The International Forum to Advance First Responder Innovation was established in 2014. The Forum is an organization of government leaders from across the globe, focused on enhancing and expanding the development of affordable, innovative technology for first responders worldwide. The Forum is currently composed of members from 13 different countries and the European Commission (EC), including Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. France and Mexico’s participation in the Forum is pending.
The lack of consolidated global capability gaps, limits innovation in the emergency services first responder market. First responders around the world share a common mission to ensure the safety and security of the citizens they serve. They are often asked to respond to complex incidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (BP Oil Spill), and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. To respond more effectively, safely, and efficiently to both large and small-scale emergencies, the world’s first responders need technologically advanced tools and equipment. However, there is no centralized mechanism for them to identify and discuss shared needs or “capability gaps”. In addition, first responder agencies tend to purchase tools and equipment in small quantities. These two facts provide little incentive for private industry to develop new technologies and has resulted in an inadequate level of innovation. This leads to an insufficient level of research & development (R&D) being conducted in the first responder market. To help remedy this lack of commitment, the International Forum sought to identify and consolidate gaps and expand the global first responder market.
In 2016, the Forum identified and agreed upon four Common Global Capability Gaps. This story is about the first one.
Capability Gap 1: The ability to know the location of responders and their proximity to risks and hazards in real time.
The definition of Capability Gap 1 is the ability to know the location of responders and their proximity to risks and hazards in real time. This capability gap involves the development of responder geolocation in all environments, and subsequent software or devices enabled to display the precise location of responders.
As Forum participants examined gaps within their countries, first responders consistently stated there is a need to precisely identify the location of responders in real time. Incident commanders (IC) and team leaders expressed a need for a tool that displays the location of responders and their proximity to potential threats. The ability to geolocate responders in all environments, coupled with simultaneous awareness of incident risks and hazards, could potentially improve the safety, efficiency and effectiveness of first responders.
As an American, I realize our philosophy on how to fight fires is different than European and International firefighters. A lot of factors determine the differences. For example, the density of the population, the density of neighborhoods, and the density of residential buildings are very different in European cities than they are in the United States. But I was surprised to learn that firefighters becoming disoriented is not unique to America; it’s also an international problem.
According to Don Abbott’s Project Mayday, www.projectmayday.net a firefighter becoming lost or disoriented is one of the top three reasons he or she will transmit a Mayday call for help. In the period from January 2006 to December 2015, 115 firefighters in the US alone lost their lives from being caught, trapped, lost, or disoriented within burning buildings.
Éirinn go Brágh and Pathfinder
The Boys from Ireland had already been looking at technology to address the problem of firefighters becoming lost or disoriented during a search before the Forum officially identified the need. It was easy for them to link-up and accept the challenge of addressing Capability Gap 1 with the Pathfinder Search and Rescue Way-finder System. Martin Patrick Trainor is an assistant chief officer with the Cavan County Fire Service just outside Dublin, and Paddy O’Boyle is the Director of Business Development at Dublin City University.
This “inside out” approach as opposed to an “outside in” approach is one of the concepts behind the technology currently being developed by Trainor and O’Boyle along with a team of professors at Dublin City University. It’s anticipated to be ready for production in early 2019.
The Pathfinder system is a sort of virtual electronic “search rope” that uses a breadcrumb concept to assist firefighters in keeping oriented during interior firefighting and search operations where visibility may be limited, or near zero, due to heavy smoke conditions. It also helps prevent firefighters from becoming lost, disoriented, or separated from their crews when they have to exit the building under the same working conditions. The system also allows rapid intervention teams (RIT) to locate a downed firefighter much more quickly – a huge advancement in rescue technology. Though new technology advancements may seem complicated, the thought process behind the solutions remains simple – how do we keep firefighters from getting lost, separated, or disoriented?
