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Feds Send $1 Million to WPI

For John Orr, the tragic fire in the Worcester Cold Storage building four years ago served as an inspiration. "As I stood on Grove Street watching the procession of firefighters honoring the men lost in the blaze, I thought that the problem of people being lost inside a building is something technology should be able to solve," says Orr, head of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at WPI. "I knew that we had all the basic pieces here to find a solution."

After a long search for funding, a recent $1million appropriation from the Department of Justice budget has given WPI the means to tackle the problem. The line item is targeted for the development of law enforcement and first responder technologies. Orr has mapped it out as a three-year project at WPI, culminating with the development of a functioning prototype locator system

Currently, a firefighter typically will use a rope to find his or her way out of a burning building... providing it doesn't go up in flames. Some responders wear alarms that sound when they stop moving, but this signal gets drowned out by the noise of a large fire. "Neither of these methods are adequate," says Orr.

The new system will have three main components: sensors worn on each responder; several reference stations (perhaps mounted on fire trucks at the scene), and a monitoring and display station for the on-site commander, all connected via a wireless network. New signal coding algorithms will provide the accuracy needed to locate people in three dimensions inside complex buildings. The WPI research will be led by electrical and computer engineering professors David Cyganski and Bill Michalson, with cooperation from David Lucht, director of WPI's Center for Firesafety Studies.

One of the biggest challenges will be making sure the system is easy to use, with no setup or forethought required, says Orr. "That's important, because of the selfless nature of a firefighter, of their instinct to save others even at the price of their own life."

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