suit is being testing by fire departments in the Miami, Florida, area. One department will test the suit for competency in a full-scale exercise in July.

    (3) Responders in Demron® suits. (Photo courtesy of Radiation Shield Technologies.)

    Captain Ed Erickson, Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Rescue, says that he is assessing the fabric’s potential for decreasing responders’ time in the hot zone. “It may also have applications for those situations when decisions have to be made about whether to evacuate or shelter in place until the professionals arrive on the scene,” he explains. He also will explore the possibility of using Demron® blankets for responses to special events, for shielding the hazmat source, even dirty bombs, which, he says, will buy time for evacuation.

    Gel for Home Use in Wildfires

    The Thermo-Gel® fire retardant dropped from large tanker aircraft to fight and contain massive forest fires has been applied to homes during wildfires. The gel is added to water and used to coat surfaces, buildings, shrubs, and vehicles with a protective spray that eliminates damage from flames and charring. It can also be used to create a fire-free zone around structures.

    (4) Thermo-Gel® is sprayed on this home to protect it from the approaching wildfire flames. (Photo courtesy of The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.)

    The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies entered into an agreement with Wildfire Defense Systems, Inc. (WDS), a Montana-based firefighting company contracted by the federal government to suppress wildfires in the western United States, that would have WDS spray Thermo-Gel® on Chubb home-owners’ property should a fire approach. Chubb homeowner customers were mailed enrollment forms. Once they enrolled at no charge, highly trained certified WDS wildfire fighters were dispatched to the affected property to apply the spray. According to Chubb, Thermo-Gel® was applied to three homes in California that were threatened by wildfires in 2008. Chubb said the application saved two of the homes, but, in the third case, “the fire did not get near enough to the home to enable one to say that the Thermo-Gel® saved it.” Thermo-Gel® is applied as a last resort, explains Chubb; its Wildfire Defense Network takes steps to keep the fire from approaching the home before the gel is applied.


    DTN/Meteorologix recently released several enhancements to its MxVision WeatherSentry® Public Safety Edition PC-based technology, including real-time lightning data. The user can animate lightning with the weather radar and determine if a storm is intensifying as it approaches the area. The mobile version has additional radar zoom levels for looking at local and regional precipitation, and hourly forecasts were increased from 10 to 24 hours. Online consulting is now available; users can speak with a meteorologist. The Grosse Ile (MI) Fire Department uses the information from the system to determine how many responders are needed during severe weather. The system, Chief Duncan Murdock says, allows them to make more rational decisions.

    Water Dynamics Research

    XL Global Asset Protection Services, LLC (XL GAPS), in conjunction with Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. (UL), released research on water dynamics and fire sprinkler performance that could significantly improve the insurance industry’s fire safety and fire modeling capabilities. The material was presented at the Society for Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) Annual Engineering Technology Conference in October 2008.

    The research focused on examining the actual delivered density (ADD) of water as it is emitted from sprinklers. The data will be used to improve the ability of modeling programs to simulate fire sprinklers’ discharge in different fire scenarios. Fire modeling and fire testing are used to predict fire dynamics, the effectiveness of sprinklers, and other fire safety measures. They are also used to study the way that fires interact with certain materials and within specific infrastructure.

    According to Paul Hart, regional field leader for XL GAPS, a property loss prevention consultancy, “Fire engineers are increasingly using modeling to predict fire dynamics in particular scenarios. They have learned considerably how fire and smoke react in various situations through the use of sophisticated modeling programs, such as the Fire Dynamics Simulator (FDS), a computational fluid dynamics model, as well as Smokeview, the visualization program used to display the results of an FDS simulation.” More information is at


    A notable amount of the information learned through research and testing will improve responder safety through the development of new safety standards. Among them are the following NFPA standards, which have been adopted and will soon be available.6 The report on proposals for these standards is available.

