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WPI Receives $1 Million For Firefighter Monitoring System

Issue 2 and Volume 15.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts has received a one-year, $1 million award from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop the final component of an integrated monitoring system designed to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries by precisely locating and tracking them inside buildings in three dimensions.

The system is also designed to continuously monitor their vital signs to warn incident commanders when they are at risk of stress-related heart attacks and to take floor-to-ceiling temperature readings inside buildings to provide an early warning of impending flashover.

Work on the location and tracking and physiological monitoring components of the system began as a direct response to the 1999 Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire, where six firefighters died when they became lost in dense smoke inside the mazelike, windowless structure.

Three Dimensions

With more than $4 million in funding from the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the U.S. Army, the WPI Precision Personnel Location (PPL) research team has developed and extensively tested a system that uses advanced radio frequency and radar technology to locate firefighters to within a few feet in three dimensions and display their locations and movements at an incident command station.

Physiological monitoring is provided by a wireless pulse oximeter developed by WPI researchers that is worn on the forehead and a sensor-embedded T-shirt made by Foster-Miller. Physiological information is integrated into the incident commander’s display.

With the FEMA award, the WPI PPL team will work with researchers to develop an inexpensive, portable, disposable wireless sensor array called the Fireground Environment Sensor Monitoring (ESM) System that can be carried into a building and placed in selected rooms by firefighters. Once in place, the device will deploy a mast that will rise to the ceiling. The mast will have temperature sensors every 30 centimeters and a heat flux sensor in its base.

Data from the sensors will be transmitted to incident command. The risk of extreme heat stress and time to flashover (the point when all combustible materials in a room simultaneously erupt in flames) will be displayed on the incident commander’s screen, along with the firefighters’ locations and vital signs.

WPI researchers estimate the system will extend the warning time of pending flashover from about 8 seconds to well over a minute. The ESM is also designed to help incident commanders plan attacks on developing fires, as well as run rescue missions for civilians and downed firefighters.

Testing The System

Initial testing of the system will be conducted in the burn chamber in WPI’s fire science laboratory. Larger-scale tests will be conducted in the large burn building at the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow Mass.

Results of the tests will be evaluated with fire models developed by WPI’s Fire Protection Engineering Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to determine and fine-tune algorithms for predicting the risk of flashover.

WPI, founded in 1865 in Worcester, Mass., was one of the nation’s first engineering and technology universities. There are 25 WPI project centers throughout North America and Central America, Africa, Australia, Asia and Europe.

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