WPI Wins $1 Million to Develop System to Locate and Monitor Emergency Workers in Buildings and Hosts National Forum on this Critical Issue

Representatives from academia, industry, government, and fire departments assess the state of the field, demonstrate latest technology, and discuss how to eliminate the third leading cause of firefighter deaths
Media Contact
August 07, 2007

WORCESTER, Mass. – Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has received nearly $1 million from the federal Department of Homeland Security to develop a system that can precisely locate and track the movement of emergency workers inside buildings and also monitor their health and physiological status. The announcement of the award came just a few days before WPI hosted its second annual workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking for Emergency Responders. The two-day workshop, held Aug. 6-7, is the only national forum for researchers, corporate R&D leaders, national policy makers, and public safety departments on this critical technical challenge.

The DHS award will permit WPI to enhance a precision location system it has been developing over the past four years by integrating it with technology developed by Foster-Miller, Inc., in Waltham, Mass., for continuous monitoring of temperature, heart rate, respiration rate and other physiological parameters. The enhanced system will address two of what a 2005 report from the National Fire Protection Association identified as the three leading causes of firefighter deaths: stress-related heart attacks (No. 1) and getting lost, trapped, or disabled inside buildings (No. 3). The DHS funds will augment the more than $3 million in funding the research team has already garnered from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The focus of this week's workshop was the nation’s critical need for indoor location and tracking technology by public safety departments, the military, the mining industry, and other fields where people can become lost or trapped indoors in dangerous or life-threatening situations. There is currently is no technology able 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.

Keynote speakers at the workshop included Charles Dickinson, deputy assistant administrator, U.S. Fire Administration; Jalal Mapar, program manager, Science and Technology Directorate, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; and Joe Heaps, program manager, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice. Representatives from more than 20 companies and research groups, including WPI, Carnegie Mellon, Honeywell Inc., Draper Laboratories, Foster-Miller Inc., Microsoft, MITRE Corporation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the U.S. Navy, made presentations and demonstrated technology.

Accurately locating people inside buildings is a daunting technical task. GPS (global positioning system), able to pinpoint a person's location within a few meters outdoors, does not work well in buildings because the satellite signals are weak and because they bounce off walls, introducing errors. Academic, corporate, and government researchers are pursuing a number of other 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 use gyroscopes and compasses to track a person's movement); enhanced GPS systems; and radio homing devices. All of these technologies were demonstrated at the workshop.

 The technology developed by a large team of faculty members and students in WPI's Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is one of the most promising. The system is designed to be reliable, low-cost and require no set-up at the fire scene. Firefighters or other emergency workers will wear transmitters on their turnout gear or clothing. Their signals will be picked up by receivers located on emergency vehicles around the building. 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 precision personnel location and tracking technology is expected to be available as a commercial product within two years; the Mantenna device may be ready for sale to emergency departments sooner. Both technologies were demonstrated during the workshop.