What is in this article?:
- DHS Details GLANSER Firefighter Tracker
- 3D is the Key
Nothing is more frightening to firefighters — or those who command them — than becoming lost or disoriented during a blaze. To the rescue — quite literally — comes the DHS, with its new GLANSER technology.
Because of the inherent danger and physical demands, firefighting is a high-anxiety occupation. Every second counts as firefighters work frantically to minimize damage to property and — more important — preserve the well-being of those living in the immediate area.
But sometimes firefighters and other first responders encounter situations in which they need to be saved as much as the occupants of a burning building, after becoming disoriented or lost. Typical protocol calls for firefighters to have a partner with them at all times, but these partners can get separated, according to Charles Werner, fire chief for the city of Charlottesville, Va.
The problem could be the result of a structural issue — for example, the collapse of a wall, floor or ceiling — a physical injury or other unwanted circumstances that cause a firefighter to lose his bearings. Whatever the reason, the realization is terrifying both for the distressed firefighter and everyone else at the scene, Werner said.
“When you get into zero visibility, and you get disoriented, it’s probably one of the scariest feelings you’ll ever have,” Werner said, noting that he was in such a precarious scenario once during his career. “You’re in an intolerable environment — it’s literally unsurvivable without protection, but you only have a limited amount of air, and depending on how hot it is, you can only stand the heat so long.
“And, when you’re a fire chief, it’s your worst nightmare — you realize that you only have minutes in a lot of cases to actually save the firefighter who is lost. It takes everything that you’ve got and everybody that’s on the scene to make that happen.”
To date, there is little technology in the field that is able to help. Emergency buttons on radios can alert everyone on the scene that there is a mayday, but the distressed firefighter typically must be within earshot of another crew member or needs to be able to describe his location to an incident commander, who can deploy a rapid-intervention team to find the firefighter.
However, a disoriented or unconscious firefighter can provide little information, meaning the RIT members are left to play a guessing game — in cloud of thick, acrid smoke — that normally starts at the last known position of the downed firefighter. GPS has become an increasingly common feature on radios, but the technology usually does not work inside a building, where a satellite does not have a clear path to the radio. In addition, GPS only provides longitude and latitude (X and Y) coordinates; one of the biggest location challenges is determining which floor the firefighter is on in a multi-story building, i.e.,the user’s altitude (Z coordinate).
Recently, the U.S. GLANSER technology, which is designed to provide three-dimensional location data for firefighters without interfering with their normal operations.’s Science and Technology Directorate has invested considerable resources to develop a viable solution to this life-and-death quandary. After years of work, officials are hopeful they have found the answer with the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders, or
If tested and commercialized successfully, the technology could be a popular tool in the firefighting community, because it addresses a longtime problem, Werner said.
“That’s probably the fire chief’s worst nightmare — to have a lost firefighter and not know where he or she is,” he said. “To be able to resolve that issue and rescue a firefighter probably would be one of — if not the — most important technologies that we’ll put in place.
Path to a Solution
Aside from fundamental partnering and search-and-rescue techniques, incident commanders have had few options to find firefighters that are lost or disoriented, according to Jalal Mapar, program manager for DHS S&T.
“They have had no ability to track firefighters. There has been nothing — no products. Everything that works has worked outside a building with commercial GPS.
“All of these incident commanders have been operating in the dark, as far as where these guys are located inside the building. They just go entirely by radio calls.”
The first technology developed by DHS S&T was the “bread crumb” approach, which called for firefighters to place small radio nodes along their path inside a building, with the nodes forming an ad-hoc mesh network that was designed to create a radio trail that would help determine location.
But this approach has many drawbacks, the biggest of which revolved around the fact that firefighters wanted to focus their energies on fighting a fire, not on establishing communications when arriving at a scene, according to Mapar.
“They really don’t have time,” he said. “[Firefighters] told us that they really don’t want to be bothered with spending their time trying to set up base-station relays, drop bread crumbs and then make sure they’re working.
“They said, ‘All I want to do is have a unit that, when I turn it on, transmits my location back to the incident commander. I don’t have time to wait two minutes to boot it, etc. It has to work on its own.’”