By Alan M. Petrillo
FDNY Assistant Chief Ed Baggott says requests for proposals (RFP) for a radio frequency identification (RFID) fireground accountability system have been issued and were returnable before the end of 2014. The RFP calls for developing an automatic accountability system based on lessons learned from a demonstration program the FDNY ran in conjunction with the NRL where officers and commanders could automatically see the number and identities of firefighters on an apparatus or nearby at the scene of a call.
The NRL system uses an RFID tag carried by each firefighter, says Rob Roberts, program manager and section head of the FDNY RFID personnel location system at the NRL’s Space Systems Center for Space Technology. “This is what’s called an active RFID tag, which means it has a battery in it that sends out a ping every five seconds,” Roberts says. “The pings are picked up by a radio receiver on the fire vehicle, which builds a table of identifiers. That table of every firefighter either on or near the vehicle gets displayed on the vehicle’s mobile data terminal (MDT).”
Roberts says the RFID tag is small-one inch wide by two inches long by ¼ inch thick. “It’s very light and is sealed in plastic so it’s waterproof,” he adds. “Essentially, it looks like a small key fob.”
Baggott points out that the RFID tag used in the FDNY program was sewn into each participating firefighter’s bunker coat. “The key to making it a part of the gear is that everyone would be wearing their tag and they can’t forget it,” he says. “When a firefighter steps into the apparatus, the system automatically picks up a signal from the chip in the RFID tag that has information encoded from a database.”
|1 The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) had the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) develop a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag worn by firefighters that provided information into an automatic accountability system on their apparatus. The NRL demonstration program involved 15 pumpers and aerials and one rescue truck. (Photos courtesy of U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.)|
David DeRieux, NRL Space Systems associate superintendent for Code 8100 Space Systems Development Department, says the demonstration program with FDNY had its birth five years ago when NRL personnel were brought to New York to talk with FDNY officials about programmable radios. “We met Deputy Chief Joseph Pfeifer then, and he asked us if we had a solution for the problem of determining who was on a fire truck at any particular time,” DeRieux says.
He notes that Pfeifer explained the difficulties facing commanders in keeping track of firefighters and apparatus during the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center incident and says Pfeifer noted he sometimes has firefighters become dazed and confused during an operation where they may not make it out of a building, or they might end up in the wrong area for roll call.
“At the time, I was using an EZPass (traffic toll pass) on a daily basis and thought about that pass as a tracker,” DeRieux says. “Then we came up with the RFID tag as a solution for the FDNY.”
Apparatus and Riding Positions
Baggott, who has been involved in the demonstration program since its inception, says the FDNY RFP asks bidders for a system that not only automatically determines who is on an apparatus, but also by designated positions. “We want to be able to determine who has the nozzle, who’s the backup, who’s in control,” Baggott says. “If we can crack that nut, it would be a really good system.”
DeRieux says NRL engineers put a personal accountability demo unit together early in the program and installed it on an FDNY pumper. “We set it up where each firefighter had an RFID tag that showed up on the truck’s MDT,” DeRieux notes. “At the time, the chauffeur would have to check a ride list to see who was assigned to the vehicle, but with the RFID tags, he simply checked his MDT and their indicators showed up there. The information also was transmitted to the operations center.”
NRL personnel had to do a lot of juggling in the location of tags and other equipment on the apparatus. “We worked on where the tags would be located on the firefighters and the best place to put the equipment on the fire trucks,” DeRieux says. After the NRL refined its equipment and tag placements, it expanded the program scope.
Baggott points out the NRL demonstration system spread out over three city boroughs. “We ended up with 15 vehicles being used in the program,” he says. “Five vehicles in Highbridge, The Bronx; along with five in Woodside, Queens; and five in Chelsea, Manhattan took part. The vehicles were a mix of pumpers and aerials, along with Rescue 4 in Queens.”
|2 The NRL radio tag designed for the FDNY is sewn into a participating firefighter’s bunker coat and emits data that are picked up by a mobile data terminal (MDT) on board the firefighter’s fire vehicle.|
How It Works
The way the NRL system was designed, as soon as an FDNY driver turns on a vehicle’s ignition, the system is activated and the driver can check the firefighters on board by consulting his MDT. At the scene, firefighters scatter to perform their jobs but eventually return for a roll call. The vehicle’s officer is able to instantly determine every firefighter who is on or near the vehicle.
At the same time, the vehicle’s MDT sends the accounting of personnel to the FDNY Operations Center in Brooklyn using a commercial modem, DeRieux says. “They have a massive wall display where the data gets projected,” he says. “So they know what truck just showed up on scene and who was on the truck.” In addition, the data are archived, so if there was a hazmat incident with a release, DeRieux notes, commanders could go back and immediately see the firefighters who were on duty.
Roberts points out there are two types of radio tags: passive and active. “A passive tag doesn’t have a battery,” he says. “It receives energy from a transmitter when a ping is sent out to it, absorbs that energy, and retransmits it out. An active tag, like the FDNY radio tag, has a battery on board that sends out a signal on a certain duty cycle. While there’s a limit to its life because of the battery, it also has a greater range than a passive tag, which is why we used it in the FDNY program.”
Baggott says that the radio tag program is a personnel accountability system and doesn’t track firefighters when they go into buildings or great distances from their apparatus.
Roberts notes the range of the radio tag is in hundreds of feet “and once a firefighter gets inside a building, we can’t get the radio signal out because of battery life and the transmitter size.”
Baggott and DeRieux both say their respective organizations consider the radio tag program a success. “We successfully delivered what the FDNY asked for and they were happy with it,” DeRiex says. “We would like to tackle other problems for the fire industry, even difficult problems like tracking firefighters inside a building.”
Baggott notes that once the FDNY determines the final cost of implementation, the department would have to decide whether to spend the money on an automatic accountability system or somewhere else on safety. “The RFP calls for outfitting the entire FDNY for the RFID fireground accountability system,” Baggott says. “That means fitting equipment to approximately 350 first line apparatus, some of our spare apparatus, and approximately 10,500 firefighters.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.