New Router Technology Ensures Strong In-Building Signal for Firefighters
Wednesday, October 12, 2011 | Comments
Photo courtesy DHS 
Coverage problems resulting from poor signal penetration is a recurring issue for firefighters when working in buildings or dense forests. New tracking and monitoring technologies have been developed in recent years, but without a clear signal, the life-saving technologies can’t operate properly.
To combat coverage issues, the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is helping develop a wireless self-powered router that creates a breadcrumb network to ensure coverage.
The system combines two previously developed heatproof and waterproof wireless monitors with a newly developed technology to ensure data tracking firefighters’ locations and health data is sent to a base station connected to a commander’s laptop for monitoring.
The Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER) is a tracking device the size of a paperback book that combines a microwave radio, battery and a suite of navigation devices. GLANSER’s signals are received and transmitted by a small, USB-powered base station plugged into a laptop. The laptop is then able to monitor every move the person wearing the device makes.
The Physiological Health Assessment System for Emergency Responders (PHASER) is a device that monitors the user’s body temperature, blood pressure and pulse. The PHASER also relays this information back to the base station.
These two devices operate together. If a PHASER recognizes an injured firefighter, other responders can locate him easily thanks to the tracking from the GLANSER. However, if one or both device signals can’t reach the base station, the devices are worthless.
Both devices operate at 900 MHz, which with a large enough transmitter, can penetrate walls. But with portability, the size decreases as well as the signal. An in-building wall or a wall of trees can stop both device signals.
S&T and its partners set out to develop a wireless router that could create a breadcrumb trail to ensure the signal remained clear wherever a user went. From this idea, the Wireless Intelligent Sensor Platform for Emergency Responders (WISPER) was created by OceanIT Laboratories of Honolulu and the University of Virginia’s Department of Computer Science under an S&T Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
“The primary objective of WISPER was to prototype a wireless area network technology that will enhance the signal penetration in challenging indoor or otherwise congested environments,” said Jalal Mapar, program manager, DHS S&T Directorate.    
WISPER consists of waterproof and heat-resistance throwaway router nodes and an automatic dispenser. Each dispenser holds five router nodes that will detect when the communications signals become weak and will automatically deploy to boost or reroute the signal, Mapar said.
Each node is a 1-inch square, 0.5-inch thick throwaway router that is waterproof and heat resistant up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The device contains a two-way digital radio, antenna and 3-volt Lithium cell. The router nodes are 0.6 ounces and offer a battery life of more than 2 hours. The nodes have an RF range of less than 50 meters, Mapar said. 
The automatic dispenser weighs a little more than 16 ounces and is 3.5 inches in diameter and 3 inches thick. The dispenser is equipped with accelerometer and gyroscope, Mapar said. 
When a firefighter wearing the routers in the belt-mounted waterproof canister, steps behind concrete or beyond radio range, the base station orders his canister to drop a node, creating a breadcrumb effect. The dropped nodes arrange themselves into a network, and if one node is lost or destroyed, the WISPER network will automatically reconfigure.
“WISPER is the smart router that allows for the signal to hop from one node to another and eventually outside to a commander’s base station,” Mapar said.
To extract the most from the node’s battery, WISPER operates on the low-power ZigBee communications protocol that trades speed for battery life. The platform can telegraph no more than 100 kilobits per second (kbps), which is 99 percent slower than Wi-Fi. “Throw in smoke, firehose mist, stairwells and walls, and you’re down to maybe 10 kbps,” Mapar said. “But that’s fast enough to tell an incident commander the whereabouts via GLANSER and health via PHASER of every firefighter in the blaze. We’re not streaming video that needs a lot of bandwidth, just vital signs and coordinates.”
S&T is now working with OceanIT to commercialize the product for wider use in the wireless network community, and plans to work with potential industry affiliates to get the system to a commercial product in 2012. “There has been interest in WISPER, and OceanIT is currently working with these companies to go over their needs and how WISPER can fulfill their requirements,” Mapar said.
The GLANSER and PHASER systems have been tested in the first-responder community and were developed with heavy involvement from emergency responders and government stakeholders, Mapar said.
“GLANSER, PHASER and WISPER provide a total solution to help locate, track and monitor our first responders in order to keep them safe and out of harm’s way,” he said.

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