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Homeland Security Seeks to Commercialize Technology for Tracking Firefighters

The technology, developed by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security research group, consists of ZigBee-based sensors and "breadcrumb" routers that communicate with a base station operated by a firefighter's commanding unit.
By Claire Swedberg
Sep 09, 2011Three months after announcing the development of technology for tracking firefighters within a burning building, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) has entered into discussions with a number of vendors about how to commercialize the system. The solution consists of wireless technology that tracks a first-responder's location and condition, and transmits that data via a series of "breadcrumb" routers. The goal is to have the technology in use during the coming year, by fire departments as well as by other companies for which a worker's safety and condition could be in question.

Historically, tracking first-responders within a burning building has required two-way radio contact. Radio frequency identification and other wireless-technology companies have been developing solutions that would allow transponders worn by emergency personnel to transmit to a base station. Ensuring transmission in the presence of metal, concrete and water, however—as well as determining a tag's location as it transmits—has been an obstacle to commercializing such a system.

The GLANSER contains sensors that include a gyrometer, an accelerometer, an altimeter, a magnetometer and a compass, all of which are used to estimate a firefighter's location.

S&T, which manages science and technology research to protect the U.S. homeland, has developed a potential means to address to this problem. The solution, known as the Wireless Intelligent Sensor Platform for Emergency Responders (WISPER), is designed to keep the transponder in contact with a base station via a ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4) connection, via tiny "breadcrumbs" that are automatically dropped from a canister (also known as a dispenser) worn by the responder, when needed to form a mesh network.

The breadcrumbs are wireless, battery-powered routers that can receive data and transmit it to the next receiver within range, thereby ensuring that a transmission from a transponder worn by a firefighter makes its way to a base station, where the fire chief or commander outside the building uses a laptop computer to monitor the situation.

WISPER's router, dispenser and base station were developed by Oceanit Laboratories Inc., of Honolulu, and the University of Virginia's Department of Computer Science, under S&T's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

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