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S&T's POINTER system pinpoints first responder locations

When firefighters rush into a burning building, it is imperative that they and their operations team know their precise locations at all times. Even with global positioning systems (GPS) and other tracking technologies, environmental conditions, obstructions and interference from the building materials can severely limit pinpointing them. In the event of an injury, search teams rely on communications systems to rescue these first responders. The Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is developing a new system, known as the Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders (POINTER) to help tackle this challenge.

 “This technology is critical to ensuring the safety of our first responders. In the event that they lose communication with their command unit, we will be able to pinpoint locations as close as three feet,” said Deputy Under Secretary for Science and Technology Dr. Robert Griffin, a former firefighter. “Besides assisting the first responder community, we could use this technology for a variety of response capabilities, such as a mine collapse to pinpoint the exact location of trapped individuals.”

S&T partnered with National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) to begin development of POINTER in 2014. Recently, we conducted testing which determined that the technology is reliable with a margin of error of less than three feet. This would allow rescue workers to determine the specific location of a first responder who is wearing the transmitter.. The next step for testing involves a three dimensional tracking capability, allowing the system to identify both the location and floor the  responder is on.

“A locator device that can pinpoint someone within one meter or less of their actual location is critical to keeping our first responders safe. We are very close to achieving that with our POINTER system,” said S&T’s First Responders Group Director of Responder Technologies Greg Price.

 Traditional locator devices use GPS, inertial measurement units and other technologies. POINTER sets itself apart by using low-frequency magnetic fields that can transmit signals through any building materials.POINTER transmitter

“POINTER uses a system of electrically-small magnetic field loops to generate a field of energy that can penetrate most material,” said Price.

The responder wears a small transmitter–which sends location information to a receiver and ultimately a base station or command post.

During field trials, POINTER was tested rigorously in structures that simulated the type of environments first responders work in.  The technology will go through additional field trials in the spring of 2016. The technology is expected to be transitioned to commercial use in 2017.


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