Fahrenheit 20/20: SmokeNet Communication System

In firefighting, access to good information is critical to making split-second decisions, especially in treacherous high-rise buildings where the conditions are chaotic and extremely stressful on a good day. Yet when these brave men and women arrive on the scene, they often have little more than a handheld radio receiving directions from Incident Command (IC) below to guide them.

Thanks to a unique collaboration between the Chicago Fire Department and Berkeley graduate students, the way these dangerous high-rise fires are fought soon could change radically. Called Fire Information and Rescue Equipment (FIRE), the system they’ve developed provides firefighters with the real-time information crucial to making good life-and-death decisions via an interactive display mounted right inside the firefighter’s mask dubbed FireEye. CITRIS researcher and Associate Dean of the College of Engineering Paul Wright has been supervising the project.

With its tall skyline and long history of fighting dangerous fires, the Chicago Fire Department is perhaps more aware than most of what’s at stake for firefighters who battle high-rise blazes, making their experience and insights invaluable to the project.

“When firefighters go into a large high-rise building, often smoke is filling the hallways and corridors over a few different floors and there is little or no visibility. All they have is their handheld radios to communicate with the incident commander outside, and sometimes those don’t work, especially if they’re 60 stories up or if multiple people are talking on the same channel at the same time. They’re not actually carrying a paper floor plan because that would be impractical. So it’s really easy for them to get lost,” explains Joel Wilson, a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering who has worked closely with the fire department on the design and user interface for the FireEye.

The shortcomings of this system tragically came to light on September 11, 2001, when New York City firefighters’ radios failed to work inside the World Trade Center. Many of the 343 firefighters who died on that day never received the repeated urgent commands for them to evacuate.

Indeed, it was one of Chicago’s responses to 9/11 that forms the backbone of FIRE. Shortly after that event, the city began requiring that all buildings over a certain height (currently 80 feet or approximately seven stories) submit updated electronic floor plans every six months. “The floor plans are really the beginning of this puzzle. Without them, you’re totally working blind,” says Wright. A component of FIRE called eICS (for electronic implementation of the Incident Command System) combines these maps with live data on not only the location of firefighters inside the building but also biometrics such as heart rate and air supply.

The next step is to get that critical information to those who need it. Enter SmokeNet. A wireless sensor network embedded in smart smoke detectors throughout the building, SmokeNet receives and sends critical information about smoke penetration, heat, and the whereabouts and status of personnel. Firefighters and IC aren’t the only ones to receive this data. It’s also sent to small LED stoplights mounted outside entranceways. A green light indicates to occupants and firefighters alike that it’s safe to enter, while a red light alerts them to dangerous conditions and yellow suggests caution.

The last and most crucial part of the system is the FireEye. Wright compares it to the “You are here” maps found at shopping malls and amusement parks, only in this system, the “you are here” map moves around showing you where you really are not just sort of where you are.” FireEye consists of a small computer, incorporated into the firefighter’s gear, with a tiny display, located inside the mask, as well as a radio beacon that communicates back-and-forth with SmokeNet. Using a small button, firefighters can zoom in and out of the map, figure out their location relative to their colleagues, and thus navigate more safely and effectively. Meanwhile, IC can keep tabs on everyone from below.

What makes this project particularly unique and effective has been the Chicago Fire Department’s close involvement. After reading in the MIT Technology Review about a head-mounted information system for motorcyclists designed by two of Wright’s students, Dan Steingart and Russell Romero, the fire department contacted Wright asking if they could design something similar for firefighters. Chicago has worked with the Berkeley team ever since, providing their real-world experience and advice to help shape the design process. For example, the FireEye has undergone multiple iterations based on feedback from Chicago.

“Chicago has really stepped up to the plate. They’re fighting fires on a daily basis. They know their protocols and strategies. They bring skills and experience we would never have. Without them we wouldn’t have had a really exciting interaction on this project,” says Wright.

The project was also made possible by the Ford Motor Company, a CITRIS Associate Corporate Member. Early prototypes of the FireEye were built at the Ford Prototype Lab, whose equipment is used in a number of CITRIS projects including the California Energy Commission’s Demand-Response program.

Although still in the prototype phase, the project is progressing rapidly. The Berkeley team presented FIRE at the Chicago Fire Department’s first High-Rise Life Safety Conference in August. Plans are underway at the Chicago Fire Department to rig their headquarters with a sensor network and test it out the system.

Presiding over UC Berkeley’s demonstration booth at the Chicago Fire Department’s High Rise Life Safety Conference are Joel Wilson (graduate student in Mechanical Engineering), Vikas Bhargava (undergrad student in the EECS Dept.), and Colin Patton (undergrad student in Mechanical Engineering). The conference took place August 17-20, 2005 at Navy Pier in Chicago. The team demonstrated their new FireEye PC104 based wearable computer and 640×480 pixel HMD prototype to Chicago Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter and chiefs from across the country and around the world. Having received much positive feedback on the concept and prototype design, their next step is to perform navigation and situational awareness experiments with test subjects to examine the effectiveness of the design. (Photograph by Paul Wright.)

SmokeNet is a dynamic wireless sensor network composed of four types of communication nodes. Each node has its own functions and set of sensors. These nodes would replace typical smoke sensors currently used in buildings. When a firefighter enters a SmokeNet-enabled building, SmokeNet will identify the firefighter’s location, locations of other firefighters, locations of the fire, and messages from the Incident Command (IC). The sensors will also monitor the firefighter’s air tank level and heart rate and send the information to other firefighters and to the IC. The wireless prototypes are being created in the Ford Lab – a 2,000 square foot design studio in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Berkeley. (Image courtesy of Joel Wilson.)

Professor Paul Wright presents the SmokeNet prototype at a breakout session. Joel Wilson is in the foreground, wearing the unit. (Photograph by Colin Patton.)

Chicago Fire Commissioner Cortez Trotter shows attendees the head-mounted prototype worn by Joel Wilson. Joel is also wearing a small computer (black box) which is attached to an oxygen tank. (Photograph by Colin Patton.)

For more information:

Chicago Fire Dept., Berkeley Testing Rescue Communication System