WPI Honored for Developing Technology that Increases Firefighter Safety

Fire Marshal's Award Recognizes Work on Devices that Precisely Locate First Responders Inside Buildings and Warn Them of Threats from Flashover and Toxic Gases
December 18, 2012

From left, John Orr, Kathy Notarianni, James Duckworth and David Cyganski accept the Fire Marshal's Award from Governor Patrick.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) was honored today at the 23rd Annual "Firefighter of the Year" award ceremony with the 2012 State Fire Marshal’s Award, which recognizes significant contributions to the fire service made by those outside of the service.

"For more than a decade now, a group of WPI faculty has been diligently working to develop technologies to protect our first responders," said Dennis Berkey, President and CEO of WPI. "They have worked closely with the Worcester Fire Department, with federal researchers and with industry to move this important work forward. This award recognizes their hard work and it echoes the pride that the entire WPI community feels for this exceptional team."

WPI professors and on-going multi-disciplinary research team members, John Orr, David Cyganski, James Duckworth (Electrical and Computer Engineering) and Kathy Notarianni (Fire Protection Engineering) accepted the award from Gov. Deval Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, Public Safety and Security Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, and Fire Marshal Stephen Coan at today's ceremony, held at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. The ceremony also honored Worcester Firefighter Jon Davies Sr., who was killed in the line of duty one year ago, and firefighters from Worcester and14 other communities for bravery, courage and heroism. The National Anthem and other musical selections were performed by the WPI Brass Ensemble, under the direction of Douglas Weeks, administrator of music at WPI.

In December 1999 the city of Worcester lost six firefighters after they were unable to find their way out of the Worcester Cold Storage warehouse, which was destroyed by fire. Professors Orr, Cyganski and Duckworth set out to develop technology to help command officers locate firefighters precisely, in three dimensions, inside buildings, and to guide them to safety or rescue them, if necessary. Prototypes for a personnel locator device have been developed and extensively tested.

In developing a solution to this daunting challenge, WPI has worked closely with the Worcester Fire Department and the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, and benefitted from major awards from several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"We feel humbled being given this award in the presence of these firemen, whose job is much harder than ours," Cyganski said. "This will make us redouble our efforts for them, because they deserve it. They're the ones deserving of all these honors."

More recently, with Fire Protection Engineering head Kathy A. Notarianni joining the WPI firefighter safety and technology research team, it has developed a sensor that would give a firefighter advance warning of "flashover" conditions, in which combustible materials in a room simultaneously erupt in flames, and are working on a new device that will warn firefighters of the presence of toxic gases.

"What's exciting about this work and what keeps us focused and hard-driven is that we know with absolute certainty that our research and technology development will have the impact of saving firefighter lives and improving long-term health of firefighters," Notarianni said.