Engine Company, Fire Department, Ladder Company

Electronic Accountability Systems Begin To Take Hold

Issue 11 and Volume 14.

Five of the six manufacturers of self-contained breathing apparatus that meet National Fire Protection Association standards offer electronic accountability systems as accessories to increase firefighter safety. One of them, Scott Health and Safety, started shipping its second-generation system in July.

Yet only a small percentage of fire departments that buy SCBA also order the systems. Most manufacturers estimate five to 10 percent, but indicate the numbers have been increasing.

Accountability systems, also known as air management systems and telemetry, have been available for years and transmit critical data between individual firefighters and incident command, such as low air warnings, personal alert safety system (PASS) alarms and evacuation orders.

Some SCBA-based systems transmit more information than others, some can monitor more firefighters than others and some have the ability to keep track of firefighters who are not wearing SCBAs. Most can produce reports from data collected during an incident.

Also available are electronic accountability systems that operate independently of SCBAs and are designed to monitor the activities of all people and resources at an emergency scene.

The primary reason offered by SCBA manufacturers for the slow acceptance of their systems is that the technology is expensive. Another seems to be fire service tradition, suggesting satisfaction with manual tag and board accountability systems and perhaps reservations about the reliability of electronics.

Telemetry and radio communication on the fireground can be severely limited by building construction – primarily the use of steel and concrete in high-rise structures. To overcome that obstacle, some electronic accountability systems offer repeaters to relay signals in difficult surroundings.

Scott’s second-generation system, called SEMS II, uses wireless mesh networking, a technology developed to assure continuous communication by having transmissions jump between nodes to reach a destination. Scott Marketing Manager  Tony Topf said every SCBA unit in a SEMS II system is a repeater.

“Firefighters work in teams, and each person is wearing an SCBA and that allows [data] from the person who is deep in the building to be carried from user to user, from point to point, all the way to the outside,” he said. “Our system is able to make 10 jumps. In our research of how firefighters do their jobs, we found that five jumps is more than enough.”

The 17th Floor

SEMS II, which can display data from more than 100 firefighters, was exhibited at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis this spring. Scott demonstrated the reach of the system by putting an SCBA unit on the 17th floor of the 
Marriott hotel across the street from the Indiana Convention Center, where the company had its booth. Topf said a second SCBA unit was placed elsewhere in the convention center to act as a repeater between the command station in the booth and the unit in the Marriott. 

“We were able to monitor that [Marriott unit] through the exterior walls, up 17 stories from the convention floor,” he said. “A lot of customers were quite shocked because they were convinced their portable radios wouldn’t be able to communicate with a firefighter in that same situation.”

He said firefighters who are not wearing SCBAs can be added to Scott’s system because “part of accountability is monitoring everybody,” and the system can operate on a touch screen computer by someone with gloves.

“One of our design criteria was it had to be easy, intuitive and able to be operated by a pump panel operator,” Topf said. “So if we meet that criteria, it should also be easy for an incident commander.”

One reason for electronic accountability systems is to reduce radio traffic on the fireground or to supplement it if radio communication is difficult to understand or is not working. That is a point made by Jason Turpin, a civilian firefighter in the 

Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Fire Department near Dayton, Ohio, who has worked with MSA’s accountability system since the beginning of the year. 

Turpin said his department has responded to a couple of incidents that required evacuation orders since he helped train firefighters on the MSA system. One incident involved a fuel fire in a test facility.

“It came up on everybody’s air pack that they were to get out of the area and go defensive and they regrouped and went back at it and got it under control,” he said. “It was nice to do that without having all the radio communications. That’s usually the biggest problem on the scene, too many people on the radio trying to do too many things at once.”

With the MSA system, he said, an incident commander can evacuate an individual firefighter, a crew or everyone. After the order is sent with the push of a button, he said, the computer receives verification that the order was received by SCBAs and separate verification when the order is acknowledged by individual firefighters.

Increasing Safety

“It increases safety over just the air horn and the radio communications,” he said. “It eliminates any possibility of missing an evacuation signal.”

The SCBAs used by Turpin’s department are among 14,000 MSA units with accountability systems that were purchased by the Air Force last year. Each SCBA transmits to incident command the firefighter’s name, team assignment, cylinder pressure, service time remaining, PASS and thermal alarms, battery status, radio connectivity, and evacuation acknowledgement.

“It’s very user friendly,” Turpin said. “It took me all of two hours to figure out the system. We’re firefighters, we’re not computer guys.” He said his department still uses tags and dry erase boards while setting up at a scene. “Then we get the computer started,” he said, “and it takes over.”

Mike Rupert, MSA’s first responder products group manager, said sales of his company’s accountability systems are increasing, but they are not necessarily replacing dry erase boards. “It’s one more tool to help protect firefighters,” he said. 

“There’s probably a certain benefit to and comfort with having a manual accountability system.”

