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Chicago Fire Dept., Berkeley Testing Rescue Communication System

The Chicago Fire Department is testing a wireless system, developed by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, which pinpoints the location of firefighters in burning buildings.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed the system in response to a request by the Chicago Fire Department. The fire department was concerned by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when rescue workers in the Twin Towers using incompatible two-way radios were unable to communicate with each other.

The Chicago Fire Department re-evaluated its emergency response needs, and concluded that all owners of buildings over 80 ft high must submit digital floor plans as a basic information and communication tool for responders. The department contacted Professor Paul Wright at the Ford Design and Prototyping Lab at the university's Mechanical Engineering Department, to create improved information technology equipment for firefighting.

The Mechanical Engineering Department, along with the Center for Information Technology in the Interests of Society (CITRIS), developed the Fire Information and Rescue Equipment (FIRE) system in an effort to enable better communication between rescue workers.

Firefighting can be an extremely demanding and chaotic environment in which one must make quick decisions on little information and divide attention between many immediate events, making it difficult to efficiently and accurately complete critical tasks such as building search and rescue. The FIRE project is addressing these challenges by applying and designing new technologies such as wireless sensor networks (WSNs) and small head-mounted displays (HMDs) for firefighting, and conducting experiments and exploratory research with firefighters. The project is focused toward large urban, commercial and industrial building incidents such as high-rises and warehouses.

The design of the system is based on end-user interviews with and observations of firefighters, research on firefighting tactics, feedback from end-user demonstrations, participation in firefighting conferences and usability experiments with firefighters. This system is partitioned into three main subsystems: SmokeNet, FireEye and eICS.


SmokeNet, a WSN, tracks firefighters in large buildings and gives them and the chief in charge, or incident commander (IC), important information about their location, the fire and their health status.

In this scenario, each firefighter has a computer attached to his or her SCBA tank or in their turnout coat, to which is sent a set of floor plans for the given building. A SmokeNet system preinstalled in the building tells the computer which floor plan level to display on an HMD mounted in their facepiece in the lower right corner of their field of view. The firefighter sees a map of the building on the HMD with a "You Are Here" symbol showing his or her location.

Other symbols of a different color and/or shape show locations of other personnel on the same floor plan. Similar floor plans are seen on the IC's laptop as he or she coordinates the fire with the deployed teams. The IC sees a layered series of 2D floor plans for the entire building, and can scroll up and down through the floor plans. For example, a six-story building has six 2D floor plans stacked vertically.

Ideally, the system would be preinstalled in large buildings such as high-rises under a new fire code. If this is not possible, small radio beacons could be dropped like "smart breadcrumbs" by responders according to an intuitive deployment protocol (e.g., "place beacons approximately every 15- 20 feet"), and located via triangulation. This would create an evolving ad-hoc SmokeNet mesh network, where, as more firefighters place beacons throughout the building, the system would be able to track more personnel and the fire over a larger area.


The FireEye is a head-mounted display (HMD) in the firefighter's mask, designed to relay performance and safety-enhancing decision support information in a hands-free format. In designing the FireEye, consideration was given to many areas including robust hardware that passes NFPA standards, human factors issues such as ergonomics and accommodation, graphical user interface (GUI) design including egocentric vs. exocentric frame of reference, symbology and information visualization issues of abstraction of information and balancing attention with information urgency. The FireEye is intended to enhance global situational awareness, because firefighters agreed that a lack of personnel and fire location information in large incidents is one of their primary challenges.

The FireEye shows an interactive floor plan map with current locations of each firefighter, his or her "buddy" (following the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) "Buddy System") and team members; areas where smoke alarms have activated; remaining air supply; and key building features.

The GUI is kept simple to prevent the FireEye from becoming a distraction. The FireEye also acts via SmokeNet as a communication means for frequent yes/no checkups with the IC, and automatically alerts the user of emergencies like "low air" and "evacuate" using tactile and visual communication. This can mitigate information overload from walkie-talkies by reducing the often overwhelming amount of broadcast radio traffic. Continuously updated information comes from SmokeNet's radio frequency enabled location, temperature and smoke sensors.

The information collected is evaluated by a computer on the firefighter, updating the GUI with a new map view and any messages. There is a simple user interface control system for zooming in and out of the floor plan and making limited communication (e.g., "help" or "evacuate") with others.


The eICS is an electronic implementation of the NFPA Incident Command System, designed to help the IC orchestrate the scene and assess situations with greater efficiency, more information and higher certainty. It is a software system that runs on the IC's laptop at the incident scene.

A Flash GUI shows important information needed by the IC, such as resource allocation, location of personnel on the floor plans of the building and biometric data of firefighters including air supply and heart rate. A Java GUI shows personnel location, and allows communication between the IC and firefighters. This includes the ability for the IC to tell personnel to go to a room by clicking on that room.

Data is transmitted via SmokeNet. It alerts the IC when the PASS system senses no movement of personnel, or a physiological problem. The system allows efficient information management, simple yes/no checkups and selected commands such as "evacuate," making it an important tool for this challenging and complex environment.

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