WPI announces progress in “firefighter locator” research

Research undertaken by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in response to the December 3, 1999, tragic Worcester (MA) cold storage warehouse fire that took the lives of six firefighters may soon be perfected enough to be released in the marketplace and be used by first responders to help them work more safely and effectively. WPI has been actively working on this technology for 15 years; WPI’s Center for First Responder Technology formed a team immediately after the warehouse fire. The objective was to find “a technological innovation that could help rescue teams quickly locate and rescue lost or trapped firefighters.” David Cyganski, WPI professor of electrical and computer engineering and dean of engineering ad interim, and James Duckworth, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, began to explore a three-dimensional location system in which firefighters would wear radio transmitters and receivers would be outside of a burning building or carried by rescue team members. The researchers focused only on precisely locating firefighters inside buildings initially but later expanded their focus to seeking solutions for additional risks firefighters and other first responders faced.

They were challenged from the start in their attempts to precisely find personnel inside buildings where global positioning system signals do not reach; radio signals bounce off walls, floors, and other surfaces, making it difficult to tell where they originated (a phenomenon known as “multipath”). Over the years, the researchers and teams of graduate students developed and tested multiple variations on their radio frequency technology that would help resolve multipath errors. They steadily drew closer to achieving their primary goal of reliably locating firefighters in three dimensions to within inches and with technology most fire companies can afford. The team is “months away” from announcing major strides it has achieved. Throughout the development process, the WPI researchers have worked closely with the Worcester Fire Department (WFD), the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, and other first responders to better understand the needs of the fire service. At the same time, they implemented new research projects to address ways to protect responders from additional hazards that threaten them, including the following:

  • Physiological monitoring: WPI researchers learned that stress-related heart attacks are the leading cause of firefighter fatalities. In response, they added technology to the location system that can monitor a firefighter’s vital signs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has funded this work. Among the technology tested is a wireless, wearable pulse oximeter developed by Duckworth and Yitzhak Mendelson, associate professor and interim head of the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
  • Flashover prediction: Also with funding from FEMA, Cyganski, Duckworth, and a research team from WPI’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering led by Professor Kathy Notarianni developed a system that can accurately predict the onset of flashover a minute before it occurs.
  • Toxic gas detection: In work also funded by FEMA, Cyganski, Duckworth, and Notarianni have developed a sensor that can warn firefighters of the presence of carbon monoxide in and adjacent to the fireground. Having undergone extensive tests in WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering Laboratory and at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, the sensor was recently tested in the field by more than 50 firefighters from the WFD during actual incidents.
  • Fireproof attack hose: With funding from the Last Call Foundation, established by Kathy Crosby-Bell, mother of Boston firefighter Michael Kennedy, Notarianni and Raymond Ranellone, research engineer in fire protection engineering, are working toward developing a fireproof attack hose. Existing hose, made from woven cotton and rubber, can burn through when not charged with water.

WPI has sponsored a series of annual workshops that bring together academic and corporate researchers, government agencies, and first responders to share ideas and new research developments, assess the state of the field, and outline future challenges. Funded in recent years by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, the workshops have been instrumental in accelerating the pace of technological development. For additional information, contact Michael Dorsey, director of WPI research communications, at mwdorse@wpi.edu.

Line-of-Duty Deaths

November 12. Lieutenant James Bethea, 62, Baltimore City (MD) Fire Department: cause of death under investigation.
November 15. Lieutenant Christopher Hunter, 38, Cinnaminson (NJ) Fire Department: heart attack.
November 15. Firefighter Richard Weisse Sr., 59, St. James (NY) Fire District: unknown.
November 16. Pump Operator/Paramedic Alejandro Castro, 50: Brownsville (TX) Fire Department: unknown.
November 18. Firefighter James Foote, 57, Summit (NY) Fire Department: heart attack.
November 20. Fire Marshal Samir “Sam” P. Ashmar, 51, Upper Macungie Township Station 56, Inc., Allentown, PA: heart attack.
November 19. County Fire Coordinator/Deputy OEM Coordinator Arthur “Art” E. Treon, 62, Cape May County Office of Emergency Management, Cape May Court House, NJ: cause of death to be reported.
November 28. Firefighter/EMT Tom Rhamey, 71, Western Holmes County Fire and EMS–Lakeville (OH) Station: heart attack.
December 3. Lieutenant John Burns, 50, Myrtle Beach (SC) Fire Department: unknown.
December 9. Firefighter Joyce Craig-Lewis, 36, Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department: trapped in the basement at a residential fire.
December 9. Firefighter Gus Losleben, 69, Hardin County Fire Department, Savannah, TN: vehicle accident.
December 16. Chief Ricky Wooten Doub, 61, Forbush Volunteer Fire Department, Yadkinville, NC: nature and cause of injury to be determined.
Source: USFA Firefighters Memorial Database


