Technology Roundup: First Responder Input Welcome


Emerging technologies and technologies introduced during the past few months are diverse and, as expected, their primary objectives are to improve first responder safety and efficiency. Firefighters themselves identified a number of these new technological needs, many of which became realities through the cooperative efforts of the fire and emergency services, fire service organizations, government agencies, industry, and academia. The new products and studies are apparent in virtually every aspect of emergency response.

Also noteworthy this year is the expansive effort the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through its various components, has been expending in encouraging first responders to make their technological needs known to the government (see “If You See a Technology Need? Reach Out to DHS S&T”) and to share (voluntarily) information pertaining to emergency responses (see “Virtual USA: A New Nationwide Information-Sharing Option for Emergency Responders”).

This article presents an overview of some of the technologies and issues that were introduced in 2009 and early 2010 or that had been brought to the marketplace a year or so earlier but are just now gaining some attention. Additional technologies are available at

Visit the sources and Web sites mentioned here and other fire service-related and government sites to get a more expansive view of the studies and technologies (in varying stages of progress) that can assist you now or will be coming in the not-too-distant future. More importantly, seize the opportunity to recommend new technologies you feel are needed and are not yet being addressed.

The projects listed here and on our Web site are in alphabetical order in their major product categories.




EPA Approves Pesticide Product for Anthrax. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the first license for a pesticide product that can decontaminate buildings, vehicles, and other dry nonporous surfaces from anthrax. Its developer, Missouri-based Clean Earth Technologies, has permission to sell it to federal, state, and local emergency response teams; the military; and other groups of people trained on how to use the product, which is for emergency use only. (Ed O’Keefe, “Keeping Tabs on the Government,” Federal Eye, The Washington Post, June 2, 2009.)

RSDL Decontamination Packets. Available to first responders in individually packaged easy-to-open pouches, RSDL (RSDecon Lotion) is a patented, broad-spectrum topical skin decontamination product intended to neutralize or remove chemical warfare agents—including GA (tabun), GB (sarin), GD (soman), GF (cyclohexyl sarin), VX (nerve agent), and HD (mustard)—from the skin.

The packet contains a small sponge impregnated with lotion that removes or neutralizes chemical agents on the skin within two minutes. The product was rigorously tested by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Canadian Department of National Defence. RSDecon is a brand of products manufactured by the Healthcare Protective Products Division of Bracco Diagnostics Inc. It is manufactured for E-Z-EM Inc., a Bracco company, in Lake Success, New York. (For more information, see “RSDecon Brings Safety to the Home Front,” Rob Schnepp, Fire Engineering, Dec. 2009.)




Illumination Visual Aid. The technology involved in the Optically Enhanced Illumination Visual Aid allows firefighters to be “seen” beyond the standard reflective/fluorescent striping commonly used on gear. Known as the “Glo-Jo Helmet Band,” the striping is worn around helmets. The technology also improves the visibility of users when it is incorporated with safety vests, turnout gear, and SCBA. According to Joseph Gonzalez, CEO/president of CSC Group LLC, its developer, the company is working closely with the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Optics program to explore additional uses for this technology. Fire departments and educational facilities throughout the country are field-testing the product. The feedback has been positive, Gonzalez says. (For more information, see “New Technology to Improve Firefighter Safety & Efficiency,” Jerry Knapp, Fire Engineering, March 2009.)

Precision Personnel Location System.Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has received a one-year, $1 million award from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop the final component of its Precision Personnel Location (PPL) integrated monitoring system. The system was designed to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries by precisely locating and tracking firefighters inside buildings in three dimensions, continuously monitoring their vital signs to warn incident commanders (ICs) when they are at risk of stress-related heart attacks, and taking floor-to-ceiling temperature readings inside buildings to provide an early warning of impending flashover.

