An innovative startup company in Texas is working to develop and distribute wearable, tracking technology for first responders — technology that does not require GPS.
Chris Kehl, along with a group of mostly firefighters, says the company ResponderX is at a point where it’s nearly ready to start testing its TaskForceTracker equipment in real-life scenarios, and the Bryan Fire Department in Texas is the first to step up and offer to pilot the program.
“You go in and it’s black, you can’t see your hand in front of your face. You do everything by feel, and especially if you can’t find a wall, it’s very easy to get disoriented,” Kehl, who is director of client relations, described for The Eagle about the time he found himself disoriented while responding to an attic fire in San Antonio. “If I said I wasn’t scared, I’d be lying.”
ResponderX is the brainchild of Andrew Jarrett, a cyber security instructor at the Texas Engineering Extension Service and volunteer firefighter. Jarrett said the company is pursuing funding but expects to manufacture the hardware and launch 24-7 IT support for pilot testing at fire departments throughout Texas by the end of the year.
TaskForceTracker is attached to firefighters’ helmets and works by sending coordinate information to ‘network hubs’ located on fire trucks and first-responder vehicles. Jarret tells The Eagle the hardware is synced with hubs in real time.
The more available hubs — the more accurate the information.
At peak accuracy, the company anticipates TaskForceTracker can locate firefighters within 10 centimeters, but Kehl said one hub would at least identify the room where the firefighter is located. He adds that for smaller, volunteer departments, the company can place a hub on the front and another on the back end.
A simple user interface enables quick deployment of the technology in any environment.
“Fire up a tablet, and everything is there,” Jarrett said.
Jarret’s inspiration for the technology is founded in firefighter safety. He reflects on the scenario that sparked his invention.
Jarrett said he was inspired to create the technology after a fire at the Knights of Columbus Hall Fire in Bryan in 2013 left two firefighters dead and two others severely burned, including a friend who was a victim.
According to a State Fire Marshal’s Office official report, about 15 minutes after Bryan firefighters entered the Knights of Columbus Hall, “visibility immediately turned to zero and the conditions became extremely hot.”
One of the firefighters, Lt. Eric Wallace, became separated from other firefighters. Low on air, he radioed that he was disoriented and the hose line that could direct him to the entrance was covered by debris. Wallace died when the structure collapsed. Bryan’s Lt. Greg Pickard died from smoke inhalation and heat injuries he sustained while attempting to rescue Wallace.
When the report came out more than a year after the fire, Jarrett found himself frequently mulling it over — ResponderX was born.
“I kept going through it,” Jarret told The Eagle. “We could just have something that could have avoided a lot of this.”
Bryan Fire Department Chief Randy McGregor said the department would soon sign a memorandum of understanding to formalize the agreement to test the equipment in real fire-rescue situations. He said he has high hopes.
“We became very interested, because I do believe it could dramatically increase firefighter safety as far as tracking firefighters in a building and knowing where they are in a building,” the Chief said.
The pilot program will supplement, not replace, the current system of tracking responders by status updates on the radio.
For Kehl, TaskForceTracker is part of filling a larger need for technological advancement both in households and in fire departments.
“It’s a dangerous job,” he tells The Eagle. “There’s been a lot of advancing in firefighter safety and training over the years, but the bottom line is until we start applying our technology across the board into our homes … and get residential home sprinkler systems and smoke detectors in every home, we are still going to have to go in and find victims and fight the fire.”
TaskForceTracker is completely independent of radio repeaters or Internet connectivity and can work in the most hostile environments including heavy structures or remote wilderness, according to the company’s Website.
The patent-pending system for first responders is currently undergoing extensive testing and development. Pilots with select agencies are beginning soon with general pilots and purchasing options will be available later in 2017.
ResponderX is currently seeking emergency services agencies to participate in research and testing of the TaskForceTracker system. The company is also seeking out industry partners with whom to integrate the platform, providing even greater functionality.
For inquiries into TaskForceTracker, the startup is asking people to e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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