First respondersThe Future of Lifesaving Firefighting Technology

Published 7 April 2021

A groundbreaking tracking and location technology will soon allow agencies to pinpoint their firefighters to within centimeters, helping to navigate them quickly and safely out of potentially disorienting emergency scenarios.

Six firefighters lost their lives responding to a fire in a century-old, abandoned warehouse in Worcester, Massachusetts, in December 1999. Worried that civilians were trapped inside, rescue teams initiated a rapid intervention; but, unfamiliar with the layout of the building, the smoke-filled warehouse became a labyrinth for those that entered. Unfortunately, the brave individuals that answered this call were unable to locate any exits before they ran out of air.

We still remember them more than two decades later, and this incident—along with hundreds in the years since—served as the catalyst for groundbreaking new Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) tracking and location technology. Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER) will soon allow agencies to pinpoint their firefighters to within centimeters, helping to navigate them quickly and safely out of potentially disorienting emergency scenarios.

“From containing small kitchen fires to carrying civilians out of burning homes to securing local infrastructure, first responders put their lives on the line daily to ensure the safety of their communities,” said Greg Price, who leads S&T’s first responder research and development programs. “The reality is, even with all of the advances made in firefighting technology, we still lose far too many firefighters each year. We want them to know that we have their backs, that we are working to give them the tools they need to ensure their own safety. POINTER is that solution.”   

Throughout the development of POINTER, S&T has not only been designing the technology for responders, but with them as well—including firefighters in Worcester.

“We have tested many different technologies, finding them not very accommodating to our needs for one reason or another” said Chief Michael Lavoie of the Worcester Fire Department. “Mostly, the equipment was bulky and would work in some situations, but not all. However, experimentation over the last 21 years has brought technological advances in this area and we are pleased to have been asked to field test the POINTER system.”

S&T has collaborated with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California and first responder stakeholders since 2014 to develop POINTER, a wearable and portable, cost-effective tracking and location technology that leverages cutting-edge science to succeed where existing products may fail.

For instance, technologies that use GPS, acoustic sensors, radio location, radio-frequency identification, ultra-wideband radar or other methods often lose signal or face position drift in line-of-sight denied environments. Many can’t penetrate through certain building materials or even reach underground.

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