Work on the location, tracking, and physiological monitoring components began as a direct response to the 1999 Worcester (MA) Cold Storage Warehouse fire in which six firefighters died when they became lost in dense smoke inside the maze-like, windowless structure. The project has received more than $4 million in funding from the Department of Justice, the DHS, FEMA, and the U.S. Army. The research team developed and extensively tested a system that uses advanced radio frequency and radar technology to locate firefighters to within a few feet in three dimensions and displays their locations and movements on a display screen at the IC’s station. A wireless pulse oximeter worn on the forehead, developed by WPI researchers, and a wireless T-shirt, made by Foster-Miller, provide physiological monitoring. The physiological information is integrated into the IC’s display.

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(1) Engineers at QinetiQ North America, a partner with WPI on this research, are developing a device that will measure temperature inside a fire from floor to ceiling by deploying a mast with thermocouples arrayed at regular intervals. The deployable mast is still being tested, so for this test, the thermocouples were attached to a metal post. (Photos courtesy of Michael W. Dorsey, WPI.)

The WPI PPL research team will work with researchers in the university’s Fire Protection Engineering Department and engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and QinetiQ North America/Foster-Miller to develop an inexpensive, portable, disposable wireless sensor array [the Fireground Environment Sensor Monitoring (ESM) System] that firefighters can carry into a building and place in selected rooms. Once in place, the device will deploy a mast that will rise to the ceiling. The mast will have temperature sensors every 30 centimeters and a heat flux sensor in its base.

Data from the sensors will be transmitted to the incident command station. The risk of extreme heat stress and time to flashover will be displayed on the IC’s screen, along with the firefighters’ locations and vital signs. The WPI researchers estimate that the system will extend the warning time firefighters will have to pending flashover from about eight seconds (with modern heat-resistant gear; firefighters often don’t sense extreme heat until it is too late) to well over a minute.

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(2) The exterior of the heat flux detector was worse for wear after the test, but the electronics in the box appeared to survive. The unit functioned up to and beyond the point where the burn chamber reached flashover.

Initial testing of the system will be conducted in the burn chamber in WPI’s fire science laboratory. Larger-scale tests will be conducted in the large burn building at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow. Results of the tests will be evaluated with fire models developed by WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering Department and NIST to determine and fine-tune algorithms for predicting the risk of flashover. The Worcester Fire Department will assist with integrating the temperature data and flashover risk information into the existing incident command display developed by the WPI PPL team. (For more information, contact




The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is working with partners in the fire service, technical standards organizations, and occupational safety and health community to address priorities identified by firefighters, fire departments, fire safety experts, equipment manufacturers, and other partners and stakeholders relative to making personal protective equipment safer. They will address questions such as the following: How do you alleviate or minimize physical stress and heat stress from firefighters’ turnout ensembles without compromising the protection they offer against heat and flame exposure? Can better benchmarks be established for assessing the performance of chemical-resistant suits against a variety of hazardous chemicals and for their performance after repeated use? NIOSH has studied these issues and plans to disseminate and apply the results in ways that will directly impact firefighter health and safety. Some examples follow:

  • Cooling suit research. NIOSH scientists are drafting two manuscripts based on study results for publication in peer-reviewed journals. They have also given several presentations about the study at professional conferences.
  • Preventing transfer of thermal energy from protective clothing materials. Last month, ASTM International (formerly the American Society for Testing and Materials) approved a new standard test method, F2731-2010, Test Method for Measuring the Transmitted and Stored Energy of Firefighter Protective Clothing Systems, based on NIOSH’s research. ASTM’s voluntary technical standards provide a basis for manufacturing, management, procurement, codes, and regulations.
    NIOSH is also working closely with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1971 Technical Committee, Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Fire Fighting and Proximity Fire Fighting, to consider incorporating the ASTM test method as a new performance requirement within the next edition.
  • Measuring chemical permeation of protective clothing. Another ASTM committee, ASTM F23.30, is developing a new standard for a test method for measuring cumulative permeation of toxic industrial chemicals through protective clothing materials (ASTM WK16014—New Test Method for Measurement of Cumulative Permeation of Toxic Industrial Chemicals through Protective Clothing Materials). As the NIOSH research continues, its scientists will continue to work closely with the committee to incorporate the findings into the final test method. (Fred Blosser, CDC/NIOSH/OD,





The Fire Safe System.Since August 2009, microwave backhaul systems have been assisting CAL FIRE personnel to respond to wildland fires more quickly and efficiently. The system uses high-definition video cameras mounted on unstaffed lookout towers and relies on microwave backhaul systems to connect the cameras with monitors and personnel at the Amador/El Dorado Unit, Emergency Command Center (ECC) in Camino, California.

