WORCESTER, Mass. – When New York City firefighters and police officers rushed into the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, their commanding officers on the street had little knowledge of where they were, the condition they were in, or the best way for them to escape.
Hundreds of emergency workers died when the twin towers collapsed, and the aftermath left safety officials looking for ways to improve communications.
As the 10-year anniversary of the attacks approaches, researchers are working to perfect technology that tracks first responders so they can rescue others more safely.
On Tuesday, a group of Massachusetts firefighters crawled into a three-story brick laboratory building at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to test one of the new devices.
They carried plastic axes, but otherwise donned full gear including oxygen tanks strapped on their backs. They wore blacked-out masks to impair their vision, but also carried tracking devices the size of walkie-talkies that allowed their commander outside to follow their movements.
The chief saw his men as moving red dots on a computer screen as he talked them through the building. In less than five minutes, they found a "lost" fellow firefighter.
"The technology is getting much easier to use," Worcester Deputy Fire Chief John Sullivan said.
His department and WPI have been working together for over a decade, spurred by the deaths of six Worcester firefighters who entered a 100,000-square-foot abandoned building during a Dec. 3, 1999, fire to look for homeless people they believed were inside.
"Essentially now we're going in on our last known location of the firefighter and our training," said Sullivan, who helped search for the men killed in 1999. "We're trying to cover all the bases more than anything else."
No devices are on the market yet, but over the past decade several companies and researchers, including the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, have developed programs and devices that are getting closer to meeting the needs of first responders.
Jalal Mapar, the directorate's program director, said it is beginning initial field testing in the coming months, and private businesses and the Department of Defense have shown interest in using the technology. Mapar said the department hopes to have products available to first responders by the end of next year.
Two companies were testing products Tuesday at a Homeland Security-sponsored workshop WPI has hosted the past six years. The workshops have allowed companies and researchers to collaborate and challenge each other's work while gaining valuable insight from the firefighters who will be using the technology.
"Every time we peel off a layer, there's another layer to it, but every single year we are demonstratively closer to a solution," said David Cyganski, an electrical and computer engineering professor at WPI who has been working on the tracking devices for more than a decade.
Sullivan said the any information is helpful to firefighters and their supervisors, but knowing if people are on the same floor and their physical condition is especially important.
Some of the companies have technology tracking the pulse and heart rate of fire fighters to help prevent heart attacks or other medical problems during emergencies.
The locating technologies vary by company, but often include radar and motion-sensing devices that work together to track first responders even when they are large commercial buildings that generally aren't accommodating to standard GPS technology.
Despite the advances there are still possible glitches.
"'You've really got to shake it out in a lot of different situations," said James Duckworth, an electrical and computer engineering professor working on WPI's version of the tracking technology. "The worst thing you can do is put something out to first responders and it gives them the wrong information."
Another potential obstacle is the steep cost of high-tech sensors and programming for communities already struggling with budget cuts.
Mapar said Homeland Security is considering different ways to address that, including something like a cell phone plan that would allow a community to pay for a period of service while paying little for the actual devices.
"The return on investment will far outweigh the investment, because you are looking at saving lives," Mapar said.