New firefighter location technology unveiled
Scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute today demonstrated new technologies that could save the lives of firefighters trapped inside burning buildings.
At WPI's annual conference on indoor location tracking for rescue workers, held in Worcester, researchers demonstrated new electronic systems that cut in half the average time needed to track down a lost firefighter.
"The technology's actually better than we were expecting," said Jim Duckworth, a WPI associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Since 1999, when six Worcester firefighters died after being trapped in a burning warehouse, Duckworth has helped establish WPI as a major center of research in location technology for rescue workers.
The search technologies were tested in a four-story building on the WPI campus. Members of the Worcester Fire Department were sent into the building wearing visors that were partially blocked to simulate the smoke of a burning building. Outside, testers used radio signals transmitted by a firefighter to pinpoint his location. They then transmitted the information to the searchers.
Because Global Positioning System devices, like those in millions of cars and cellphones, usually don't work inside a building, the engineers have devised new methods of location tracking. Some devices use accelerometer chips like those found in Apple Inc.'s iPhone to estimate the user's position by tracking the speed and direction of his footsteps.
Jalal Mapar, program manager for the science and technology directorate of the US Department of Homeland Security, said that his agency is working on prototype systems that could fit inside the existing radios used by firefighters and police. Mapar said his agency plans to begin field tests early next year.