Keeping Track in Fire, Smoke, and Battle

In December 2009, the city of Worcester observed the 10th anniversary of a fire that destroyed the Worcester Cold Storage warehouse, claiming the lives of six firefighters and leaving a bleak spot on the city’s memory. The men who perished in 1999 could not find their way out of the warehouse, and their comrades outside did not know where to look for them.

Today, working closely with the Worcester Fire Department and other agencies, WPI faculty and student researchers are bringing hope to fire departments everywhere. The  multidisciplinary team is developing a sophisticated system designed to locate and track the movement and health of emergency workers inside buildings. The system will enable site commanders to continuously monitor firefighters’ movements and guide them to safety. Ultimately, the system will help keep such a tragedy from ever happening again.

ECE professors David Cyganski and James Duckworth, with a team of other ECE faculty and students, are spearheading research and development of the system. Through a nearly $1 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), they are integrating physiological monitoring technology they developed with Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, Mass., into this system. The DHS funds augmented the more than $4 million in funding the research team has already secured from the U.S. Department of Justice, DHS, and other agencies.

In addition to precisely locating first responders, the integrated system will continuously monitor their body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, and other physiological parameters, addressing two leading causes of firefighter deaths: stress-related heart attack and getting lost, trapped, or disabled inside buildings.

Until now, no technology has existed to track and locate people inside buildings with the precision needed to rescue first responders in the harsh environment (low- or zero- visibility, extreme heat, deafening noise) of an active building fire, to locate and retrieve wounded soldiers in urban battlefields, or to aid and recover miners trapped by explosions or cave-ins.

“Accurately locating people in such severe environments is a daunting technical task,” says Cyganski. “The global positioning system (GPS) can pinpoint a person’s location within a few meters outdoors, but the tool does not work well in buildings, because the satellite signals are weak and because they bounce off walls, introducing errors.”

Other academic, corporate, and government researchers are pursuing a number of technologies that may ultimately permit precision indoor location. They include radio frequency–based positioning (in which the angle and/or time delay in arrival of radio signals is used to compute location), inertial navigation (which uses gyroscopes and compasses to track a person’s movement), enhanced GPS systems, and radio homing devices.

The technology being developed by the team of ECE faculty members and students is one of the most promising. The system is designed to be reliable and low-cost, and requires no set-up at the fire scene.

At the heart of the system are transmitters worn as part of firefighters’ turnout gear. The transmitters emit continuous signals that are captured by receivers located around the building and streamed to the site commander. As the firefighters move about, lines on the site commander’s screen trace their exact locations and paths. Because the system can fix a location in three dimensions, the display shows which floor each firefighter is on. If a particular route becomes impassable, the site commander can direct them to safe exits.

The receivers will use sophisticated, custom-designed algorithms to determine their distance from the transmitters and, by sorting out a multitude of straight-line and reflected signals, determine the exact location of the transmitters in three-dimensional space.

The goal is to develop a commercial system that can pinpoint a person’s location in three dimensions to within about a foot, have a range of 2,000 feet, and track up to 100 people simultaneously, displaying the position and path of each individual on a screen at the incident command center. The WPI team has also developed a simpler homing device (dubbed the Mantenna) that uses similar technology.

The team recently received a new $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to further augment their location system. Working with engineers in WPI’s world-renowned Fire Protection Engineering Department with Foster-Miller, a leader in sensors, robotics, physiological monitoring systems, and with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the team will develop and test a small, automatically deployed sensor that will compile a floor-to-ceiling temperature profile in a room and help incident commanders determine the flashover potential at any given moment.

The precision personnel location and tracking technology is expected to be available as a commercial product within two to three years; the Mantenna device may be ready for sale to emergency departments sooner.