Homeland Security Seeks to Commercialize Technology for Tracking Firefighters

By Claire Swedberg

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.


Three 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.

The technology was designed to ensure transmission from two ZigBee-based systems developed by S&T, which are used to monitor firefighters’ location and condition, says Jalal Mapar, S&T’s program manager. First, the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER) was developed for S&T by a team of companies led by Honeywell, and including systems engineering firm Argon ST and navigation technology provider TRX Systems. The battery-powered GLANSER transponder is approximately the size of a paperback book, and is worn by a firefighter as part of his or her personal protection equipment (PPE), either on a belt or integrated elsewhere in that individual’s gear. The device includes a gyrometer, an accelerometer, an altimeter, a magnetometer and a compass, all used to provide a location estimate that is then transmitted to a base station plugged into a laptop via a USB connection.

Using this navigational system, the GLANSER transponder is able to detect a firefighter’s location and movements throughout a building, and then transmit that data, along with a unique ID number, via a 900 MHz signal. The base station user can then view a display of an icon representing the firefighter. Researchers have developed two pieces of software, Mapar says: one to receive, interpret and store real-time location data, and another to provide a visualization scheme to display icons representing each GLANSER device carried by a firefighter and his or her location.

The WISPER includes a cannister that drops wireless ZigBee-based routers.

The second transponder developed by S&T is the Physiological Health Assessment System for Emergency Responders (PHASER), designed to monitor the condition of an individual wearing the device. PHASER includes sensors that can monitor that person’s body temperature, blood pressure and pulse, and transmit (also at 900 MHz) the vital signs and unique ID number back to the same base station used for the GLANSER technology.

The shortcoming for both pieces of technology, Mapar says, has been the risk of losing a transmission through concrete or metal in the building’s structure, as well as the large quantity of water typically present in a scenario such as a burning building. Even if the device is transmitting, the base station may not always receive the signal.

The solution that S&T developed—the WISPER device—amounts to a 3.5-inch-diameter canister with a built-in ZigBee-based transceiver, a microchip for computing data, and five routers. Each router—which is the size of a Scrabble tile—is disposable, waterproof and heat-resistant up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius). The canister has a small motor with a release built into it, in order to allow the routers to be dropped.

When a firefighter enters a building, his or her GLANSER or PHASER transponder transmits once every second, with a unique ID number and additional details regarding his or her position or vital signs. In the meantime, the WISPER device, also worn by that firefighter, measures the signal strength of transmissions from a base station. If the base-station signal begins to diminish, the WISPER device instructs the canister to drop one of those routers—similar to the breadcrumbs that Hansel and Gretel dropped on their way through the woods. The router falls to the floor, and begins receiving and then forwarding data received from the GLANSER or PHASER transponders in the vicinity, as well as from other routers.

Jalal Mapar, S&T’s program manager

The software on the base station and laptop links the data with other information, such as the firefighter’s identity, and displays details on the laptop monitor.

The WISPER technology has been through several field tests, Mapar says. One such test determined that the routers could transmit from an underground garage location, located two stories below street-level, to a base station situated on the street. The group is currently trying to further reduce the router’s size, he says, in order to make the WISPER smaller and easier to carry, and expects its cost, once sold commercially, would be “in the single dollars.”

Since S&T announced the WISPER, GLANSER and PHASER designs in June 2011, Mapar notes, the researchers have been contacted by several technology providers, as well as by potential end users, including those in the oil-exploration industry.