The Pathfinder unit is about the size of a small smoke detector called a puck. It uses smart technology to track the movement of firefighters within a building. Unlike GPS technology, which cannot penetrate inside buildings, this smart technology can pierce through buildings and basements and isn’t affected by heights, so it can be used in high-rise firefighting operations. The puck uses a special adhesive that sticks to just about anything in a fire environment. As firefighters enter the building for fire attack or search and rescue, they follow their standard search patterns, but instead of using a search rope to tie off at specific intervals – which is time-consuming because tying knots with gloves on in a dark, smoky environment definitely slows down the search team – they slap a Pathfinder onto a door, a wall, or an object. As the search team advances farther into the building, they can place another puck at any interval they deem strategic. Unlike a search rope which has a specific length, the search team is only limited by the number of Pathfinder units they can carry into the structure – so greater distances can be covered. Each Pathfinder acts like a radio beacon and transmitter that effectively leaves a “breadcrumb” trail for firefighters to follow on the way out.
A propriety tracking sensor which is about the size of a quarter, is attached inside each firefighters’ helmet. This personally identifies and tracks the movement of each individual firefighter within the structure. The sensor communicates with the Pathfinder puck and alerts firefighters with an audible alarm and a bright-flashing illuminated visual cue to assist in identifying the exit path out of the building. Specific voice messages are incorporated into the unit. Currently there are four: landmark, door, searched, and hazard. The lads are looking into the possibility of having the hazard messages customized to your local protocol and available in different languages. I’ll explain shortly how these terms are applied in the system.
The Pathfinder device transmits real-time signals to a screen monitor at the command post outside of the building. This allows the IC to track the movement and progress of the firefighting crews inside the structure. Now, before you start complaining about another computer screen to monitor at the command post while you’re trying to run a fire, just have an open mind. (I admit, this was my first response.) No one is saying you have to affix your eyes to the monitor; it’s there to check on the progress of interior teams, and when you have a Mayday distress call for a firefighter down, you’ll want every resource tool available at your disposal.
How The Pathfinder Works
For these examples, please refer to Photos PF4, PF5, and PF6. The information in all three photos coincide with each other in the example.
The floor plan diagrams in Photo PF4 Ground Floor and PF5 First Floor, only illustrate the breadcrumb concept to help you visualize how the Pathfinder pucks would be placed throughout a structure during a search. The “Red” search team is taking the left side of the building and is performing a left-handed search. They will initially place six Pathfinder units. It is important to note that the Red team is designated: Route A. The “Blue” search team is taking the right side of the building and is performing a right-handed search. They are designated: Route B. These routes will show up on the IC monitor. The Blue team places two Pathfinder pucks on the Ground floor and starts to head upstairs to the First floor. In photo PF5, they place the third puck at the top of the stairs, then continue the right-handed search on Floor 1. They will place a total of five Pathfinder units on Route B.
The information transmitted to the IC monitor actually appears in a straight-line graph – not like a building floor plan. In photo PF6, Route A indicates a left-hand search and Route B indicates a right-hand search. Route B will not indicate two separate floors on the IC monitor. This is not a stand-alone system; certain information needs to be transmitted via radio for clarification. However, the routes on the IC linear graph can represent a basement and the Ground floor, the Ground floor and the First floor, or even high-rise floors, like Floor 23 and Floor 24 – whatever the incident. As the firefighters work their way into the building and activate the affixed Pathfinder puck, a new dot will appear on the graph starting with #1 . The activation is accomplished by pressing the power button and tapping the puck. This immediately lights up the unit. There are four tap positions that give a verbal announcement and generate an icon on the IC monitor so there is no need to memorize the positions.
For example, tapping the puck once will announce “landmark” and generates a drop-pin icon (similar to Google maps) on the linear graph. A landmark is used like a marker knot on a search rope. Tapping it twice announces “door” and puts a small shaded rectangle on the monitor which represents a door to a room that is about to be searched. Tapping the puck three times will announce “searched” and changes the numbered white dot to green indicating the room was searched. The door icon remains in place. The fourth tap announces “hazard” and places an exclamation point inside a red triangle icon next to the numbered puck. The dot turns red to indicate a hazard exists at that particular puck. All puck activations are time-stamped.
The white triangles indicate the actual firefighters within the structure. When the firefighter approaches within 1.5 meters (4 ft. 9 in.) of a puck, the triangle will appear on the IC monitor. The triangle will stay attached to that puck until they activate or are within range of the next Pathfinder puck. The triangles also indicate the direction the firefighter is traveling along the straight-lined graph to indicate if the firefighter is entering or exiting the structure. I believe this is an extremely valuable feature. The sensor tag can be pre-programmed with the initials and personnel identification numbers of each individual firefighter.
