DHS, NASA conduct field tests of technology to track FFs in buildings

The POINTER technology is designed to pinpoint firefighters' locations and motions through smoke, debris and other obstructions

By Laura French

LOS ANGELES — The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) have conducted field tests of technology developed to track and locate firefighters within burning buildings. 

The Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER) is designed to allow first responders to accurately pinpoint the location of their team members amidst heavy smoke, debris and other obstructions, according to a DHS news release. The technology uses transmitters, receivers and magnetoquasistatic fields to three-dimensionally orient responders in emergency settings, allowing incident commanders to track their locations and movements. 

POINTER is designed to track firefighters to the exact floor of a building and determine whether a firefighter is in motion, standing upright or lying down, according to DHS S&T. The magnetoquasistatic fields used by POINTER can reportedly penetrate most natural materials such as dirt, earth, water and thin metals. 

"There are currently no commercialized tracking devises like POINTER on the market," said S&T First Responder Portfolio Director Greg Price, in a statement. "This device goes far beyond GPS capabilities to give first responder teams more accurate guidance in locating their colleagues in emergency scenarios." 

DHS S&T and NASA JPL recently tested and demonstrated the technology at the Veteran's Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, where POINTER devices were evaluated with members of S&T's First Responder Resource Group and industry partner Balboa Geolocation to ensure they met first responder requirements. The POINTER command station, transmitters and receivers were deployed in a five-level, 8,000 sq. ft. structure meant to represent a residential home, and tracked multiple first responders from a standoff distance of up to 70 meters. 

The tests found that POINTER could accurately locate responders within one meter throughout all levels of the building, and in many cases pinpointed responders' locations within centimeters. The receivers worn by first responders during the test are lightweight and about the size of a cellphone, and are powered by small rechargeable lithium batteries. 

DHS S&T and NASA JPL plan to conduct additional testing and demonstrations in the coming weeks and months and will begin operational field testing with fire response agencies throughout the country in spring and summer of 2021. 

"Responders have told us that tracking technology is their number one priority," Price stated. "This never-seen before POINTER technology will soon change the way firefighters experience and overcome the challenges they face." 


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