Software on the monitoring workstation in the ECC can employ two cameras to determine a fire’s longitude and latitude. Viewing this information on the workstation’s 52-inch monitor, the fire team can quickly evaluate how best to respond. Funded under a State of California grant, this video surveillance system is the largest in the United States and, according to CAL FIRE Battalion Chief Justin Sanders, “The system allows the ECC to gather additional information when dispatching resources to a wildland fire.”

Vicom Wireless of Sacramento, California, designed the system, which incorporates Pelco Esprit HD video cameras featuring 35× zoom lenses with remote pan/tilt/zoom controls along with Exalt all-outdoor microwave radio systems that deliver video content over links ranging from 18 to 26 miles in length. The radios, explains Jim Cinquini, president of Vicom Wireless, can stand up to extreme weather conditions and have built-in spectrum analyzers, which are valuable when setting up channels. He added that the network is configured so that 80 percent of the aggregate capacity is allocated to traffic from the cameras to the ECC and that the cameras include built-in heaters to help protect them from the elements at elevations of 6,000 feet and higher. The system is custom developed and can run on solar energy in remote locations.

CAL FIRE is planning to expand the system in 2010 and beyond. The overall goal is to eventually deploy as many as 22 cameras throughout Amador and El Dorado counties. (




A glimpse into the future reveals the Cell-All initiative, spearheaded by the DHS S&T Directorate. It would have your cell phone equipped with a sensor that can detect deadly chemicals, according to Stephen Dennis, Cell-All’s program manager. When a chemical that poses a threat to personal safety, such as a chlorine gas leak, is sensed, the phone would sound a warning in a mode chosen by the user—vibration, noise, text message, or phone call. For catastrophes such as a sarin gas attack, details—including time, location, and the compound—would be phoned to an emergency operations center. Authorities would automatically be alerted when a chemical threat breaks out anywhere—in a mall, a bus, the subway, or an office. It would take less than 60 seconds to detect and identify the agent and notify the authorities. Users will participate on an opt-in basis only (to safeguard privacy). Data will be transmitted anonymously. DHS S&T has been working on this technology since 2007 and is working with teams from Qualcomm, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Rhevision Technology and is also pursuing written agreements with four cell phone manufacturers—Qualcomm, LG, Apple, and Samsung—to work on the project. Dennis hopes to have 40 prototypes available in about a year; the first will sniff out carbon monoxide and fire. Overall, Dennis estimates, Cell-All’s commercialization may take several years. (E-mail:

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.


Do You See a Technology Need? Reach Out to DHS S&T


If you have identified an area in which there is a need for new technology, you can help bring the technology to fruition. Reach out to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Active or retired first responders can submit a description of a technology gap or problem they have experienced to the TechSolutions Web site, “Anything we can do to help the responders do their jobs more safely, easily, and efficiently, we want to know about it,” says Greg Price, TechSolutions director for the DHS S&T First Responder Technologies (R-Tech) program.

One component of R-Tech, the TechSolutions program, works directly with first responders to identify technology priorities in the field and invest funds to rapidly develop prototypes to meet those needs. Each time first responders submit an idea to the program, TechSolutions consults a group of first responder subject matter experts to ensure the submission is something that affects many in the field and researches each submission to determine if a technology already on the market could meet the need. If no such product exists and the technology gap is significant, TechSolutions can invest money to develop prototypes designed to bridge that gap. The program aims to meet at least 80 percent of the identified operational requirements within 12 to 15 months, which is enough time to yield a finished prototype in most cases. In other cases, DHS programs and national laboratories build on the initial TechSolutions efforts to completely develop devices that meet the needs of the first responder community. TechSolutions also partners with other government agencies, universities, and the private sector to fund technological advances in the field.




