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Using networked sensors, firefighters can escape burning buildings alive

A new sensor-based system could help track firefighters’ vital signs and alert them when the air becomes hot enough to ignite.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute engineers James Duckworth and David Cyganski leveraged a decade’s worth of research and development for their system, which utilizes portable sensors to track firefighters and detect when temperatures near 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s the temperature when “flashover” occurs — that is, when things begin to automatically ignite.

The system employs a box to be placed inside a room of flames to detect heat differences between the ceiling and floor. Sensors attached to firefighters’ harnesses and face masks transmit the user’s location and vital signs — important since heart attacks account for half of all firefighter deaths — to radio receivers mounted on trucks’ ladders, controlled by colleagues outside.

If it gets too hot, the commander can order the building to be cleared out, ensuring that all firefighters who enter a burning building come out alive.

That’s an important point, since the catalyst event for this development was the death of six local firefighters in 1999.

Last August, the researchers received $1 million from FEMA to build a proof-of-concept version of the system with wireless system manufacturer WPI, sensor manufacturer Foster Miller Inc. and NIST.

The researchers aim to have the system field-ready by 2013.

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