Tech Rescue

New Developments in SCBA & Firefighter Tracking Technology

Issue 11 and Volume 6.

For a long time now, fire service manufacturers have eyed SCBA as the perfect system for delivering far more than just air. PASS alarms have long been integrated into SCBA, and the potential for integrating other technologies exists as well: command post air supply monitoring/management, thermal imaging, physiological monitoring, firefighter tracking, etc. Recently, I reached out to SCBA manufacturers, as well as some other fire service vendors that are making headlines in the latest developments in fire service technology. Here are some of the trends they identified.

Physiological Monitoring
With nearly 50 percent of firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) caused by heart attacks, many fire departments are interested in the ability to track key firefighter vital signs while firefighters are inside burning structures.

The technology to do this—via bands that wrap around the firefighter’s chest or waist, or special shirts that they wear under turnouts—has been around for a while, but enabling it to withstand the rigors of the fireground isn’t easy. “We’ve been working on a system for the past year that will provide firefighters with complete health and physical assessment information that will dramatically improve firefighter survivability and performance,” says Steve Weinstein, strategic technical manager for Honeywell First Responder Products, which recently purchased Sperian Fire. “It is too early to discuss this, but we are very excited about the progress we’ve made.”

But a hurdle remains to widespread acceptance of physiological monitoring—how to use the data once it’s provided to the incident commander (IC). “Scott Safety has developed an electronics and software architecture that can accommodate this monitoring in the future if desired,” says Jeff Emery, marketing manager for Scott Safety. “The challenge of biometric adoption is not so much a technical hurdle as it is a question of use of that data. There are still questions of what should be monitored, and how to define what an unsafe level may be for an individual.” That is, one person may have a resting heart rate of 50, another one 75. How do you determine the unsafe heart rate for these individuals under fire attack conditions?

MSA echoes this sentiment. “We have looked at several different physiological monitoring technologies,” says Ben Mauti, MSA product line manager. “There are some good ones out there, but there seems to be a gap in providing the incident commander with information that can be used for decision-making. If the technology can get to the point where it can prevent heart attacks, then there will probably be a lot of interested fire departments.”

Firefighter Tracking
On Dec. 3, 1999, six firefighters were killed in the Worcester (Mass.) Cold Storage Warehouse Fire when they became lost and disoriented inside the large building, a tragedy that inspired a group of researchers to begin developing a way to track firefighters inside buildings. Today, that effort has grown from a small group of college professors to an industry-wide project combining scientists and manufacturers who come together each year at the Firefighter International Workshop on Precision Indoor Personnel Location and Tracking Technology.

The sixth annual workshop was held recently, and although a workable tracking system is still a ways off, developments are coming fast. A big leader in this area: Honeywell’s GLANSER project. “This project will create a system capable of tracking up to 500 firefighters in a 50-story building to within 1–3 meters of their location,” Honeywell’s Weinstein says. “The system will provide incident commanders with real-time information concerning the location of firefighters in buildings of various sizes and comprised of every material type. We hope to have the first iteration of this system available in the very near future.”

In the meantime, systems that focus on downed firefighter location are commercially available. Although these are not the sophisticated tracking systems the WPI researchers are working toward—which will integrate with the command post and provide information such as what floor the firefighter is on—they do represent advances in rapid intervention. “The Scott Pak Tracker technology provides a RIT team member with a clear indication of the most direct path to a downed firefighter,” Emery says. “We continue to evolve this technology, both through improvements to the transmitter system, but also by incorporating this technology into new form factors, such as our Eagle Imager 320 with Pak Tracker, which combines the best of location technology and thermal imaging into one package.”

Honeywell offers the Sperian Pathfinder ultrasonic firefighter locating system on its SCBA. “If a firefighter goes down and the PASS device is automatically activated, the Sperian Pathfinder beacons immediately start transmitting a 40-kHz signal,” Honeywell’s Weinstein says. “This ultrasonic signal can be received by the Tracker, a handheld device carried by the rapid intervention team. RIT personnel can follow the signal directly to the downed firefighter.” Honeywell is also developing another system called Project Mantenna, which features a small, affordable and easily deployable tracking tool. “This system is nearing the next stage of development and we hope to have a testable prototype out soon,” Weinstein says.

Timing & Economics
One key to widespread deployment of any of these technologies: the economy. Although Scott Safety sees customer demand for new technologies, Emery notes that “there is not a great willingness to have to pay excessive infrastructure costs to implement or acquisition costs for the equipment. Cost is a key consideration in any new product development project.” MSA is slightly more optimistic: “The economy has certainly had an impact on the ability of the fire service to purchase new equipment,” MSA’s Mauti says. “However, when there is an opportunity to make firefighters safer in their work through new technology, we believe that fire departments will find a way.”

Overall, SCBA companies seem cautious, seeing the current period as a time to put the finishing touches on products in the pipeline and conduct further research, rather than being in a hurry to introduce new products to the market. “Despite the economic difficulties, firefighters are responding with the same level of professionalism and dedication they’ve shown during better times,” Honeywell’s Weinstein says. “We are doing the same thing. We are taking this time to invest in SCBA R&D at an unprecedented level.”