NFPA: 65,880 U.S. firefighters injured in 2013


There were 65,880 U.S. firefighter injuries that occurred in the line of duty during 2013, a drop of 5.1 percent from 2012, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) latest “U.S. Firefighter Injury Report.” The report is based on information provided by fire departments that responded to the 2013 NFPA survey for U.S. Fire Experience. The report noted the following:

  • 29,760 (45.2 percent) injuries occurred during fireground operations. Overexertion; strain (26.5 percent); and fall, slip, and jump (22.7 percent) accounted for injuries that did not occur on the fireground.
  • The major injuries received during fireground operations were strains, sprains, and muscular pain (55.3 percent); wounds, cuts, bleeding, and bruising (13.8 percent); burns (5.1 percent); and smoke or gas inhalation (5.0 percent).
  • An estimated 11,800 injuries occurred during other on-duty activities, including while responding to or returning from an incident during training activities; and strains, sprains, and muscular pain.
  • The Northeast had the highest fireground injury rate.
  • In addition to injuries, there were 7,100 exposures to infectious diseases and 17,400 exposures to hazardous conditions.


U.S./Canada test cross-border resiliency


When a disaster such as a hurricane occurs in countries that share borders, emergency responders and government officials from all the countries involved must be able to work together to efficiently and expeditiously provide assistance to all the people in those areas. An example of such a “shared” border exists between the United States and Canada. The Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment (CAUSE) uses cross-border information-sharing experiments to help increase resilience at our northern border in preparation for a disaster that may affect the state of New Hampshire and Nova Scotia, Canada. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and the Defence Research and Development Canada’s Centre for Security Science (DRDC CSS) recently completed the first phase of the third cross-border information-sharing experiment with partners throughout New Hampshire and Nova Scotia.

The first phase of the experiment tested new methods of engagement and information sharing for a simulated major hurricane that hit the United States and Canada. Representatives of the Nashua (NH) Office of Emergency Management; members and collaboration partners of the DHS Virtual Social Media Working Group; and industry representatives including SeeClickFix, Hootsuite Labs, and Humanity Road participated. Through a series of cross-border test-and-evaluation trials related to enhancing and sharing situational awareness, CAUSE III integrates digital volunteers and social media within official emergency response to address alerts, warnings and notifications, mutual aid, and deployable long-term evolution broadband.

A second-phase scenario, focusing on response efforts to an uncontrolled brush fire, was scheduled to take place in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Montana (after press time). Outcomes of the CAUSE experiment included the following:

  • Enhanced resilience through cross-border partnerships with interoperable communications and shared situational awareness.
  • Integration of nontraditional resources, including crowd-sourced information, open technologies, and digital volunteers to augment traditional emergency response.
  • The ability to send and receive cross-border alerts through multiple channels and among multiple response partners.

This event is another milestone toward President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2011 U.S.-Canada joint declaration, “Beyond the Border: A Shared Vision of Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness.” The CAUSE Resiliency series supports the principles and key areas of cooperation of the 2011 U.S.–Canada Beyond the Border Action Plan http://www.dhs.gov/action-plan.



Governors offer guide on mass evacuation


The National Governors Association (NGA), which maintains that “Governors should be prepared from the first day of their administration to manage a major disaster,” has released Governor’s Guide to Mass Evacuation http://bit.ly/1rWGOo9, which assists governors in preparing their states for a large-scale evacuation. Noting that evacuations involving multiple communities or states are disruptive and require leadership, flexibility, and trust in planning and training efforts for successful implementation, the NGA explains: “Evacuations involve more than just moving people out of a vulnerable area. Proper evacuations must incorporate proven methods for agency and jurisdictional coordination, public communications, traffic control, sheltering and mass care, shelter-in-place strategies, and repopulation.”

According to the NGA: Evacuations involve more than just governmental agencies and officials. Successful evacuation planning and execution include strong coordination with key nongovernmental organizations. Those organizations are essential sources of support and resources during times of disaster including providing food, shelter, and communications. Similarly, the private sector plays a critical role in creating resilient communities during disasters and repopulation after an evacuation. An evacuation only ends when an affected population returns home or is permanently relocated. As such, governors should ensure that their states have adequate plans and processes in place to support the return of evacuated populations and given geographic areas.

To learn more about the NGA Center for Best Practices Homeland Security and Public Safety Division, visit http://nga.org/cms/center/hsps.


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