    • NFPA 276, Standard Methods of Fire Test for Determining the Heat Release Rate of Combustible Building Assemblies or Above Deck Roofing Components, due date Fall 2009.
    • NFPA 400, Hazardous Chemicals Code (2009). It addresses storage, use, and handling of the following hazardous materials in all occupancies and facilities: corrosive solids and liquids, flammable solids, organic peroxide formulations, oxidizer—liquids or solids, pyrophoric solids and liquids, toxic and highly toxic solids and liquids, unstable (reactive) solids and liquids, and water-reactive solids and liquids.
    • NFPA 806, Performance-Based Standard for Fire Protection for Advanced Nuclear Reactor Electric Generating Plants, due date Fall 2009.
    • NFPA 1407, Standard for Training Fire Service Rapid Intervention Crew, due date Fall 2009.
    • NFPA 1801, Standard on Thermal Imagers for the Fire Service, due date Fall 2009.
    • NFPA 1952, Standard on Surface Water Operations Protective Clothing and Equipment, due date Fall 2009.

    At press time, proposals were being sought for the follow ing proposed new documents:

    • NFPA 3, Standard for Commissioning and Integrated Testing of Fire Protection and Life Safety Systems, 2011 edition.
    • NFPA 1984, Standard on Respirators for Wildland Fire Fighting Operations, 2011 edition.


    What are some of the technology trends for the future? According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), we can expect to see expansion in the use of unstaffed aerial systems (UAS) for civilian uses, including law enforcement, firefighting, post-disaster communications, and science. This area is projected to quadruple between 2012 (40 units) and 2017 (160 units), assuming relevant federal regulations are completed before then, according to the GAO.

    Now, the federal government uses UAS for military uses, scientific and health data, and border protection. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorizes the use of UAS on a case-by-case basis. The FAA is working with the Defense Department to develop airspace safety regulations that would allow the systems to get more use.

    The GAO suggests that Congress create an entity in the FAA to coordinate plans for developing unstaffed systems. It also advised the DHS to assess the security implications of routinely operating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The FAA has set up a committee to study how to introduce small UAV into national airspace. Currently, safety concerns severely restrict their use.7

  • Fire Robot “Firefighter.” An inventor service company advises that one of its clients has designed a remote controlled firefighting unit. The invention is patented. The Fire Robot would enable firefighters to extinguish a fire from a safe distance and would be adjustable according to the severity of the fire. The apparatus would be able to employ water and fire retardant chemicals and to navigate mountains and canyons.

    It would consist of a military tank-like unit and feature a pressured water pump with the capacity to dispense 3,000 gallons of water per minute, six spouts for water emission, a pressure pump containing fire retardant chemicals, four spouts to release the chemicals, three water pressure pumps, and an array of video cameras and special lighting. The unit’s drive system would consist of a 12-cylinder, diesel-powered motor; a transmission; and a differential that allows the unit to pull its own weight. A fire retardant hose would connect the unit to an accompanying water pump vehicle. The pump vehicle would incorporate a similar 12-cylinder diesel engine and camera array and have a capacity of 25,000 gallons of water or water-fire retardant mixture. The unit would be operated by a satellite-based remote control, which could be used to maneuver the unit, control the cameras, operate the fire pump, and regulate the direction and pressure of the water spouts. Four monitors on the remote control would display output from the cameras.8

  • Manhole Barrier Device. Manhole Barrier Security Systems Inc. was granted a utility patent for a self-contained manhole locking cover that secures the manhole access points. According to a 2008 report on manhole security by a former commissioner of the U.S. President’s Commission on Critical Infrastructure Protection, a manhole attack can knock out power and communications. In New York City, Wall Street, in 2008, upgraded underground infrastructure security by installing manhole barrier devices below the manhole covers.


    A wealth of new technologies will be emerging in the near and long terms. If you want your department to benefit from them, be sure to take advantage of the opportunities to participate in field tests and offer feedback on the proposed items and other technologies that would meet your department’s needs. It might also be a good idea to begin planning how your department can train to be prepared to use these technologies efficiently and safely. Explore the government Web sites, contact fire service organizations, and consult with the manufacturers. The technologies in themselves will not save lives or improve safety—that will take knowledge and skillful application.

