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Could A $20 Per Firefighter Investment Save Lives?

Posted by Feld Fire on 9/22/2014 to Fire Fighting

Of all the daily decisions and responsibilities in the command of a fire department the number one concern of nearly every leader is safety. If a captain can figure out how to shave valuable seconds off of response time or find a better hose pattern, they call it a win. However, nothing matches their level of concern for the area of personnel accountability.

New York City’s Fire Department has started testing state-of-the-art technology from the U.S. Navy to automatically track its firefighters. The U.S. Navy Research Laboratory’s radio system allows for constant, real-time accounting of personnel. The laboratory partnered closely with the department to develop the system, which the FDNY has been lobbying for since the 9/11 attacks, when some 343 of their brethren lost their lives. The radio tagging system has been years in the making, with the firefighters partnering closely with the NRL to tailor it to their needs.

“That’s the intention of the device, to make sure everyone’s accounted for,” David DeRieux, the innovative radio system’s inventor, shared in a recent online interview.

The technology sounds very space-age, but in reality is more akin to the ubiquitous EZ-Pass anti-theft system used on retail inventory, and the cost of each firefighter’s tag is a mere $20, according to the Washington Post’s recent reportage. Device readers reside on the trucks and can detect nearby transmitters, including their name and ID number.

The 15 trucks currently carrying the $1,100 transmitter readers can identify every firefighter within range. Each truck can read all of the tags, which could assist commanders in real-time situations, identifying firefighters who may be caught in high-risk structures and also those who may have become disoriented during operations and show up for the traditional roll call at the wrong truck. Their identifying data is also transmitted back to the FDNY command center, which hopefully can aid in coordinating departments in large-scale operations.

Borrowing technology developed for military use is a long-standing practice in professional law enforcement, firefighting, and search and rescue teams. Much attention has recently been paid in the media to the Excess Property Program, in which the Department of Defense allows local law enforcement to take their overflow military-grade hardware. While the U.S. Navy Labs created this technology, it was developed specifically for the FDNY’s use, thanks to a chance meeting between DeRieux and Battalion Chief Joe Pfiefer. In April of this year, the NRL received a reward for Excellence in Technology Transfer in the development of the radio transmission devices.

Some 14,000 New York City firefighters could eventually be outfitted with the $20 transmitters in a department-wide move toward computer-assisted operations. While “The Fires” author Joel Flood, who has written about military technology’s influence on firefighting, has been quoted as saying he sees no realistic application for the radio transmitters, there seems to be good reason to anticipate that these devices will supplant the cumbersome paper Battalion Form 4 ride list, which was the routine personnel accountability protocol prior to 9/11.

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