Julie Malinowski, Draeger Safety’s SCBA product manager, said most departments that buy Draeger’s PSS Merlin Fireground Telemetry System do not continue using traditional status boards because Merlin’s electronic control board, which is about 18 inches wide and 31 inches long, can show handwritten assignments.

“It has an area to the right of each individual display where you can use a wax pencil to write where the person is being deployed,” she said. “I think that’s one of the reasons it has replaced tag boards.”

A single Merlin board can monitor up to a dozen firefighters. Malinowski said Draeger uses a large board rather than a computer because at the time the Merlin system was developed a lot of departments either did not have computers or enough firefighters to watch a computer. “By having a big board that has lights and sound, you don’t have to stand there and watch the board,” she said. “Basically you just have to listen to it.”

However, she said, Draeger is working on a second-generation system that is expected to be computer based and able to monitor more firefighters.

Easing Anxiety

She said the Merlin system with its audible alarms eases some of the anxiety of heading into a burning building. “Firefighters feel a little bit more confident that if something happens someone is going to find them a lot faster because they’re not waiting for someone on the inside to come running out to tell someone they need a rescue team,” she said. “The team is being deployed as the person gets into trouble.”

As is the case with other SCBA manufacturers’ accountability systems, a fairly small percentage of Draeger SCBA buyers order Merlin. “It’s a pricey piece of equipment and while it can help any department out there, each department has its own priorities,” Malinowski said. “Often it’s an after sale item. They’ll get their packs first, and the following year or maybe two years after they’ll apply for another grant for the telemetry.”

Ernie L. Younkins, the SCBA product manager at International Safety Instruments (ISI), said most sales of his company’s TEAMS telemetry system have been to fire departments with less than 40 members. However, he said, ISI recently made its largest sale to the Amarillo (Texas) Fire Department, which has more than 250 members.

ISI’s TEAMS, which was the first PC-based SCBA accountability system, according to Younkins, monitors up to 32 firefighters on a single command center and can, handle more firefighters with additional computers. Amarillo, he said, ordered 128 SCBA units and three command centers, and ISI is customizing its software for the department.

Backup PASS Devices

Interspiro, another SCBA manufacturer, uses PASS devices manufactured by Grace Industries on its units. Grace is the only company that makes NFPA-certified stand-alone PASS devices, and it makes a telemetry system that can monitor up to 3,000 people.

Some departments outfit their firefighters with two PASS devices, using the Grace stand-alone PASS as a backup to their SCBA-integrated PASS. Houston, Texas, is one of those departments, and it also uses the Grace telemetry system.

Steve Cichon, an officer in the Houston Fire Department who was in charge of training when the Grace system was implemented, said, “It’s given us a second layer of non-verbal communication that makes a big difference as far as how we approach our jobs and gives us a lot more confidence because we are truly being accounted for.”

He said the system is particularly valuable when firefighters are ordered to go defensive because often those who are deep in a building do not hear the 30-second air horns or the radio. “It broadcasts to the firefighters very quickly without any questions that we are going defensive,” he said. “That extra communication has made a difference many times.”

At the Fire-Rescue International trade show in Dallas in August, an alliance with Grace Industries was promoted by Salamander Technologies, which was created in 2001 and describes itself as the leading provider of first responder accountability, emergency incident command, and mass casualty patient tracking systems. Salamander makes manual and electronic systems that do not transmit and receive SCBA-based data.

“Our system stops at the door, and the Grace systems starts once the responder goes through the door and is on air inside,” Salamander co-founder Mike Whelan said. “It’s kind of an informal alliance, and as we move forward and integrate more, it will be an option within either system.”

Becoming Affordable

He said firefighters inside a building typically represent only 10 percent of emergency responders at a scene. “We track who is there, where they’re assigned, what they’re doing and how long they’ve been there,” he said.

The foundation of Salamander’s system is the ability in an office or in the field to quickly create high-capacity, machine-readable identification cards with barcodes for automated tracking. The cards, according to the company, are essential for computerized incident management, personnel accountability and site security. 

“These technologies are just finally starting to get to where they’re affordable for the general market place and they’re rugged enough for the fire service,” said Whelan, a former police officer and firefighter.

Testing For Reliability

Sperian Respiratory is the only manufacturer of NFPA-certified SCBA units that has not offered an electronic accountability system as an accessory. But that will change next year, according to Steve Weinstein, Sperian’s SCBA senior product manager, who said a system developed by the company was being tested for reliability.

“I’m not aware that we’ve lost any business anywhere by not yet having a telemetry system,” he said. 

ERT Systems, a company founded in 2005 that is not connected with an SCBA manufacturer, is marketing an accountability system called OnSite, which is not integrated with SCBA. OnSite is designed to show the general locations of people and vehicles.

“We occupy a different space,” said ERT co-founder and President Dennis Carmichael. “What we’re looking to tell the incident commander is who is there and where they are.”

He said OnSite uses battery-powered tags worn by firefighters and other responders or placed in vehicles. The tags, he said, transmit an identification number through devices called drop readers to a computer that displays geographic zones, as opposed to precise locations, where people and vehicles are located.

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