ERT Systems recently released OnSite ERT, a rapidly deployable system for tracking emergency personnel and equipment at a scene, said company president Dennis Carmichael.

OnSite ERT tracking system consists of sensors and transmitters, as well as software pieces. Each person or piece of equipment is tagged with small, lightweight ID badges powered by an AAA battery. For example, the tag is placed in sewn pockets on firefighters’ turnout gear or strapped to the side of equipment. The tags then are read by drop readers, which are lunchbox-sized, hardened units manually placed around the fireground. When the unit is activated, it seeks out a GPS lock and looks around for “any other drop units it can see,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael said the drop readers create an ad hoc network. If additional boxes show up — regardless of which public-safety agencies deploy them — they’ll join the network already in progress and relay information point to point.

Boxes are dropped around the fire zone — determined by command — and are assigned to a predestinated zone, such as for decontamination or live fireground. Data are sent to a command laptop. The command laptop gets the signal strength readings off tags and GPS coordinates for boxes. Then, the GUI displays zone and firefighter locations.

“It keeps a running log of everybody, such as where they are located in the building, how long they’ve been there, their movement and so forth,” Carmichael said.

A status page lists firefighters and equipment, as well as in which zone each is located. Zones can be color-coded per a department’s preference, said John Ellis, the company’s vice president of product design. “But typically a hot zone A is red, staging is green, rehab might be blue. The inside box changes when the firefighter moves from a staging to hot zone A,” he said. “Keep in mind the application is customized, so department’s can name zones based on their specific terminology.”

Carmichael said other departments in the region that purchase the equipment can act interoperable at a large scale if their PC has Internet connection. “If there is a large-scale event and personnel from another department provide mutual aid, they can be added to the network,” he said. “If they have the system, then the tag is read by the command software, searches the internet for photo identification and providers verification as they arrive on scene. [The software] adds the scene commander zone on the GUI, same with vehicles and apparatus.”

The Englewood (N.J.) Fire Department recently deployed the system. Englewood is a career fire department with technical-rescue, hazmat, structural and basic life support response with an annual call volume of approximately 2,200. The system’s purchase was paid for through a FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant.

“It was as we configured about $44,000, that included four readers for four sides of structures, 55 tags and three software licenses and also to modify the turnout gear,” Deputy Fire Chief Gerald Marion said. “It has been used for only one fire structure call so far.”

Marion said a fire is a dynamic and fluid environment where firefighters move through different roles quickly. “And we’ve been in situation where we’ve lost track of personnel or they weren’t where we expected them to be,” he said. “So when we saw this technology, it intrigued us.”

Other tracking systems didn’t have the flexibility the department needed, Marion said. Most were tied to specific devices that had to be on the person at all times, such as a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA.
Instead, ERT’s system was mobile. The department had special pockets sewn onto their turnout gear for the ID badges. Tags are removable but are usually left in pockets because structure fires are the department’s biggest call.

“If we are in a technical rescue where we are not wearing an SCBA we can still get a count of personnel on scene,” he said of the tags.

Marion said the GUI shows a two-dimensional representation of color-coded zones that can be customized. He said adding additional boxes helps command more finely tune the tracking of personnel.

“So the more lunchboxes you have—because that’s what they look like—the more you are able to finely tune where you’re people are at,” he said

Marion said public-safety agencies interested in tracking personnel have plenty of homework to do. He said leadership needs to examine all the accountability systems available, the way each operates and determine what the department hopes to get out of such systems before committing.

So far, he recommends ERT’s system because it performed to expectations.

“I was able to see every single firefighter that was on scene,” he said. “It also gave me the tools I needed to account for my personnel, take a roll call and provided alarms to when they might be running low on air.”