Holy Grail of firefighter tracking on the horizon

Sensor technologies are poised to trump GPS for tracking interior firefighters

By Dhiren Chauhan, Contributor

Every firefighter knows that the radio is a lifeline. Indeed, some radios have integrated GPS tracking — laying the groundwork for tracking firefighters via GPS locators.

But whether GPS is ideal to track firefighters still is being debated.

New technology is emerging that may track firefighters under any conditions.
New technology is emerging that may track firefighters under any conditions. (Source iStock)

Radio-enabled GPS tracking can work for locating team members in outside environments, such as wildfires. GPS also can aid in locating the nearest assets to a given location if the overall asset identification and dispatching system is GPS capable.

Yet, no technology can work in a vacuum.

For instance, not all public-safety communications infrastructure is satellite capable. So, direct links with the GPS satellite network might not be available.

The GPS tracking might still be viable; however, communicating the location data to the incident commander will require further planning and infrastructure.

Limitations of GPS

GPS tracking does have some limitations. GPS tracking only is accurate to within a certain degree, as anyone using maps on a smartphone is probably aware. That latitude of accuracy is not precise enough to find someone injured in a large wildfire.

GPS's biggest limitation is when first responders move indoors.

When firefighters enter a building, GPS quickly becomes unreliable. To work effectively, GPS requires line of sight with the sky and the ability to connect with more than one GPS satellite.

Just like cellular phones are less effective inside the concrete and steel of a building, the GPS integrated into the radio is not effective enough inside a structure to bet someone's life on the technology.

Addressing this area of firefighter safety is crucial since most incidents requiring personnel rescue occur within a structure. As urban areas seek denser development and mixed-use structures – retail beneath residential units, for instance – the prospect of firefighters increasingly entering complex interior environments raises the stakes on tracking and locating firefighters needing rescue.

Sensors for future tracking

Fortunately, new technology is emerging that addresses the problem of tracking firefighters under any conditions, outside or within a building. The technology involves sensor modules worn on a firefighter's belt.

The modules contain sensors such as accelerometers and barometers to produce location information and can often coordinate with one another in a mesh network to produce coordinate information.

Software then distributes that snapshot of this information through the radio back to the command infrastructure.

At some point, this technology could be incorporated directly into the radio much like the GPS technology mentioned above. However, that point of integration is some time in the future.

The sensor technology is improving far more rapidly than practical for radio upgrade cycles. While this sensor module locating system currently is only recommended for training purposes, it is just a matter of time before full deployment is possible.

Firefighters risk their lives to help others. Location and tracking technology already exists, and it is evolving rapidly to ensure their lives are protected. The time to incorporate it into tactical management and infrastructure planning is now.

Dhiren Chauhan is the fire and EMS marketing manager for North American Public Safety. Additionally, he provides a voice for Motorola Solutions for firefighter life safety initiatives and advocacy associations such as The National Fallen Firefighter’s Foundation (NFFF) and the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Learn more about Location Services and be sure to follow the latest public safety news from Motorola Solutions on Twitter and Facebook.

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