    Editor’s note: If you have new technology ideas for the next “Technology Update,” e-mail them to


    1. “A National Strategy for Interoperability: DHS outlines five year three phase plan for emergency communications,” Phil Leggiere,, August 3, 2008.

    2. “DHS unveils interoperability technology,” Wyatt Kash,, August 28, 2008.

    3. “DHS plans enhanced interoperability standard,” Alice Lipowicz, Federal Computer Week,, March 12, 2009.

    4. Interview while attending Virtual FDIC,

    5. “A New Use for Coal Ash,” John Toon, RESEARCH HORIZONS, Georgia Institute of Technology, Fall 2008, 4-5.

    6. “Recent developments in NFPA codes and standards,” NFPA Update, February 2009.

    7. Alice Lipowicz, WashingtonTechnology, May 20, 2008. “Year-End Update: 2008’s Rising 10 Homeland Security Companies,” Philip Finnegan, Nov. 30, 2008, accessed Jan. 20, 2009.

    8. InventHelp®,

    RAVIN Recording System

    (Courtesy of OrecX and NICS.)

    OrecX and NICS (Network Integration and Consulting Services) have jointly developed the RAVIN communications recording system.* The NICS interoperability device makes it possible to record conversations on phones, personal computers, PDAs, two-way radios, PBX systems, emergency notification systems, and IDEN and satellite networks in the same location. OrecX provides the open source call recording software. Emergency responders have fast and easy access to clearly recorded conversations over a wide range of devices; the recordings can be used for safety, legal, and forensic purposes.

    * Source: manufacturer correspondence;,

    WPI Third Annual Workshop: Controlled Trials of Indoor Location Systems

    WPI Third Annual Workshop: Controlled Trials of Indoor Location Systems

    A team of firefighters makes its way slowly up a stairwell. Their masks have been obscured to simulate dense smoke, and they keep low to stay beneath imaginary flames and superheated gases. They are on a simulated search and rescue mission, sent into the building to find a firefighter who failed to return after the initial fire attack team was ordered to withdraw.

    The lead firefighter holds a device that looks like a futuristic battering ram. Mounted on the device is a metal box with circuitry and an array of lights that flash in changing patterns as the device is pointed in various directions. A tone that varies in synchrony with the lights—from low-frequency pops to a high-pitched whine—blares from the device. Like a miner following the rise and fall of the clicks from his Geiger counter, the device leads the team to a door on the second floor. On the other side is their missing comrade, who wears the radio transmitter the device had homed in on.

    (1) Firefighters test WPI’s Combined Location and Physiological Status Monitoring System during the WPI workshop. The white box on the lead firefighter’s shoulder is the antenna for the location system. (Photos courtesy of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.)

    The Mantenna, a homing system developed by researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), was one of five indoor location and tracking systems demonstrated during the final day of the Workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders, held on the WPI campus from Aug. 4-6, 2008. Sponsored by WPI, the event was supported by a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Fire Prevention and Safety grant.

    More than 100 researchers from universities, government labs, and companies; representatives of fire departments; and officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) attended the workshop to discuss technology designed to address two of the leading causes of firefighter fatalities (according to a June 2008 USFA report): stress and overexhaustion and becoming lost or disoriented inside buildings.

    The workshop has become a forum for sharing research results, demonstrating the latest technological developments, and learning about the needs and concerns of the fire safety community. For the first time this year, the scope of the workshop was expanded to include the urgent need for technology that can continuously monitor a firefighter’s vital signs and quickly and accurately locate firefighters in distress, a requirement stressed in keynote addresses by Jalal Mapar, program manager for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, and Charlie Dickinson, retired USFA deputy assistant administrator.

