Published August 02, 2012
Wildfires have ravaged the United States this year, so much so that a Congressional hearing was called in June to discuss extreme weather in the U.S.
Fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology division has three projects underway that should reduce risk and improve the safety of U.S. firefighters.
GLANSER: A Firefighter locator
When firefighters enter a building or a wildfire they “vanish off the map” in the words of DHS S&T -- meaning a GPS satellite signal cannot follow them. Most firefighters also still use analog radio signals, which have problems getting through concrete, tunnels, forest and smoke-filled structures.
Yet nearly 90 percent of fire-related firefighter injuries happen within these types of structures, where locating an injured firefighter is a real challenge.
GLANSER is the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders, a tool that lets incident commanders locate and track first responders inside enclosed areas.
This portable tracking device comprises a microwave radio, battery and navigation technology. The commander can plug a USB powered base station into a laptop that transmits and receives signals; the more firetrucks with base stations the better the accuracy.
The GLANSER system can track approximately 500 firefighters simultaneously in a 50 story building and is accurate to as little as three feet.
The Star Trek-style PHASER
Rather than a weapon, PHASER is like a tricorder for firefighters.
PHASER is the Physiological Health Assessment System for Emergency Responders program that DHS S&T has been working on with UCLA. It monitors the pulse, body temperature and blood pressure of a firefighter and then relays his or her vitals back to the base.
According to U.S. Fire Administration statistics, an estimated 81,000 firefighter injuries occur annually in the United States.
U.S. first responders have the highest occupational rate of line-of-duty deaths from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular incidents, making the ability to monitor and assist them an imperative.
Enabled by breakthroughs in medical science and technology, PHASER can instantly signal that a firefighter is in trouble and therefore expedite assistance from fellow firefighters.
While PHASER will let the commander know a firefighter is in trouble, fellow firefighters will still need to locate him or her. GLANSER and WISPER are two new technologies that can guide them to his exact location swiftly bring medical assistance.
WISPER 'bread crumbs'
PHASER uses a 900-MHz frequency, and due to its portable size, it needs a boost or it could be stopped by a wall or wall of trees in a wildfire. So it works with WISPER to achieve that boost and get the signal to the commander in spite of obstructions.
The Wireless Intelligent Sensor Platform for Emergency Responder (WISPER) relays a firefighter's vital signs back to the firetruck so that the base can monitored them and track him through a fire.
To use the system, a firefighter would carry a waterproof and heatproof canister (the coffee-mug sized containter is protected up to 500 degree Fahrenheit) on his belt with five of these throwaway signal routers -- little discs wrapped in heat-resistant silicon.
When he enters an environment where his signal becomes disrupted, the base station signals his motor-powered canister to release a router or “crumb” as DHS S&T describes -- just like in the Hansel and Gretel fable.
The routers arrange themselves like a network and pass the signal from node to node back to the laptop. Each WISPER has an antenna, a two-way digital radio and a 3-volt lithium cell.
Back at the base station, the WISPERs signal strength is monitored and if it falters the signal will be re-directed or the canister instructed to drop a WISPER.
If the router gets moved by accident during the action, the network will automatically adapt and reconfigure to get the firefighter’s vital signs and location out to the truck.
Under the DHS S&T Small Business Innovation Research program Oceanit Laboratories of Honolulu and the University of Virginia’s Department of Computer Science worked on WISPER using commercial-off-the-shelf components to keep costs and development time down.
Concrete, steel, stairwells, firehouse mist and smoke may reduce transmission rates to a paltry 10 kbps (you won’t surf the net smoothly at that rate), but that’s enough for the coordinates and vital signs of every firefighter to be transmitted and received.
In March 2011, Oceanit and UVA demonstrated WISPER works their signals stayed strong, even at up to 150 feet. One reason: When the signal strength gets low, the system drops a repeater.
Honeywell, Inc. has begun to commercialize GLANSER, but while PHASER and WISPER have also been success stories, first responders are still waiting on private industry to step up and partner to manufacture these tools to improve their safety.
For those who put their lives on the line, these innovations can’t come soon enough.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie