Technology eyed to find trapped firefighters
The Associated Press via Brattleboro Reformer (Vermont)
BOSTON — A decade after six Massachusetts firefighters died in a massive warehouse blaze, researchers at a nearby college say they are inching closer to development of a sophisticated system that could quickly locate and get help to firefighters lost or trapped in a smoky inferno.
The Dec. 3, 1999, fire at the abandoned Worcester Cold Storage facility resulted in what, at the time, was the worst loss of life for firefighters in a building blaze in the U.S. in 20 years. The men perished after entering the 100,000-square-foot building looking for homeless people they believed were inside.
The deaths were felt hard on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, just down the street from the firehouse where the men worked. Dr. David Cyganski, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, recalls his department head challenging scientists at the school to develop the technology needed to pinpoint the location of trapped firefighters.
That effort, Cyganski said, began within a month of the tragedy. But the road to finding solutions to complex problems turned out to be a "long and torturous one."
"We started with concepts that sounded great on paper but totally failed in reality," he said.
As the 10th anniversary of the fire approaches, Cyganski and the WPI team are cautiously optimistic that a First Responder Locator System -- as the project is called -- is finally within reach. The efforts have been boosted by several government grants, including a $1 million award from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be announced by the school this week.
The system is already practical for fires in residential buildings, he said, yet still a year or more away from deployment in large commercial buildings.
The system envisions firefighters equipped with transmitters — about the size of the radios they already carry — which can send critical data to commanders. The information would show precisely where a firefighter is and how he got there.
Each of the blips, he said, represent firefighters in the building.
"They are leaving tracks so that he actually know where each one not only is but how they got there so he can have a person retrace their steps, or have someone converge on the firefighters trail to rescue him," he said.
The system seeks to overcome drawbacks with existing technology, such as infrared vision and GPS, he said.
Infrared cameras are limited because they require line of sight to the firefighters, difficult in large buildings with multiple floors or narrow passageways. GPS systems are extremely limited indoors and not always accurate to within the few feet needed to exact a rescue in a dark, smoky environment.
In conjunction with the primary locator system, the WPI team has created a system for monitoring a firefighter s heart rate and other vital signs and alert commanders when stress and exertion could lead to a heart attack. The latest FEMA grant, Cyganski said, will also help develop a device that warns of impending flashovers, the sudden and dangerous ignition of combustible materials when temperatures exceed a certain point.
Worcester Fire Chief Gerard Dio has worked closely with the WPI researchers but admits to some frustration with the time it has taken to perfect the system. In the meantime, the department has done all it can to ensure that the Cold Storage tragedy isn t repeated, by utilizing existing technology and focusing on better training and awareness.
"We couldn t wait for them to figure it out. We have to figure it out and do the best we can," he said.
"When that product comes out, that will be great and it will be an added benefit, but until then, we have to figure out manually how we protect ourselves in that type of situation."
The fire claimed the lives of Lt. James F. Lyons, Jeremiah Lucey, Paul A. Brotherton, Joseph T. McGuirk, Thomas E. Spencer, and Timothy P. Jackson. Investigators said two homeless people started the blaze by knocking over a candle and left the building without alerting the fire department.
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