According to DHS, the following R-Tech projects are close to yielding technology that could revolutionize the way first responders work:

  • The Cylinder Array. This next-generation, self-contained breathing apparatus represents the most significant innovation in breathing apparatus technology in more than two decades, according to Price. The new design replaces hard, metal-based cylinders with thinner composite plastic pressure vessels wrapped and braided with carbon and Kevlar® fibers and protected by a soft, durable, fire-resistant cover. The new “array” has multiple interconnected smaller vessels of compressed air and provides 45 minutes of breathing air. The apparatus has a much flatter profile than current designs—it is about 2.60 inches deep instead of about nine inches. The thinner, flexible model will help prevent firefighters from becoming entangled in debris and will significantly reduce the weight of a firefighter’s gear, lessening stress and fatigue. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and Sanders Industrial collaborated with DHS to develop the technology.
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     (1) The Cylinder Array represents the most significant innovation in breathing apparatus technology in more than two decades. (Photos courtesy of the International Association of Fire Fighters.)

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    (2) The Cylinder Array, a next-generation self-contained breathing apparatus, is nearly seven inches narrower than current designs.

    Author’s Note: At press time, the IAFF announced in a release that MSA (Pittsburgh, Pa.) was selected to build a prototype of this SCBA and that the prototype will be field-tested in fire and law enforcement departments later this year.
  • The Multi-Band Radio (MBR) will allow first responders to communicate with each other, regardless of the radio band on which they operate. The DHS S&T Command, Control, and Interoperability Division funded the radio’s development with support from TechSolutions. Fourteen emergency response agencies began testing the radios in the fall of 2009. The radio is comparable to top-of-the-line single-band radios in terms of cost, weight, and size. It works on the five frequency bands currently used by state and local first responders and can work on four other bands used exclusively by the federal government, the Department of Defense, the National Guard, and the Coast Guard. It even provides weather reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Thales Communications, Inc. is developing and overseeing the pilot for DHS. A final design could be ready for the mass market later this year.
  • With the Standoff Patient Triage Tool (SPTT), first responders can measure key vital signs and triage patients rapidly from a distance. TechSolutions partnered with the Technical Support Working Group, Boeing Company, and Washington University’s School of Medicine in developing the device. The SPTT will provide physiological readings—including pulse, body temperature, and respiration—in 30 seconds or less and at distances of up to 40 feet. This could be of great value during a hazardous materials release, as first responders wearing equipment to protect themselves from the hazardous material can struggle to take a patient’s vital signs by touch through layers of protective plastic. The device’s laser Doppler vibrometer measures vital signs by monitoring a patient’s every movement, and an infrared camera checks the patient’s body temperature. The SPTT also has a built-in stabilization system to compensate for the user’s motions when it collects patient data. Boeing Company is building a preproduction prototype that is scheduled to be tested this year. The device could be ready for commercial production by late 2010 or early 2011.
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    (3) A proposed design for the Standoff Patient Triage Tool, which can take a patient’s vital signs from a distance of up to 40 feet. (Image courtesy of Boeing Co.)
  • The SensorNet for Fire and First Responders (Sniffer) will provide real-time chemical detection data to enable responders to make key decisions during fire, rescue, and hazardous materials incidents. The Sniffer consists of a suite of sensors that can be mounted on a fire truck or carried by hand. It wirelessly sends data, including a visual display of the area, to a laptop computer and creates a plume model from the information. R-Tech partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop the technology.
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    (4) The Controlled Impact Rescue Tool can breach concrete as thick as 51⁄2 inches in less than 20 minutes. (Photo courtesy of DHS S&T.)





The Controlled Impact Rescue Tool (CIRT) can breach concrete as thick as 51⁄2 inches in less than 20 minutes, which will help urban search and rescue teams to reach people trapped inside collapsed buildings quickly. According to Jalal Mapar, program manager at the DHS S&T Infrastructure and Geophysical Division (IGD), the device uses blank ammunition cartridges to drive an impacting head. When the head hits the concrete, it creates a concentrated shock wave that breaks up the concrete on the back side of the wall. The CIRT does not require the hoses or support power equipment that traditional tools such as demolition hammers and saws use. DHS S&T IGD partnered with Raytheon in the CIRT’s development.

