NIST works on standards for emergency personnel

Project aimed at creating standards language that could be understood by all official emergency response groups.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working to serve emergency responders through a project to create "intelligent" building systems with self-organizing wireless networks.

The institute is planning to release a final report on the first phase of the project by the end of the year. The research aims to suggest ways to standardize how "first responders" to emergencies communicate and collect data so their information can be shared, updated and acted upon quickly.

"The technology is not the issue; it is the standards that are the issue," said David Holmberg, a mechanical engineer at NIST.

The goal of the project is to create standards language that could be understood by all official groups that respond to emergencies.

The wireless network would provide real-time data from sensors and video cameras. Firefighters could use laptop computers to track the spread of a developing fire on a floor plan before they reached a building. NIST is collaborating with the building industry and public-safety and information technology groups.

NIST also is working on the durability and communication capabilities of tags using radio-frequency identification technology, or RFID, that first responders could use. The tags would be placed in buildings, and firefighters would use "readers" that people outside a burning building, for example, would be able to access simultaneously.

However, researchers have not determined whether RFID tags would work effectively within buildings and in conditions of extreme heat, NIST Fire Protection Engineer David Stroup said.

According to Stroup, NIST aims to have an RFID prototype available by 2007. He expects that by the end of 2006, NIST will have determined whether RFID applications could work in buildings.

"I believe that [RFID] has some potential. I am not sure it will be the only answer," he said. "RFID may well work with an ad hoc network. Firefighters would basically become nodes in a wireless network."

Another NIST initiative is a personal alert safety system. It focuses on the performance of devices that could be attached to firefighters and sound an alarm when no movement occurs after a certain time. NIST also is working on testing and standards efforts for urban search-and-rescue robots, as well as a device that could predict the structural collapse of buildings.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee this fall, Dereck Orr, NIST's program manager for public-safety communications systems, said experts should be able to share information via voice and data signals in real time.

The goal is to have cross-jurisdiction communications capabilities that "will be available using equipment from multiple manufacturers, that they are transparent to the user, requiring little or no special knowledge of the system, and that they are not dependent on common frequency assignments," Orr said.

NIST received $378.8 million for scientific and technical research and services, and $373.4 million for its laboratories for fiscal 2005.