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Common Ground: A Compass to Help First Responders Find a Way Out of Danger

(April 2008) The following article appears in R-Tech, a new newsletter from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate's (S&T) First Responder Technology Program, which aims to connect first responders to technologies that will make their jobs easier, more efficient, and safer. 

In a large building or wildfire situation, heavy smoke can quickly become disorienting, putting firefighters in danger. Battalion Chief Steve Nash of the Solon (OH) Fire Department knows that firsthand. “Our biggest fear is losing someone in those buildings,” said Nash, “so we had to come up with a method to prevent us from getting disoriented.”

Firefighters have made use of inexpensive compasses in the past, but they cannot be easily seen in the dark and have no way to mark points of entry or the location of the Incident Command Post.

“I wanted everybody on fire ground to have the same relation on where the building sits, where command is located, and where team members are,” said Nash. He drew some ideas on paper and took them to his colleague, John Moore, at Halcyon Products. The company was already in the business of making better, safer products for first responders.

“About the same time I came up with the drawings, I found the TechSolutions website through Fire Chief Magazine and made the necessary contacts,” said Nash.

TechSolutions is a new program of the DHS S&T Directorate. The TechSolutions Program was established to provide technology solutions that address mission capability gaps identified by active federal, tribal, state, and local first responders. TechSolutions assists with rapid prototyping of technologies that need additional development in order to get them ready for commercialization. Currently, the TechSolutions Program is developing solutions to many gaps identified by the first responder community, including the Fireground Compass.

Nash and Moore conducted focus groups with firefighters and solicited their thoughts and opinions on the product. “That helped us determine whether the idea was valid to some degree, directed us on product features, function and design, provided input on price points, and gave us a lot of feedback that led us to believe we were going in the right direction,” said Moore.

The Fireground Compass is simple to use, combining a compass with rotating bezels. It has a “building bezel” with four points labeled A-B-C-D, which corresponds to the way firefighters label the sides of a building. The bezel rotates, and the compass is oriented north. As a result, all users have the same perspective. A separate “command bezel” indicates, with an arrow, either where the Incident Command Post is, or where the user entered the building.

“It’s very easy to get lost in a smoky environment and knowing where you are is the difference between getting out and not getting out. This device will get me situated so I can find where I entered the building, find my hose line, or find an exit door or window,” said Nash. The compass also has an LED light, making it easy to read in dark and smoky conditions. The compass is very large, making it easy for firefighters to use with their gloves on. “We wanted people to be able to utilize this with gear on, and not go into a building and take their gloves off,” Nash said.

According to Greg Price, who directs the TechSolutions Program, the Fireground Compass is the first TechSolutions product designed by a first responder to go through the entire TechSolutions development path. Many more products are in the works through partnerships with the federal interagency Technical Support Working Group and others.

TechSolutions and Halcyon Products hope the product will be commercially available within the next few months. They also want it to be affordable for anyone who needs one.

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 01/03/2023
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