Now we can read and understand the graph on the IC monitor. Refer to Photo PF6. The activity on Route A indicates six Pathfinder pucks were placed. There’s a door at #1 that has been searched. #2 is a landmark. #3 has been searched. There’s a door at #4, a landmark at #5, and another door at #6. Rooms 4 and 6 still need to be searched. Two firefighters are at puck 3 advancing through the structure. Three firefighters are at puck 4 and they’re heading out of the building. Perhaps they are low on air.
On Route B, five Pathfinder pucks have been placed. Rooms #1 and #2 have been searched. There is a hazard at the top of the stairs at #3. This hazard would have to be communicated by radio to the IC and announced to all firefighters on the fireground. Perhaps there is a hole in the floor or the part of the stairs have given way. Room #4 has been searched and the three firefighters placed a landmark at #5. They are still advancing deeper into the building and have been inside the structure for over 12 minutes. Perhaps this would be a good time to have the crew check their air supply and suggest it’s time to make their way out.
Keeping with this example and the Route B diagram, let’s create a scenario. Suppose those firefighters had to make a rapid exit to safety. All three cleared the 5th puck and the 4th puck. Suddenly, something happens at the top of the stairs around the hazard area of puck #3. The firefighter with the initials PO (Paddy O’Boyle) becomes lost and separated from the crew. The rest of the crew make it to puck #3 and the IC monitor shows two triangles at #3. However, one triangle with the initials PO will still be showing at puck #4. Though the system doesn’t track the exact location of the firefighter, it will record the last checkpoint cleared by the missing firefighter. In this case, the IC knows O’Boyle is lost between puck #3 and #4 and the rapid intervention team could start their search for the downed firefighter at puck #3. This saves a considerable amount of valuable time. Again, the Pathfinder is not a stand-alone system or a substitute for radio progress reports. All firefighter-down distress radio protocols would remain in effect. It’s simply another tool for the IC to gain a more complete picture on what’s happening with crews inside the fire building and enhance firefighter accountability during the emergency.
Here’s another example of how the Pathfinder system can work during a search. In the PF4 Ground floor diagram, the search team advanced into the structure and only placed six Pathfinder pucks before they had to rotate out. The second team can quickly advance to the sixth puck and continue the left-handed search. In this example, they placed four more pucks, bringing the total to 10.
The Pathfinder puck also serves as a thermal couple which records and transmits the interior temperature in the surrounding area of that specific unit back to the IC. The lads are even thinking about embedding the Pathfinder smart technology into actual search ropes, so they would have the ability to transmit the movement of firefighters along a lead line back to the IC monitor.
I don’t think the entire breadcrumb concept of the Pathfinder system would be utilized for small residential or tiny apartment fires, but perhaps one or two pucks placed at the top of the stairway, and at the exit door to the building would still be extremely helpful to firefighters in smoky conditions. It would even be helpful for civilians who may suddenly exit their apartment to flee the building and find themselves disoriented in a smoky hallway.
I do see the application for large-area search, large labyrinth basements, large commercial complexes, and building collapses from earthquakes or terrorist explosions. In these situations, search and rescue teams would find this system especially useful.
It takes a tremendous amount of courage and self-confidence in your idea to seek the approval and validation of your professional peers – as well as risking mockery and judgment from the international field experts in the fire service. But sharing ideas is how we learn and improve the art of firefighting and advance the safety of firefighters. These lads from the Emerald Isle are actively seeking feedback and input from the international firefighting community to assist in the completion of this product, as well as trial partners to test the prototypes. For further information please contact Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, go to www.pathfinderpuck.com
The Pathfinder doesn’t solve every problem in keeping firefighters oriented in an IDLH* environment, but this technology has made substantial strides in making it so. Remember, any invention is simply a tool to help us stay safe. They don’t replace the need to maintain individual situational awareness while operating in zero or limited-visibility. The best system you have to keep you safe is still right under your helmet – so use it! *Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health