Fla. firefighters test geolocation

Orange County (Fla.) Fire and Rescue Department

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A central Florida county fire department is testing new technology that could help incident commanders track firefighters battling a blaze inside a building.

Although it's still early in the experimental phase, geolocation technology being developed by MeshNetworks Inc., based in Maitland, Fla., is promising, said members of the Orange County Fire and Rescue Department and company officials. Other fire jurisdictions are closely watching the test of MeshNetworks' prototype because of its potential to save lives.

A recruit who became disoriented during a recent training fire exercise in Miami-Dade County died because fire officials couldn't find him in time, said Bill Godfrey, Orange County's deputy chief in charge of training and information technology. Two years ago, in nearby Osceola County, a similar tragedy occurred.

"We have people [who are] perishing in training accidents partly because we don't know exactly where they are in the structure," he said. "So, you can imagine how incredibly difficult that is in a real honest to goodness structure fire with everything that goes on in one of those. We call it organized chaos."

Because of cost and risk factors, the technology is being tested in a live but controlled fire training environment. MeshNetworks, in partnership with IBM Corp., developed the technology so emergency responders could create an ad hoc wireless broad network at the scene of an incident. Firefighters outfitted with radios would essentially form a peer-to-peer communications web on the scene for voice, video and data exchange. Portable dedicated location routers can be deployed throughout the building supplementing vehicle-mounted wireless routers.

"Because the routers are getting their GPS fixes from the outside and then using multiple routers as a source point to triangulate the location, it theoretically could work in a building," Godfrey said.

Using that network, incident commanders with a building's blueprint might be able to pinpoint where firefighters are within a structure.

Many questions remain unanswered, Godfrey said.

"One of the questions is, in order to do the triangulation, what is the optimal placement of the receivers and the routers, and how well does it work if they're not optimally placed? What kind of issues do we run into [with] cement buildings versus metal buildings versus residential buildings?" he asked.

Orange County's 1,000-member fire department paid for the pilot's hardware, equipment costs, live burn training time, multiple engine crews and its own information technology expertise. MeshNetworks and IBM are providing engineering, consulting, software and other support services. The program's total cost was not disclosed.

Officials said they haven't set a timetable for the pilot. There are many other jurisdictions testing the communications system, said Rick Rotondo, MeshNetworks's vice president of technical marketing, but only Orange County is testing the geolocation component.

"The whole point is to get to a commercial product that meets the needs of first responders," he said. "We know what we have today isn't it, but we hope, through this project, to get to it."

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