(Ed.: This article originally appeared in print as "Where there's smoke, there's trouble.")

Because of the inherent danger and physical demands, firefighting is a high-anxiety occupation. Every second counts as firefighters work frantically to minimize damage to property and — more important — preserve the well-being of those living in the immediate area.

But sometimes firefighters and other first responders encounter situations in which they need to be saved as much as the occupants of a burning building, after becoming disoriented or lost. Typical protocol calls for firefighters to have a partner with them at all times, but these partners can get separated, according to Charles Werner, fire chief for the city of Charlottesville, Va.

The problem could be the result of a structural issue — for example, the collapse of a wall, floor or ceiling — a physical injury or other unwanted circumstances that cause a firefighter to lose his bearings. Whatever the reason, the realization is terrifying both for the distressed firefighter and everyone else at the scene, Werner said.

"When you get into zero visibility, and you get disoriented, it's probably one of the scariest feelings you'll ever have," Werner said, noting that he was in such a precarious scenario once during his career. "You're in an intolerable environment — it's literally unsurvivable without protection, but you only have a limited amount of air, and depending on how hot it is, you can only stand the heat so long.

"And, when you're a fire chief, it's your worst nightmare — you realize that you only have minutes in a lot of cases to actually save the firefighter who is lost. It takes everything that you've got and everybody that's on the scene to make that happen."

To date, there is little technology in the field that is able to help. Emergency buttons on LMR radios can alert everyone on the scene that there is a "man down," but the distressed firefighter typically must be within earshot of another crew member or needs to be able to describe his location to an incident commander, who can deploy a Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) to find the firefighter.

However, a disoriented or unconscious firefighter can provide little information, meaning the RIT members are left to play a guessing game — in cloud of thick, acrid smoke — that normally starts at the last known position of the downed firefighter. GPS has become an increasingly common feature on LMR radios, but the technology usually does not work inside a building, where a satellite does not have a clear path to the radio. In addition, GPS only provides longitude and latitude (X and Y) coordinates; one of the biggest location challenges is determining which floor the firefighter is on in a multi-story building, i.e.,the user's altitude (Z coordinate).

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's directorate of science and technology (DHS S&T) has invested considerable resources to develop a viable solution to this life-and-death quandary. After years of work, officials are hopeful they have found the answer with the Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders (GLANSER) technology, which is designed to provide three-dimensional location data for firefighters without interfering with their normal operations.


If tested and commercialized successfully, the technology could be a popular tool in the firefighting community, because it addresses a longtime problem, Werner said.

"That's probably the fire chief's worst nightmare — to have a lost firefighter and not know where he or she is," he said. "To be able to resolve that issue and rescue a firefighter probably would be one of — if not the — most important technologies that we'll put in place.