Orange firefighters to test new radio technology

The department's fire academy will use a system being developed by MeshNetworks.

By Christopher Boyd | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 14, 2003

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Becoming stranded in a burning building is one of the worst things that can happen to a firefighter. The maelstrom of flame and smoke obscures escape routes, and rescue crews trying to find a disoriented colleague can lose their way and perish.

The Orange County Fire-Rescue Department is hopeful that a new technology it will begin testing this month offers a solution that could save lives in the split-second chaos of major fires.

"There's a great need to keep track of people at a fire scene, particularly when things go wrong," said Bill Godfrey, the department's deputy chief for training and technology. "There have been an enormous number of firefighter fatalities in recent years when people have gotten lost in burning buildings."

MeshNetworks, a Maitland telecommunications company, developed equipment that constantly updates commanders on the location of everyone fighting a fire.

The technology, as the company's name implies, is called mesh. It uses radios attached to the firefighters to form a communications web that not only makes passing information easier but also transmits the coordinates of everybody in the operation to a command center.

The field trial is a new step for MeshNetworks, which has been developing its technology as an alternative to cellular phone communications. In a mesh, each phone becomes a part of a web.

Unlike cellular systems, which connect mobile phones to nearby communications towers, meshed phones connect to one another. Calls are relayed from phone to phone until they reach a transmitter that connects them to the wired phone network.

MeshNetworks teamed with IBM Corp. to adapt the technology for fighting fires, and the Orange County department is the first in the nation to test it. Godfrey said that if it works well at the department's fire academy, it will be tried in the field.

Chris Couper, an IBM engineer and former firefighter who is working on the MeshNetworks project, envisions a day when small mesh radios are planted in buildings and throughout metropolitan areas. Most of the time, they would handle standard communications, but could be converted for emergency use when necessary.

"You can preinstall mesh radios in a building so that the fire department has an instant network in place when they enter the building," Couper said. The more mesh radios in a location, Couper said, the easier it is to keep the network operating.

Mesh cuts interference

Couper said the mesh technology is particularly valuable in places where other communications break down. The global positioning system, for example, works well for pinpointing people carrying receivers in the open, but fails inside buildings.

"About 90 percent of the buildings in New York City have some communications problems that interfere with cell phones and radios," Couper said. "The mesh system wouldn't have a problem."

Rick Rotondo, spokesman for MeshNetworks, said that the use of mesh radios in firefighting offers a major improvement in the way on-the-scene commanders keep track of their people. The transmitters can send video images and other data, including temperature information.

"Commanders use magnetic or dry-erase boards to do the job," Rotondo said. "That's the state of technology, and it hasn't changed much since the 1940s or '50s. This is the first time that a 21st-century solution has been deployed to help firefighters do their jobs."

Systems have limits

Rotondo said the technology could help save lives, but he said there are still limitations. No one, he said, could devise a communications network that would have saved the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, World Trade Center attacks.

"It would be pretentious to say that we could have solved a problem like the World Trade Center," Rotondo said. "There's not a system made by man that could have worked in that situation. But we can help in thousands of other incidents where firefighters are at risk."

Christopher Boyd can be reached at [email protected] or 407-420-5723.

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