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Miracle Aliens-style indoor comms built for firefighters

Trail of relay routers auto-laid from belt dispensers

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So you're a firefighter of the near future. Your fire truck pulls up outside a burning building, and sure enough it turns out there are people still inside needing rescue. Firing up your breathing apparatus and unlimbering your axe, you charge in like generations of heroes before you.

Here's where it gets different, though. In the truck or command vehicle, fire chiefs can see a moving icon in movie style which shows exactly where you are - probably on a 3D building map pulled from city archives. Better still, your commanders can also see near-real-time medical telemetry from sensors in your uniform, just like the Colonial Marines in scientifiction movie classic Aliens. If you succumb to the heat or smoke, or otherwise get injured, they'll know and more rescuers can be despatched.

But wait: this isn't realistic, as anyone with experience of wireless networking will know. Battery-powered radios often struggle to penetrate walls, let alone multiple walls and floors of reinforced concrete full of rebar as we may well have here. Unlike the mobile network, the incident command vehicle cannot rely on a network of masts all around the site and cannot easily reach in through different windows - and even if it could, air full of flame, hot smoke and spraying water is not a friendly radio environment.

But your navigation and medical-monitor gear is still in touch with your command. How?

Here's how. On your belt is an automated dispenser holding several small, waterproof, fireproof battery powered relay routers. As you plunge deeper into the stricken building - perhaps charging up some stairs, interposing a barrier between you and the command vehicle antenna - the equipment notes your diminishing signal strength and your belt rig, without input from you, drops a relay to preserve communications. If it should get kicked, firehosed or otherwise inadvertently relocated, the network of dropped podules scattered through the building reconfigures itself automatically to route around any outages if this is physically possible.

All this kit is actually a reality right now, according to the US Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology directorate. The S&T boffins call the navigation package the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER). The Aliens-style medical telemetry rig is known as Physiological Health Assessment System for Emergency Responders (PHASER). The self-dropping relay widgets are dubbed Wireless Intelligent Sensor Platform for Emergency Responders, or WISPER, and use ZigBee.

“Throw in smoke, firehose mist, stairwells, and walls, and you’re down to maybe 10 kbps. But that’s fast enough to tell an incident commander the whereabouts and health of every firefighter in the blaze,” explains Jalal Mapar of DHS S&T’s Infrastructure Protection and Disaster Management Division. “We’re not streaming video that needs a lot of bandwidth, just vital signs and coordinates.”

The DHS boffins, having developed the kit with federal seed cash, hope that private manufacturers will now step in and get it into production for sale to fire departments.

Those interested can read more courtesy of DHS inhouse mag S&T Snapshots. ®

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