WPI event highlights firefighting technology


WORCESTER — The red icons moved slowly toward the immobile green one on the screen in front of Gregory Best and Deputy Fire Chief John F. Sullivan. With a click, Mr. Best, a project manager for advanced technology at California-based Trimble, shifted from a plan of the ground floor to that of the second as the red blips climbed the stairs up to the green blip. Within about five minutes, they had converged.

“You should be suffocating him,” Deputy Chief Sullivan said into the radio, telling the red dots — firefighters participating in a demonstration — that they should be right on top of the green dot, which represented a “lost” firefighter. In fact, they were a few feet away, but that was good enough for the deputy chief.

“We've been saying for years: Just get us in the room,” he said. “That worked really well.”

The demonstration of Trimble's system was part of the sixth annual conference on tracking emergency responders at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The federal Department of Homeland Security's Directorate of Science & Technology sponsored this year's two-day conference, which began Monday and was called the Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders International Technology Workshop.

The 1999 Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building fire that killed six lost firefighters vividly illustrated the need for tracking systems, and the tragedy spurred researchers at WPI to look into the problem. It isn't a simple one to solve. Global positioning systems that help drivers navigate roads won't work indoors, and it takes complicated algorithms to sort out radio signals that can bounce off of walls indoors. Altimeters that rely on air pressure can be confounded by HVAC systems. Then there are the unique challenges of designing for firefighters: They often carry 60 pounds or more of equipment into a fire, and heart attacks are the leading cause of deaths in the line of duty, according to another conference participant, Wilton, Conn., Deputy Fire Chief Mark Amatrudo. Any additional monitors must be lightweight and able to withstand heat, smoke, water and bumps.

Trimble's approach solved some of those problems. The monitors the firefighters wore were about the size of a box of Pop-Tarts and weighed a little more than a pound. Each also had several small antennae for their radio, GPS outside the building and RFID (radio frequency identification) inside the building.

But the system relies on the fact that the Trimble team installed approximately 300 RFID tags before firefighters entered. The tags, which are about the size of a mailing label, were cheap — about 20 cents each, according to Ed Jones, director of technical business development at Trimble — but if the building didn't have them, the readers on the firefighters' packs wouldn't have worked at all. Other Trimble representatives who helped with the demonstration included product manager Gwen Byard and software engineer Jeffrey Sanders.

An earlier demonstration from Pennsylvania-based MSA North America did not require such infrastructure, but the devices had some technical difficulties, Deputy Chief Sullivan said.

“Some of the solutions apply some of the time, but they don't apply to everything,” said Jalal Mapar, a program manager in the Infrastructure Geophysical Division of the Science & Technology Directorate at Homeland Security. He was one of the organizers of this year's conference, and he is familiar with the challenges locator devices pose. He hopes that one his agency has funded will come to market in about a year.

The product is called GLANSER (Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders). Honeywell Inc. led its development and worked with Virginia-based Argon ST and Maryland-based TRX Systems. Honeywell might offer it as a subscription service, like a cell phone service, rather than a pay-up-front product, Mr. Mapar said.

Such products could have a wide range of applications, from firefighters and police officers to miners and soldiers, and anytime someone needs to find someone — or something — quickly. It could even help the folks in the International Space Station find a given item on a moment's notice, he said.

The conference grew this year to about 145 people, Mr. Mapar estimated, and students and staff at WPI work on the related research year-round, said David Cyganski, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and one of the conference organizers.

“We know what the hard problems are,” he said, as firefighters trudged into the building where his office sits in search of the little green blip.

Contact Jacqueline Reis at jreis@telegram.com.
Worcester Firefighter Peter Laviolette scans a card at a base station in front of the building he is about to enter during a drill Tuesday at WPI. (T&G Staff Photos/RICK CINCLAIR)