Device can seek trapped firefighters

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / November 30, 2009

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A decade after six Massachusetts firefighters died in a massive warehouse blaze in Worcester, 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 US building blaze 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 fire station where the men worked.

Dr. David Cyganski, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, recalled 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 or she got there.

“The incident commander outside the building has a computer screen and on it he’s watching little blips moving around,’’ Cyganski explained.

Each of the blips represent firefighters in the building.

“They are leaving tracks so that he actually knows where each one not only is but how they got there so he can have a person retrace their steps,’’ he said.