Thursday, July 22, 2004

WPI lab develops device to protect rescuers

Martin Luttrell

WORCESTER- Researchers at WPI are developing a device that could be worn by firefighters and other first responders that would provide their locations while inside a burning or collapsed building or during other hazardous situations.

The research, paid for by a $1 million grant by the National Institute of Justice, was spurred by the loss of six city firefighters during the December 1999 Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire.

Rescuers could not see inside the darkened and smoke-filled building, and had to feel along the floors in their fruitless search for their brother firefighters. All six died within 100 feet of safety, but neither they nor their command officers knew where they were.

"I see this as a great research and technological effort," said John A. Orr, professor of electrical and computer engineering at WPI, who is involved in the research. "There's clearly a need for tracking emergency responders inside a building. Firefighters go inside buildings to find trapped people.

"I was surprised to find out their way of finding their way is to drag a rope along with them," he continued. "That doesn't always work."

Mr. Orr was among about 30 scientists and representatives of law enforcement, firefighting, correction and emergency medical agencies from around the country who provided input over three days of focus groups at WPI on what specifications are needed in a such a locator device.

The list comprises a number of technological challenges. During the course of the focus groups, the participants listed the capabilities they see as critical in a reliable and user-friendly device.

Because global positioning devices do not work inside some buildings, the device being designed must be able to transmit a signal that can tell command staff where up to 100 personnel are, within one foot. The device should have a range of 2,000 feet and be able to work inside a building with reinforced concrete walls or where there is a high background of electromagnetic energy, such as a hospital or telecommunications building.

Researchers want the device and its related equipment to be portable enough that it can be put into service when responders enter a building and be able to provide locations several stories high.

"Since 9-11, this is obviously in great need," said Joel L. Leson of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Alexandria, Va.

Chief Ernest Mitchell of the Pasadena, Calif., Fire Department, and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said it is important to have input from all the agencies that will use the new equipment so it can be tailored to their needs.

"This is excellent that they're developing the technology together, rather than independently," he said.

David Cyganski, WPI professor of electrical and computer engineering, said development of the new device will involve many prototypes. He told the focus group concluding the conference yesterday that he would like to see some prototypes go out to police and fire departments for field testing next year.

In one of the research buildings on campus yesterday, graduate students were perfecting circuit boards and experimenting with radio frequencies for a prototype. Mr. Cyganski said that as the technologies are proven they will be miniaturized into the prototypes.

The Worcester Fire Department has offered to test the prototypes as they become available. Deputy Fire Chief Michael O. McNamee, who was in command of the firefighters lost in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire, said such a device could have saved some lives that night.

"Would this have changed things at the Cold Storage? It might have saved somebody," he said. "I'm sure we would have had a much better chance of success.

"This is exciting," he added. "The question is if it will be affordable enough so departments can outfit to their needs. I hope to see it before I retire."

Photo below
WPI graduate student Hemish K. Parikh explains the design of a precision personnel location system he and other graduate students are working on. Behind him is Jonathan R. Hahn, a contractor representing the National Institute of Justice, which is providing the grant for the project.