    (2) Worcester firefighters begin the search for the “missing” firefighters outside of the Atwater Kent Laboratories building using the WPI-developed Mantenna homing device.

    The workshop’s first two days were devoted to sessions on technologies used in positioning and tracking systems currently being investigated or readied for commercialization. They include inertial navigation, global positioning systems, and radio frequency-based technologies. Various approaches to monitoring vital signs, including wireless sensors and medical vests, were also presented.

    A number of corporations and organizations demonstrated their systems. Among them were the TRX Sentinel inertial navigation and health-monitoring system (TRX Systems Inc.); the Advanced 3-D Locator system, based on a wireless sensor network architecture (L-3 Communications); and a real-time deployment of multihop relays for the extension of communication range (Advanced Network Technologies Division, National Institute of Standards and Technology).

    Also new this year was a day devoted to side-by-side testing of selected location and physiological monitoring systems. These demonstrations were intended to help researchers better understand how various technologies perform under realistic conditions and to provide the fire service community the opportunity to see the state of the art in location and monitoring technology in action and to provide feedback on how it might be improved.


    Following a scenario designed by the Worcester (MA) Fire Department (WFD), a search team entered WPI’s Atwater Kent Laboratories building to look for a lost and unresponsive firefighter. In turn, the team was guided by the following five systems:

    • WPI’s Combined Location and Physiological Status Monitoring System, which uses advanced radio technologies for 3-D location and tracking, along with a WPI-developed wireless pulse oximeter and a sensor shirt developed by Foster Miller Inc. for physiological monitoring.
    • Mobile Response Command System (MRCS), an inertial navigation system developed by ENSCO.
    • Pathfinder, an indoor ultrasound navigation system from Summit Safety Inc.
    • WPI’s Mantenna radio-frequency homing device.
    • Draeger FRT 1000 Tracker Firefighter and Exit Device, a homing system from Draeger Safety Inc.

    (3-4) Firefighters do a peripheral search using the Draeger FRT 1000 Tracker Firefighter and Exit Device. (Photos courtesy of Draeger Safety Inc.)

    The trials revealed that the technologies had advanced considerably since WPI organized its first workshop three years ago; all of the demonstrated systems showed considerable value and promise. Several systems—including WPI’s—have advanced to the point where commercialization could be only a few years off (in fact, two of the homing systems are already commercial products). The WPI systems fared particularly well during the testing. The Combined Location and Physiological Status Monitoring System led the search team directly to the firefighter quickly enough so that the entire rescue could be completed without the need to leave the building to refresh air bottles.

    Based on their experiences with the five systems and their knowledge of the brutal realities of the fireground, the fire service personnel who evaluated the tests developed a set of recommendations for system developers:

    • The systems need to be available instantly and must never fail. Ideally, they should be integrated into existing turnout gear and should turn on automatically.
    • They need to be rugged (firefighting is a vigorous activity carried out in an extreme environment) but also lightweight (firefighters are already taxed by a lot of heavy equipment).
    • Displays must be big and bright, audible signals must be loud, and controls must be operable with gloved hands.
    • Location systems must provide pinpoint accuracy—in three dimensions (firefighters need to know what floor they are on).

    The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Technology Solutions program [through the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) in Natick, Mass.] awarded the WPI research team $430,000 in October 2008 to conduct a national test of existing indoor tracking and monitoring systems. To avoid a conflict of interest, WPI’s systems will not be included in the test, but a portion of the DHS award has been allocated for continued development of this technology.

    With the DHS funds, the WPI team will further explore enhancements designed to overcome known limitations of the existing radio-frequency tracking technology and look for ways to augment the system with other technologies that can work in concert with the existing system to provide continuous, accurate location information under a wide range of building and environmental conditions.