Additional information about TechSolutions and the technologies it supports is at For more information about the R-Tech program, visit (DHS S&T John S. Verrico, Spokesman, Science & Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security)


Virtual USA: A New Nationwide Information-Sharing Option for Emergency Responders



When incidents like hurricanes or other large-scale emergencies occur, localities, states, and emergency response agencies need to quickly and efficiently share information with first responders so they can fully understand the status of the incident and create a response plan. Sharing and obtaining complete sets of information such as evacuation routes, shelter locations, fuel sources, and hospital sites are vital; emergency responders must have immediate access to operational information before, during, and after an incident.

Although many authorities compile incident management data, these records are typically not shared because of incompatible computer systems and proprietary technological platforms. This obstacle is then compounded by a culture that is, at times, reluctant to share information.

With your critical input and expertise, we recently developed and launched the Virtual USA (vUSA) initiative. Housed within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, vUSA is leading the way in addressing current emergency response communication challenges.

The objective is to create a cost-effective nationwide capability that will significantly improve information sharing and decision making during emergencies and day-to-day operations. vUSA is based on current and emerging technologies that will integrate existing information-sharing frameworks to enable collaboration at all levels of government by providing a critical context for information.

My team in S&T’s Command, Control and Interoperability Division and I are devising a way to share information seamlessly. We know that everything starts at the local level; local practitioners are the first to arrive and the last to leave the scene of an incident. vUSA will continually gather the informational needs, concerns, and feedback from local practitioners. Participation, although encouraged at all levels, is completely voluntary; it is not a federal mandate. vUSA will equip the entire spectrum of emergency response—from a county firefighter to a state-based emergency management technician—with equal levels of detailed data during an emergency.

The emergency responder is at the core of vUSA. Because we understand that information originates at the local level, garnering continued input from the emergency response community is vital to success. Too many state and federal programs fall short of their potential because they are driven from the top down without buy-in at the local level. We have created vUSA in partnership with the emergency response community, and we will continue to focus directly on the needs of those who respond to our nation’s emergencies every day.




vUSA was designed to operate under a unique set of core principles, including the following:

  • vUSA is a practitioner-driven initiative—drawing on practitioner input with guidance and support from DHS.
  • vUSA leverages existing data collected and maintained by local, state, and federal agencies and does not require the acquisition and warehousing of data.
  • vUSA ensures that data ownership and control remain with the data owner.
  • vUSA ensures that its partners only share what they want to, when they want to, and with whom they want to share it.
  • vUSA enables users to share information, regardless of the technology or system they currently use or plan to use in the future.
  • vUSA integrates existing processes and systems or equipment; it does not require you to buy or implement new hardware.
  • vUSA builds on existing open-source technologies while continuing to explore new and emerging alternatives.


We aim to create a nationwide capability with vUSA that can share standardized life-saving emergency data in real time. We are creating a platform-agnostic capability that will integrate disparate data sources seamlessly as long as the sources use standards adopted by your community (e.g., CAP, EDXL).

Since its inception in early 2009, vUSA has encouraged and supported the creation of new information-sharing initiatives while at the same time helping to further develop existing systems. According to my colleague and vital participant in vUSA Chief Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (VA) Fire Department, emergency responders in his region have made positive changes in information-sharing practices. He makes an excellent point when he says, “Emergency response is at a unique place where technology, applications, and connectivity are converging to create a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for collaboration—resulting in huge strides in the way we prepare for and respond to emergencies.”

I cannot agree more. This is a unique time for the entire community to come together. Creating a national capability that ensures emergency responders have access to the data they need when they need it, in the form they want it, and as authorized is not a fast or easy task. The process can take a year or more. The chief challenge of vUSA is not the lack of data but rather the lack of interoperable data.

Despite the challenges, we are dedicated to the success of vUSA and to the goal of making it possible for the entire emergency response community to obtain the information necessary to mobilize resources from multiple jurisdictions in an emergency, making it easier to respond jointly to a large- or small-scale disaster and, ultimately, save lives. As I’ve always said, information is only as good as our ability to use it.

DR. DAVID BOYD is director of the Command, Control & Interoperability Division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate.


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