As a former fire chief, I can tell you that communication is critical to all our efforts to safely save lives. Yet significant and serious issues remain in public safety communications systems. Take a minute and think about what you would do in the following scenario.
Imagine you are a battalion chief running a working structure fire. You receive a report of possible trapped victims and send three firefighters from Engine 27 deep into the burning building to find and rescue survivors. Complicating their rescue mission is all the concrete and steel in the building which degrades their radio transmissions and blocks their GPS signal. You nervously monitor their progress by radio, but with every turn down another corridor, the reception gets weaker and less intelligible.
After a period of time that seems to last forever, a firefighter’s voice crackles over the radio. They have located injured victims and are moving them to safety, but the route they took in is now blocked by burning debris. They’ll have to find a new way out. Moving through smoke and heat filled rooms, in zero visibility and with fire licking at their heels, the rescue team forges ahead toward a secondary exit.
Then the radio connection is lost.
Moments later, through the heavy static, an urgent declaration can be heard, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Our location is—” And then nothing. You desperately ask them to restate their location—what room, hallway or even floor?
As the incident commander what do you do? Having lost contact, where do you send the next rescue team? Can you even safely send additional teams into the structure?
This nightmarish scenario is a reality for first responders. It was a reality for me on fire where I was the incident commander and one that thankfully everyone got out safely.
Radios become unreliable in big steel or concrete structures where the signals ricochet off walls and eventually fail. Common construction materials also blocks GPS. So, if you don’t have bars, you don’t have a signal and you don’t have GPS.
The fact is that radio and GPS signals, while essential to operations and first responder safety, can be unreliable in buildings, below ground, during underwater operations or in very rural areas. This puts lives at risk.
This is why the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) First Responders Group (FRG) continues to work to improve public safety communications and first responder tracking. One program of note is our work with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop a new tracking system called the Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER) (and no I didn’t create the acronym I just report on it).
The POINTER system uses low-frequency magnetic fields that can transmit through building materials or other environmental obstacles. This provides improved non-line-of-sight connectivity.
Using a display monitor, the incident commander can track those wearing the POINTER mobile devices. This three-dimensional capability is further enhanced if paired with integrated building schematics.
The Command Unit will be able to see (in real-time) what floor of a building the team is on, pinpoint location to within one meter, determine what direction the user is facing and even if they are standing or motionless on the ground. To accomplish this level of precision, POINTER employs an innovative solution theory and complex mathematical algorithms to analyze the multi-axial quasistatic magnetic field data to determine position and movement.
Simply put, instead of using radio waves or GPS signals for communication, the POINTER system is based upon magnetic fields. A device worn by the firefighter produces a specific type of magnetic field. That magnetic field can be detected and located precisely by a sensor instrument, which is monitored by another first responder.
This type of communication and tracking capability has been thought of by many in the first responder community as a “Holy Grail” in search and rescue.
Testing trials are currently underway with a backpack-sized prototype, but the development team has a goal of producing a device weighing just a few ounces.
The first release of POINTER will target rural two-story homes, outdoor environments and warehouses with distances up to 50 to 70 meters with less than a meter of average accuracy error. A future release will focus on longer-range distances and more challenging environments to include high-rise buildings, subterranean structures, underwater and structures made of high densities of metal and steel.
The partnership between S&T and JPL is an excellent example of inter-agency cooperation resulting in a technological breakthrough that has real lifesaving implications for first responders and the public they are sworn to protect.
For more information about the extraordinary work of S&T’s First Responders Group (FRG) please visit them online.
If you have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to contact FRG at firstname.lastname@example.org.