Dräger and Scott echo that sentiment. “We dedicate a significant portion of funding to our new technologies that are of key interest for our customer’s applications, such as the flatpack, firefighting tracking, physiological monitoring and air management tracking,” says Shelli Cosmides, Dräger Marketing Communications. “New technologies offer such benefits for our users, and the positive impact to the customers would be so significant, that these technologies will find their way into the market, regardless of any economic situation. By remaining active in our commitment to R&D, we expect to be a part of the continual progress of these technologies in the future.” Scott’s Emery says that the company has taken advantage of growth in other segments of its business to invest in improvements in SCBA technology.

Further, there is a danger of bringing new technologies to market before they’re truly ready. “With [firefighter] location, despite significant funding invested and extensive efforts by Scott and all equipment manufacturers, the idea of precise X/Y/Z coordinate location capability indoors remains a challenge,” Emery says. “I expect it to take several years before that breakthrough technology is developed.”

Honeywell’s Weinstein shares that concern. “We are very concerned about launching our new tracking and physiological monitoring products only when they are 100% ready and completely reliable,” she says. “While we would love to be first to market, we are more interested in being first to market with a product the fire service can rely upon.”

MSA believes firefighter tracking is closer to being field-ready than physiological monitoring. “We would anticipate seeing [tracking] products being used in the field in the next two years,” MSA’s Mauti says. “We would anticipate physiological monitoring to become widely adopted when there is a clear link between the physiological data and what the incident commander can do with it on a fire scene.”

A High-Tech Future
Specific companies, products and timelines aside, there’s no doubt that SCBA technology is changing rapidly. Significant engineering and economic factors may currently prevent futuristic designs from hitting fire departments across the country, but with new developments coming all the time, there’s no doubt your SCBA will be much more than an air supply in the not-so-distant future.

Beyond the SCBA
Firefighter tracking & physiological monitoring systems that work outside the SCBA

Several manufacturers are working on firefighter tracking systems that don’t necessarily rely on the SCBA for deployment.

Trimble Navigation was one of two companies to showcase its technology at the recent WPI firefighter tracking workshop. It uses radio frequency identification (RFID) installed into structures. “RFID is the radio equivalent of a bar code,” says Program Manager Gregory Best. “It’s designed to be cheap and unpowered [no battery]. It’s something that could be built into new construction and easily retrofitted into existing construction.” The RFID tags serve as reference points throughout the building, allowing the tracking system to establish a stable and accurate position as the firefighters move through the building. Best notes that the recent test of the technology went well. “The response time was quick. We were able to get a very accurate reading of where everyone was in the building,” he says.

MSA is also at work on a system that can operate stand-alone. “The system we’re working on is based on inertial navigation, which measures the firefighter’s actual movement and creates position information based on that,” says Ben Mauti, product line manager. You can think of this as a breadcrumb trail showing where the firefighter was throughout the building. Even more interesting: The system allows the IC to finger-draw the building at the command post and then see the firefighters moving inside the building on that drawing.

Not to be outdone, Motorola is close to releasing a physiological monitoring system and is hard at work on a tracking system—both of which will work on its new APX 7000 radios. The actual physiological monitoring device, manufactured by Zephyr, is a round sensor that’s approximately 2 inches in diameter, relatively thin and sits against the body via a strap that goes around the rib cage. Zephyr also came up with a T-shirt that uses a sports garment type of fabric that wicks away sweat and is meant to be very comfortable.

“The physiological monitoring piece pairs with the radio,” says Mike Petersen, director of engineering for Motorola Solutions. “So the firefighter puts on the device, takes the radio, holds it up next to the monitoring device, they hear the tone acknowledging that they’re paired.” Information is delivered to the command post, and it’s also logged so it can be accessed later.

The monitoring information is color-coded. “If something bad happens, you get a color change as a form of notification, so then you can see what caused the notification—it might be a heart rate condition, breathing rate that’s gone higher than it should be, location change from vertical to horizontal,” Petersen says. This color coding helps the IC put the information in context. “The IC isn’t going to sit there and stare at a screen,” Petersen says. “We heard from fire personnel that we have all this information, this technology, and we need to be able to use it but still manage the fire scene. Human physiological factors are such that we sense color much faster than we sense text. So this system allows them to see the information much more quickly.”

Departments can purchase Motorola’s physiological monitoring system today on the XTS radios; integration with the new APX 7000 radios will be available toward the end of 2011.

A little further out: Motorola’s indoor location tracking system. Again, the system is designed to pair with the APX radio and the information is sent via the RF channel to the command post. Motorola is deep into the R&D for this system and admits that the challenges are significant. “It’s easier to build a system that tracks people as they walk through a building,” Petersen says. “But firefighters don’t always just walk through a building; they crawl, they may be lying on their side trying to pull hose that got tangled. We have to come up with a solution that meets all those different positions that firefighters put themselves in.” Motorola is working closely with fire departments to ensure the tracking system meets their needs. They expect live-burn testing to begin next year.

Bottom line: “Indoor location is a very key need, but they must be able to trust it,” Petersen says.

Firefighter Tracking Workshop Roundup: Listen to interviews from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s sixth annual workshop on firefighter tracking: