Tracking and Locating Fire and Emergency Personnel

There are numerous reasons to keep track of personnel at the scene of an emergency. Knowing what crews are on the scene, and which personnel are assigned to each crew, makes it easier for the incident commander to allocate resources to specific areas of the scene. In addition to assigning resources, knowing the locations of all responders is also important in situations where they themselves need emergency assistance.

Large-scale disasters obviously, and deservedly, receive considerable publicity and attention, but most operational firefighter fatalities do not take place at major incidents. Regardless of the size of the event, though, history has shown that, when emergency responders are lost or disoriented, a tracking and location system can be extremely useful in finding them before they become the next fatalities. The case of a firefighter working in an unfamiliar smoke-filled environment is probably the most obvious example, but the need for tracking and location systems has broader implications for all emergency services – e.g., law enforcement, corrections, and military applications.

The Mary Pang Chinese Food Company Incident 

Four firefighters lost their lives in a fire at the Mary Pang Chinese Food Company in Seattle, Washington, on 5 January 1995. The company, which made frozen food dishes for grocery stores in the Seattle area, had been in the same building for more than 20 years. On the lower level of the building, a bakery occupied part of the warehouse; a band also rented space for its practices in an otherwise unused area.

According to the 1995 USFA (United States Fire Administration) report on the incident – Four Firefighters Die in Seattle Warehouse Fire – the original structure was built in 1909 and had been both expanded and modified several times over the more than 80 years since. Initially, the building was a 60 x 60 foot single-story brick structure. Two additional 60 x 60 foot sections were added – one to the north and one to the west – to create an L-shaped building, with two of the original walls becoming interior fire walls. A series of owners also had modified the connections between various sections of the building several times, and some of the old doorways and windows had been bricked over.

During the 1920s, the local ground level of the building, which was in a swampy part of Seattle, was raised by 10 to 20 feet. One result of that project was that the ground floor of the building ended up below street level. A second story later was added to what was the original 60 x 60 foot area of the building; the new addition was at sidewalk level on one side of the building. The owners later added a second story to the north wing of the building, but the west wing remained a single-story structure that was still partially below street level.

The 1995 fire, which investigators eventually determined to be arson, started in a storage room in the basement of the original section of the building. One of the band members was the first caller to report signs of smoke. The first fire crews responding thought that the fire appeared to be coming from the roof of the west wing. Some of those crews went there to ventilate the roof; other crews entered the street level of the original area of the building – and found themselves facing heavy smoke conditions with virtually zero visibility.

The interior crews were not aware at that time that there was a level below the one where they were working. Eventually, though, the floor collapsed. Flames then spread to the ground floor, out the doors, and through the hole in the roof. Four firefighters fell through the floor into the lower level; seven other firefighters escaped, but all of them had suffered varying degrees of burn injuries.

The fire crews on the scene were able to determine the last known locations andentities of the four missing firefighters. In addition, some crew members making the rescue attempts thought that they had heard personal-alert safety system (PASS) alarms sounding, but they were not able to find the four firefighters. Fire Department personnel recovered two bodies the day after the fire, and one the second day after the fire; the fourth body was not found until 72 hours after the fire was first reported.

The 2010 Kansas Residential Structure Fire

A career firefighter died in a residential structure fire on 22 May 2010 after becoming separated from his captain in heavy smoke. According to the 2011 NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) report on the incident, Career Fire Fighter Dies While Conducting a Search in a Residential House Fire, the firefighter and his captain had entered a 6,000-square-foot two-story home to conduct a search and rescue operation for an unaccounted for resident and a dog. The captain and firefighter found the dog first, and took it to the front door, then continued to search for the still missing resident under steadily worsening conditions – it was not determined until later that that resident was in fact not in the building at the time of the fire.

During their fruitless search, the firefighter stopped to clear his mask after becoming ill and vomiting, and found himself separated from the captain. As soon as the captain noticed he was alone, he called a Mayday and began searching for the missing firefighter. Two rapid-intervention teams were quickly dispatched to look for the firefighter, who was found, in an unresponsive state, approximately 11 minutes later – and only about 24 feet from where he was last known to be seen.

An effective tracking and location system obviously could have provided much needed assistance to the rescue crews by significantly reducing the time needed to locate the missing firefighter – and/or other trapped or disoriented personnel. The use of such a system – which might have prevented a fatality – would let the incident commander know the present location, at all times, of each responder at the scene of the incident.

Recent Advances in Tracking and Location Technology 

There are several types of tracking and location systems currently available. The PASS device previously mentioned is a primary location technology that many fire departments now use. It is designed to set off an alarm if the individual user remains motionless for 30 seconds. The alarm can also be manually activated should the user need immediate assistance, with the sound assisting other personnel in locating the person needing help. However, as happened in the 1995 Mary Pang Seattle case, it is not always possible to determine the precise location of the sound. Responders at the Seattle fire thought, in fact, that they had heard a PASS alarm, but they were still unable to locate the downed firefighters.

Some technology uses a “breadcrumb” approach in which firefighters place small transponders at relatively close intervals as they travel through a burning building. Those devices then act as beacons to allow the system to communicate with other personnel and/or with other beacons. Other systems now available require the retrofitting of a building with radio-frequencyentification (RFID) tags. Each tag is programmed with such information as the exact location of that tag. With this system, an RFID reader is needed to transmit a radio signal that can read the information on the tag.

Yet other systems use dead reckoning or inertial technology, or some combination thereof, to calculate the user’s position. Dead reckoning systems calculate a person’s travel from a known starting point and use speed and direction estimates, combined with elapsed time, to determine his or her current location. Inertial systems use gyroscopes and accelerometers to estimate the distance and direction traveled. However, accuracy decreases over time and distance with both dead-reckoning and inertial-technology systems.

Research and development continues in the area of tracking and location in order to create even more precise systems that can pinpoint the location of personnel both in real time and as accurately as possible. Researchers and manufacturers have been meeting annually over the past several years to present their work at conferences sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on indoor personnel location and tracking for emergency responders. In addition, many programs now under development are incorporating multiple location and tracking technologies in the hope that the use of overlapping technologies will compensate for the weaknesses of each individual technology.

To briefly summarize: Although many types of location and tracking technologies are currently available, each has its own strengths and weaknesses. An accurate system is necessary to let the incident commander know the location of each individual on the scene, not only for allocating personnel, but also, and of greater importance, to assist in locating trapped or disoriented personnel much more quickly and efficiently in order to save lives.

Christina Spoons

Christina Spoons holds a Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in Homeland Security and is currently completing her Ph.D. in the same discipline with a concentration in Terrorism, Mediation, and Peace, both from Walden University. Her emergency services experience includes several years as a Firefighter/EMT and instructor with the American Red Cross. She has been active in the development of firefighter curricula at both the state and national levels and also is involved with several National Fire Protection Association committees, including those focused on Firefighter professional qualifications and electronic safety equipment. She teaches homeland security and public policy and administration courses at Ashford University, and fire science courses at Columbia Southern University.



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