FDNY Eyes Tracing System
Bids taken for unit to track firefighters

By William Murphy

March 28, 2003

In response to the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the Fire Department is looking for a modern system that will allow it to electronically track firefighters on the scene of major emergencies.

The department's system for tracking firefighters went into chaos after the first tower of the trade center collapsed.

Senior officers using a standard command board at the scene were killed and the board was buried in debris, leaving the department with no way of tracking its units at the trade center.

The new system, the department hopes, will allow commanders on the scene to track the units electronically and transfer all the information to Fire Department headquarters or an off-site back-up unit.

"As we saw on 9/11, all of the records were lost and we lost our ability to see where our people were," Fire Department spokesman Frank Gribbon said.

The department began soliciting bids this month for a new command board that would be portable and capable of transmitting data to the back-up source as the information was being entered by the on-scene commanders.

A report last August by a consultant, McKinsey & Company, was critical of the antiquated command boards that were in use on Sept. 11, 2001.

"These boards and the records they kept were destroyed when the towers collapsed," the McKinsey report said. "As a result, the department could not quickly create a reliable list of missing and dead personnel."

Gribbon said the department does not yet know whether there are products now on the market, or that can be developed quickly, that would meet the department's need.

The McKinsey report did not recommend a specific technology, but said the system would cost $500,000 to $1 million to outfit each of the department's 50 battalions, which would include the price of related software and wireless communications.

Computerized command boards also could store and display building plans, enlarge the plans on the screen for greater detail and have an up-to-date record of hazards or recent violations against the building.

A Florida-based company already markets an identification system that tracks firefighters by fingerprints, from the time they enter the firehouse until they go off duty.

Sense Holdings Inc. has been working on a portable device that would allow fire commanders to track firefighters at the scene of emergencies.

Chief John Velotti of the West Hamilton Beach Fire Department said his volunteer group tried out the system in its firehouse last year and was "thrilled" with the results.

However, the McKinsey report cautioned that the Fire Department, with about 11,000 uniformed members, should move cautiously on acquiring the new technology.

"It is unclear whether currently available wireless technology and infrastructure is reliable and robust enough for use by the department," the report said.