THE MAGAZINE

Keeping Track of Firefighters

By Marta Lawrence

To better track its units, the FDNY is going from sticky notes to computers.

When the Twin Towers fell after the 9-11 attacks, many firefighters lost their lives because there was no way to electronically pinpoint their locations or to tell them that the buildings were about to collapse. Since then, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) has been seeking solutions to the communication and tracking problems that firefighters face in high-rise buildings.

The department is now beta testing one solution related to the command center operations, and they hope to solicit bids for tracking options later this year.

With regard to the command center, it has been standard operating procedure for the responding fire team to set up a command post in a building’s lobby, says Captain Vin Doherty of the New York City Fire Department. The lobby offers a central location from which the fire alarms for the building can be monitored. In addition, the building’s phone lines allow for easier communication between the floors, because the signal from radios often cannot penetrate the thick concrete walls.

For that reason, when the planes were flown into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, a command post was set up in one of the two buildings. Officials at the command post then used a wax board, referred to as the incident response board, to record units’ movements inside the building manually. When a unit deployed to the fire floor, the unit commander radioed the person operating the board. That person then placed a sticky note on the board to indicate where the unit had moved.

When the first building fell, it took with it the incident response boards. “We lost all record of where everyone was in the building,” says Doherty.

The department is currently field testing a computerized incident response board—which was custom-built for it by Raytheon—that allows the operator to click and drag icons of each unit to the appropriate place on the board. Because the board is electronic, the data is relayed and can be monitored off site, so information won’t be lost if there’s a collapse where the board resides at the scene. If it works, Doherty says, he envisions other fire departments and first responders using the technology to enhance their operations. For example, he says, police would be able to record unit movement in large-scale operations, possibly preventing accidents like friendly fire.

The computerized board is the first step toward better tracking, says Doherty. But it still doesn’t completely solve the problem.

That’s because it still relies on the unit commander phoning in the location. While the units generally move together, it is always possible for an individual to fall behind or get lost in a cloud of smoke, and there is currently no way to track an individual firefighter.

The hope is that private industry can be enlisted to develop a tracking device that can be worn by each firefighter. Doherty envisions the device as an RFID-type chip. As the firefighter enters the structure that’s on fire, an icon will appear on the incident response board and move with the firefighter.

The problem is that RFID has limitations in an urban environment, says Doherty. RFID signals can be lost in the canyons between tall buildings and its application in a city like New York would be unpredictable at best. GPS, on the other hand, must be in view of a satillite to be effective, which may not always be practical.

Last November, the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency issued a broad agency announcement seeking 22 different prototype technologies to track emergency responders on a 3-D locator system. The white papers which were due in January, are currently being reviewed by DHS.

Doherty hopes that the increased attention will produce some results, but he’s realistic and says it will probably be a few years before the application will be available for his department. This system will not only aid firefighters, but also for any emergency responder or others with dangerous jobs, like miners, he says. “You could track just about anything.”

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