When a firefighter gets trapped in a burning, smoke-filled building, his buddies can’t save him unless they can find him, and fast. Scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been working the problem for years, and this week they are testing the most promising solution yet.
On Tuesday, WPI will host a public demonstration of the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders, or GLANSER, a black box designed to track every movement a firefighter makes, and broadcast that data to a command post. If a firefighter carrying the system becomes lost or trapped, commanders could direct colleagues to that person's exact location.
The US Department of Homeland Security financed the development of GLANSER, and three companies joined forces to build it: Honeywell First Responder Products of Dayton, Ohio; Argon ST of Fairfax, Va.; and TRX Systems Inc. of Greenbelt, Md. After three years of development, Homeland Security officials believe it has “progressed well enough that this is the first year they’re going to show this to a public audience,” said WPI associate professor James Duckworth.
The system has already performed well in field tests with the North Las Vegas Fire Department, according to Jalal Mapar, a program manager for Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate. “GLANSER is the solution that works right now,” he said, adding that it will probably be several years before it is ready for widespread deployment.
At Tuesday’s demonstration, members of the Worcester Fire Department carrying GLANSER devices will wear translucent facemasks to simulate moving through a smoke-filled building on campus. One of the testers will pretend to be lost, while the others grope their way toward him.
Instead of finding their way by looking at screens, which would be obscured by smoke in a real fire, the firefighters will get instructions by radio from the incident commander, whose computer should display the location of every firefighter in the building. The commander will tell searchers to turn left or right, or move upstairs or downstairs, until the lost firefighter is located.
“The goal is to make sure that the system is simple to use and reliably accurate,” said Honeywell senior technology manager Amit Kulkarni.
Achieving that goal requires an array of highly advanced hardware and software. Each GLANSER unit is a black box that attaches to the air tanks firefighters wear on their backs. Inside is a global positioning system chip for precise location when the user is outdoors. But GPS satellite signals are too weak to penetrate most buildings, so for indoor use, GLANSER relies on an inertial navigation unit, which tracks the wearer’s location by measuring the speed and direction of his or her body movements. “The inertial navigation continually computes your position as you’re walking and turning,” said Kulkarni, allowing it to accurately estimate the wearer’s location.
And since working firefighters rarely stand still, GLANSER can be programmed to send an alarm whenever the unit is motionless for more than a few seconds, a likely sign of trouble.
Because it’s vital for searchers to know which floor of a building to check for a firefighter in distress, GLANSER uses an air pressure sensor to calculate altitude. The device also includes a Doppler radar set, similar to those now used in the bumpers of cars to detect nearby traffic, but tuned to identify walls and doors. It can also detect the prone body of an injured person.
Each GLANSER also uses other nearby units to relay its data. Even if a firefighter is out of range of the incident commander’s computer, his GLANSER will send the information to the system worn by the person nearest to him, which will relay it to the next person, and so on.
“The more people in the building, the better the system works,” said Mapar. Honeywell’s Kulkarni said the system can track up to 500 firefighters inside a 50-story building.
Even if GLANSER works as advertised, budget-strapped municipal fire departments may be hard-pressed to pay for it. Jeff Morris, president of Honeywell First Responder, estimated that each unit would cost $3,000 to $6,000. But Homeland Security’s Mapar suggested that fire departments might buy the devices “almost like a cellphone, where you sign up for a two-year, three-year contract,” paying, for example, $100 per unit per month.
Such decisions are years away. First GLANSER’s developers must prove that the system is reliable in all kinds of fires, and in all kinds of buildings. “Firefighters have told me this had better work all the time,” said WPI’s Duckworth.
“If you ever take that system into live fires, and it gives wrong information, we’re never going to use it again.”