Photo courtesy of L-3 Communications
The 3-D Locator unit will allow command officers to keep track of rescuers inside buildings.
There was the radio that can communicate with just about all emergency frequencies, the flashlight that can temporarily blind and nauseate suspects and the air supply tank that weighs one-third of those on the market now. One Massachusetts state trooper walked around in mock-ups of next-generation body armor.
And, dangling from a tripod in one corner of the room was a small backpack, looking like the kind mountain bikers might keep a water supply in, with a series of circuit boards and wires protruding from its top.
Among the other displays at the event, a congressionally sponsored demonstration of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate's first responder initiatives, the backpack didn't exactly stand out. But its developers say the device, the Advanced 3-D Locator, is something fire and emergency squads have wanted for years: a way to keep track of rescuers inside a building and quickly find them if they are hurt or incapacitated.
Like so much at DHS, Mapar said the genesis of the 3-D Locator project was Sept. 11, 2001.
When firefighters went into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, their commanding officers had no way to pinpoint where they were, other than radio communications. It's a familiar problem for firefighters, but in this case, it resulted in losses for the New York Fire Department when some officers were injured or simply could not be found, Mapar said.
There had been calls for an accurate locator system before those terrorist attacks, but Mapar said New York fire officials, along with David Paulison, who was head of the U.S. Fire Administration before becoming administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, turned up the volume afterward. To this day, it is something that fire departments across the country want, according to Douglas Aiken, chief of mutual fire aid for New Hampshire's Lakes Region and chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' communications committee.
"If you had a reliable product like that that you can afford, it would obviously be a great benefit to firefighter safety," he said. Aside from the obvious risks of heat, flashovers and collapsing buildings, rescuers often succumb to heart attacks or other injuries that would require immediate treatment. "The next generation we need is where we can have someone with an issue and know they're on the fourth floor and they're 15 feet from the stairs."
But it was a demand that no one quite knew how to fill. Global Positioning System technology may be great for tracking people and objects outside, but cut it off from satellites indoors and it's useless. Other sensors, such as pedometers and accelerometers, could track horizontal movement, but vertical movement— between the floors of a building — was a tougher challenge. Mapar said some early solutions could only promise an accuracy range of about 30 meters, or nearly 10 stories.
What he's seeing is a 3-D diagram for the building with icons in it representing the first-responders, and the icons move.
— Jalal Mapar, DHS Science & Technology manager
In late 2006, DHS contracted the job out to L-3 Communications for $2 million. Steve Rounds, the project's technical principal investigator at L-3, said the company had already been working on it for a year, expecting to market it to the Department of Defense. Switching gears toward first-responders was easy, he said, as was much of the development process.
"We are just integrating commercial equipment together," he said. "There's less development cost."
One approach developers have taken to real-time location gear has been what Rounds called a sort of miniaturized GPS network, involving setting up antennas on several vehicles around an emergency scene, which could triangulate on rescuers' positions. But both he and Aiken said that concept is problematic.
"That might be great, but it's kind of impractical in the day-to-day fire world when we don't usually have the resources to set up a bunch of antennas," Aiken said.
So L-3 went for a hybrid solution. The truck with the computer that would allow a commanding officer to monitor firefighter movements would have an antenna, and the units worn by officers would have transmission capability, making them into a series of relay "antennas" themselves, Rounds said.
"Everybody essentially acts as a beacon," he said.
So far, L-3 has developed 25 units, which have been field-tested in Anaheim, Calif., along with some very limited piloting in New York, which Rounds said the company will expand later this month. It will follow up with tests in Chicago, Cincinnati and Seattle further into the year, he said.
Mapar said each of the units uses GPS to mark the point of entry into a building. Once inside, it employs accelerometers, pedometers, a magnetic compass, and radio ranging to track horizontal movement and an altimeter to track vertical movement. All of that information is condensed into a single visual readout for a commanding officer.
"What he's seeing is a 3-D diagram for the building with icons in it representing the first-responders, and the icons move," Mapar said.
The operating system comes with a database of available building floor plans, but the final product could also perform live building mapping, using both the sensor input and a type of voice recognition software that could make a notation whenever an officer called in a landmark like a door or set of stairs, Mapar said.
There are still some challenges to overcome— Mapar said the system has a problem with officers who are inside elevator cars— but he said the system has performed well in testing. The L-3 contract has a requirement of accuracy within six meters, but Mapar said the system is performing at the project's goal of three meters, and is often even better than that.
"Once you take these pieces together, all of a sudden, you have enough accuracy to the point where, today, we have a range of three meters on each axis," he said. "We want to get that down to one meter and maybe less."
Because of each unit's "beacon" function, Rounds said "Our accuracy tends to get better as you get closer."
Both Mapar and Rounds said they want to see a physiological monitoring system integrated into the units, that would allow commanding officers to monitor vital signs, along with critical information such as air supplies and the temperature inside the building.
They also want to reduce the units' size, and most likely get them out of the backpack-style that was on display Wednesday. Most of their size and weight comes from the battery, and they could eventually be as small as a deck of cards. Eventually, they could be integrated into equipment such as air tanks or harnesses, Mapar said.
Then there's the issue of price, which Aiken said is an issue on the mind of all fire chiefs in an era when "we're just trying to buy fuel for the trucks."
The goal is an early market price tag of $4,000, Rounds said, although he added, "I didn't say we could necessarily do it. That's what we were told." He said L-3 sees a broader market than firefighters for the system, including the original target of military sales, commercial applications such as mining and other emergency responders.
"You can imagine that it would be used by SWAT teams, border patrol, FBI, anywhere where you need to know where all your people are," he said.
Aiken said he could not comment specifically on the L-3 system. But he said he's seen demonstrations of several company's solutions and the idea of accurate real-time location is something that intrigues him, and the rest of the firefighting community.
"This is certainly something that we want in the fire sector," he said.