    NSRDEC will administer the 2009 national test (set for the spring, after press time) at the Massachusetts State Police Academy in New Braintree. Six systems will take part in the rigorous tests, including several firefighter and police scenarios developed by the WPI researchers in conjunction with public safety officials and the DHS. The scenarios will build directly on the success of the real-world testing conducted during the August 2008 workshop.Additional information is available at

    TRX Systems/MFRI tracking system fire truck tests set for June 2009

    Firefighters from the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute’s Center for Fire Safety Research and Development and TRX Systems have been working for several years on developing a system for tracking firefighters seamlessly indoors and outdoors. The TRX Sentinel™ technology employs self-configuring networks, open engineering architectures, and advanced integrated navigation solution algorithms which combine information from all available resources to make position estimates.

    (5) TRX Sentinel™ system components. (Photos courtesy of TRX Systems.)

    The system’s small tracking unit computes the tracked individual’s location and transmits it over a body area network to a data radio, which communicates with a command station, which displays the location and status of the tracked individual. The system does not rely on global positioning system (GPS) technology for location; GPS is often unavailable indoors and unreliable in a typical urban environment. Instead, it uses a fusion of information from a variety of sensors to estimate current position. Using sophisticated correction algorithms that consider current and historical position estimates, TRX is able to eliminate positioning errors without requiring external reference inputs. In those cases where the building layout is unknown, maps are built dynamically based on the movement of the personnel throughout the structure. The technology uses a wireless network (each firefighter’s wireless radio is connected to the others’). The wireless network is synchronized to a base station outside the building. The system sends the tracking information through the network until it finds a firefighter’s radio that can transmit the information outside the structure.

    (6) Firefighters test the system at the MFRI burn building in December 2008.

    Since 2004, TRX has presented major demonstrations to firefighters, including to the Fire Department of New York in 2007 and to the International Association of Fire Chiefs Metro Chiefs Conference in April 2008. TRX has completed third-party testing of the system with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and was to have participated in testing with DHS and the Army at Natick last month. It will continue alpha testing with Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, and evaluation kits containing complete systems for beta testing are expected to be on fire trucks in the region by June 2009. Systems are expected to be available for sale later this year. Its research and development have been supported by the National Science Foundation, Technology Support Working Group, Department of Homeland Security, the Laboratory for Physical Sciences, the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, the Center for Fire Safety Research and Development, and the State of Maryland.

    3-D Locator Tracking Device for Multistory Buildings

    The lightweight system, in development with the DHS S&T Directorate and L-3 Communications Corporation, includes an inertial measurement unit, an altimeter, an ultra-wideband radio, GPS, a pedometer, a magnetometer, a barometric altimeter, a Bluetooth, and a wireless mesh network. Jalal Mapar, DHS S&T program manager, says, “The system is good enough to identify even the floor the responder is on in disaster or emergency situations.”

    The system, worn as a small daypack, uses an enhanced ad hoc network router consisting of a process for the entire system, an integrated radio, and an integrated 20-channel GPS receiver. “Ad hoc” technology provides a private network to determine the location of a radio when GPS alone can’t do the job. It links individual GPS locators worn by first responders into a network that shares GPS satellite and other navigation information. If a firefighter’s locator is receiving only one satellite signal, it can share information from the locators receiving additional satellite signals, along with information about their relative location. The current model is being prepared for testing in several large metropolitan areas around the country.

    FIND GPS-Independent System

    At press time, InterSense announced that it has partnered with BVR Systems to develop the First Responders Independent Navigation Device (FIND). The Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation will fund the GPS-independent system. The sensing component will be based on InterSense’s NavShoe™ technology, a boot-mounted inertial sensor. A GPS-independent first responder locator system, its filter algorithms continually correct for “drift,” which is commonly experienced when tracking a responder’s progress with inertial sensors.

    MARY JANE DITTMAR is senior associate editor of Fire Engineering and conference manager of FDIC. Before joining the magazine in January 1991, she served as editor of a trade magazine in the health/nutrition market and held various positions in the educational and medical advertising fields. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/journalism and a master’s degree in communication arts.

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