March 10, 2009 By Corey McKenna
The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) is planning a sort of a "Consumer Reports type bake-off" for April and May of this year in order to ascertain the current capabilities 3-D personnel locators.
The directorate is interested in seeing how systems currently available perform under the conditions where most of the fatalities occur and then in some more complicated environments.
"3-D location is the holy grail of the first responder community," Jose Vasquez, director of first responder technologies for the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology directorate said. While it would be great to know exactly where every firefighter was during a fire at all times, this is another one of those applications where it is apparent that perfect is the enemy of pretty good, he said.
"One of the things that really amazed me when I was being briefed on this subject," he said, "is 80 percent of the fatalities that occur at fires from firefighters are in two-story [wooden] structures, essentially a family home."
"We've been engineering these systems to handle 40 story buildings and how do you locate someone in the z-axis," he said. However, first responders he had to talked were willing to give up a firefighter's exact location if they just new which floor he was on. "If they knew the floor then they only had to send one search team. If they were within three or four floors they basically end up sending a search team for each of the floors in order to get that person," he said.
"Maybe one of these systems, or maybe some tweaking of a couple of these systems together, will yield an answer that does 80 percent for a family structure. If we can handle 80 percent of the calamities that happen in a given year in a shorter period of time and then worry about the 20 percent that would be a great deal," he said.
The TechSolutions team and the Infrastructure Protection and Geophysical Division have set up two scenarios. One of them is in a two-story wooden building. The other is a building that is part of the Massachusetts State Police training academy that contains a number of metal obstructions.
"There are many people who go up to first responders and say 'I have a piece of gear to say exactly where you're at,'" he said. "We have followed a lot of those claims over the last year and half and some of those claims are perhaps a little bit more forward than they should be."
"Take a Gremlin GPS. If you're in an open field it does a pretty good job," he said. "Take it inside a building and you have a GPS deprived environment and that gets a little tougher. Then take it down a couple levels in a garage with a lot of obstacles in the way-a lot of metal and a lot of rebar and concrete-that gets even more difficult. Some of them work well under some very limited conditions. Others don't work very well."
So the directorate, along with Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, put out a request for information seeking companies that provide 3-D location technology. From that, six companies have been selected to participate in a series of tests under controlled conditions in April and May to evaluate how well their systems live up to their stated specifications. "We are going to be testing these systems and getting some ground-based truth based on similar conditions so we can get a feel for where the state of play is in 3-D location," Vasquez said.