A Burning Issue: How to Save Lives

By Matthew Harwood

Fire has been one of history’s most destructive forces. Conflagrations destroyed ancient Rome in the first century, razed London during the seventeenth century and, more recently in the United States, left 300 people dead and 500,000 homeless as it swallowed up Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century.

While much progress has been made in containing fire’s destructiveness, it remains a serious threat. The National Fire Protection Association reports that in the United States in 2007 (the most recent year for which final numbers are available), structure fires killed 3,000 civilians. In addition, 15,350 people were injured in those fires.

But fire’s devastation isn’t only calculated in lives lost. The cost to structures  in that same year was $10.6 billion.

Then there are the ancillary costs. According to a 2004 National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) report, the long-term costs from firefighters hurt on the job total between $2.8 and $7.8 billion in workers’ compensation payments and insured medical expenses each year.

New technologies now in development offer the potential to lessen these losses by addressing such thorny problems as how to track firefighters in a burning building, how to detect fires much earlier, and how to control a raging fire’s path. Here are three of the most promising.

Firefighter Tracking

When firefighters run into a burning structure, they enter an alien, hellish world. Flames, heat, and smoke conspire against them, making it easy for them to lose their bearings. 

“They become trapped, they become lost, they become disoriented in a fire, they run out of air,” explains Steven Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) at the University of Maryland.

One wrong move can spell disaster, and when a firefighter gets lost or trapped, there isn’t much his comrades can do for him without putting themselves in jeopardy. Even when firefighters have tried to rescue colleagues caught in such circumstances, conditions inside the building have bested them.

“[Rescuers] have actually crawled over hurt firefighters and not found them,” says Carole Teolis, CEO of TRX Systems, Inc., an engineering firm working closely with MFRI on personal motion-tracking systems—one technology that may help to solve the problem.

The fire service has long sought the ability to track firefighters as they move through a structure. Tracking would allow for fellow firefighters to come to the assistance of a hurt or trapped colleague. The capability, however, has been beyond technology’s grasp.

Everyone has sought a way to track firefighters—it’s the holy grail of firefighting, says Steve Kerber, a fire protection engineer at NIST’s Building and Fire Research Laboratory. “People have tried step-counting, tried global positioning systems (GPS), tried node networks, and none of these things, even put together, have been able to track a firefighter.”

Another problem firefighter-tracking systems face is how to get the information out of the building and into the hands of the incident commander. Modern buildings, with all their steel, concrete, and electrical interference, make it difficult to create a system that can accurately relay the location of a firefighter inside a structure to the incident commander outside.

TRX Systems and MFRI believe they have found a solution to both tracking and communication: inertial tracking and MESH networks.



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