Friday, November 9, 2012
Because of the inherent danger and physical demands,
firefighting is a high-anxiety occupation. Every second counts as firefighters
work frantically to minimize damage to property and — more important — preserve
the well-being of those living in the immediate area.
firefighters and other first responders encounter situations in which they need
to be saved as much as the occupants of a burning building, after becoming
disoriented or lost. Typical protocol calls for firefighters to have a partner
with them at all times, but these partners can get separated, according to
Charles Werner, fire chief for the city of Charlottesville, Va.
could be the result of a structural issue — for example, the collapse of a wall,
floor or ceiling — a physical injury or other unwanted circumstances that cause
a firefighter to lose his bearings. Whatever the reason, the realization is
terrifying both for the distressed firefighter and everyone else at the scene,
"When you get into zero visibility, and you get disoriented,
it's probably one of the scariest feelings you'll ever have," Werner said,
noting that he was in such a precarious scenario once during his career. "You're
in an intolerable environment — it's literally unsurvivable without protection,
but you only have a limited amount of air, and depending on how hot it is, you
can only stand the heat so long.
"And, when you're a fire chief, it's your
worst nightmare — you realize that you only have minutes in a lot of cases to
actually save the firefighter who is lost. It takes everything that you've got
and everybody that's on the scene to make that happen."
To date, there is
little technology in the field that is able to help. Emergency buttons on LMR
radios can alert everyone on the scene that there is a "man down," but the
distressed firefighter typically must be within earshot of another crew member
or needs to be able to describe his location to an incident commander, who can
deploy a Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) to find the firefighter.
disoriented or unconscious firefighter can provide little information, meaning
the RIT members are left to play a guessing game — in cloud of thick, acrid
smoke — that normally starts at the last known position of the downed
firefighter. GPS has become an increasingly common feature on LMR radios, but
the technology usually does not work inside a building, where a satellite does
not have a clear path to the radio. In addition, GPS only provides longitude and
latitude (X and Y) coordinates; one of the biggest location challenges is
determining which floor the firefighter is on in a multi-story building,
i.e.,the user's altitude (Z coordinate).
Recently, the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security's directorate of science and technology (DHS S&T) has
invested considerable resources to develop a viable solution to this
life-and-death quandary. After years of work, officials are hopeful they have
found the answer with the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation
System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER) technology, which is designed to
provide three-dimensional location data for firefighters without interfering
with their normal operations.
If tested and
commercialized successfully, the technology could be a popular tool in the
firefighting community, because it addresses a longtime problem, Werner
said. "That's probably the fire chief's worst nightmare — to have a lost
firefighter and not know where he or she is," he said. "To be able to resolve
that issue and rescue a firefighter probably would be one of — if not the — most
important technologies that we'll put in place.
from fundamental partnering and search-and-rescue techniques, incident
commanders have had few options to find firefighters that are lost or
disoriented, according to Jalal Mapar, program manager for DHS S&T.
have had no ability to track firefighters. There has been nothing — no products.
Everything that works has worked outside a building with commercial GPS. "All
of these incident commanders have been operating in the dark, as far as where
these guys are located inside the building. They just go entirely by radio
The first technology developed by DHS S&T was the "bread crumb"
approach, which called for firefighters to place small radio nodes along their
path inside a building, with the nodes forming an ad-hoc mesh network that was
designed to create a radio trail that would help determine location.
approach has many drawbacks, the biggest of which revolved around the fact that
firefighters wanted to focus their energies on fighting a fire, not on
establishing communications when arriving at a scene, according to
"They really don't have time," he said. "[Firefighters] told us that
they really don't want to be bothered with spending their time trying to set up
base-station relays, drop bread crumbs and then make sure they're
working. "They said, 'All I want to do is have a unit that, when I turn it
on, transmits my location back to the incident commander. I don't have time to
wait two minutes to boot it, etc. It has to work on its own.'"
In addition to these requirements, firefighters asked DHS S&T to
develop a solution that could be implemented at a scene without the help of
engineers and would meet intrinsic-safety standards, Mapar said. By leveraging
myriad sensor technologies (see sidebar) — many of which came from the aerospace
industry to guide planes and missiles — DHS worked with Honeywell to develop
GLANSER, which features units attached to a firefighter's self-contained
breathing apparatus (SCBA) that operate on 900 MHz unlicensed spectrum.
GLANSER, incident commanders are able to see a three-dimensional map that
indicates the route each firefighter is taking inside a building (see photo) and
includes an altitude reference point. The location information is designed to be
accurate within 3 meters, which is about the height of a normal floor in a
multi-story building. The graphical interface does not state what floor a
firefighter is on, but it does indicate whether a firefighter has gone up or
down stairs relative to the point at which he entered the building.
ability to get that third-dimensional view of the building is truly the
difference maker in this technology," said John Sullivan, deputy chief of the
Worchester, Mass., fire department, which participated in a demonstration of
GLANSER this summer. Another key feature of GLANSER is that it did not
interfere with normal firefighter operations and did not require any engineers
to operate — something Worchester fire officials mandated for the demonstration,
according to Mapar. The only DHS S&T personnel allowed on the site were in
the incident-command area to answer questions about features and capabilities,
he said. Sullivan was impressed with the demonstration. "It worked very
well. The GLANSER technology is right where we expected it to be. The
advancements in the communication pieces and the ability to track on that third
dimension have truly advanced a long way, to the point where we're pretty
confident in the technology and being able to use it.
"As you know, in the
fire service, having confidence in the technology is huge." A look
ahead Expected to be commercially available next year, the GLANSER system may
not be limited to just locating firefighters and other first responders, Mapar
said. "In addition to that, the unit is set up to establish a wireless mesh
network all on its own — as soon as the unit is turned on, it starts to
communicate with the other units around it," he said. "So, when people go into a
building, each person becomes a node — and, in our case, the more the
merrier." The existence of that mesh network creates multiple communications
possibilities for the future, including the potential exchange of data and voice
information with additional enhancements, Mapar said.
concern associated with GLANSER is its price, which currently is estimated to be
about $3,000 per system — a steep figure for budget-strapped fire departments
struggling to avoid layoffs. Mapar said that he hopes to convince manufacturers
to build systems with GLANSER technology that are leased on a monthly basis, to
help lessen the upfront sticker shock associated with an outright
purchase. An even more promising possibility is the chance that the GLANSER
technology could be implemented in commercial devices such as smartphones and
tablets, which would greatly increase the economies of scale for the components,
which traditionally reduces their costs dramatically.
"We started with trying
to help the firefighters," Mapar said. "But the technology we're developing is,
all of a sudden, catching the eye of the commercial market. "Some of the big
names in the commercial market are watching how we go about putting this out,
because they want to use some of the technologies we have developed. They're
even thinking about providing it as a service in the location-based services
area that promises to be a $5 billion-$10 billion market in the next five
Mapar is comfortable with such "unintended consequences" becoming
reality, especially if they benefit public safety by reducing GLANSER costs and
the location-based technology is used to better locate mobile 911
Meanwhile, the fact that solutions such as GLANSER are being
developed for firefighting — a sector often ignored in previous mission-critical
communications evolutions — is a welcome sign, Werner said.
"I think these
newer developments that are coming out are very exciting," he said. "I think
we're starting to see that people are taking our challenges. They tried, and
they failed, and they tried and they failed. Now, they're starting to get some
solutions that really are starting to fit into what we need."