Spiraling Into Control

An intriguing DHS program fills safety gaps fast with low-cost technology.

An intriguing DHS program fills safety gaps fast with low-cost technology.

When firefighters rush into a burning building, their chief manages the incident from outside. Chiefs would love to have a tool pinpointing the precise location of their crews inside a building at any moment, in case the fire changes direction or part of the building collapses. But metal and steel can interfere with the signal from, say, a Global Positioning System. And most GPSs would not be able to distinguish between parallel spaces on different floors.

The Homeland Security Department is working on a device to solve the problem as part of a new first responder technology development program called TechSolutions. Housed in the Science and Technology Directorate, DHS' research and development arm, the program aims to take capability gaps identified by police, firefighters, emergency medical teams and bomb squads and develop a prototype solution quickly and cheaply.

Any first responder technology project that can produce a prototype within 12 to 15 months for less than $1 million is eligible. The goal is to develop a solution that satisfies at least 80 percent of first responders' requirements. This piecemeal approach, called spiral development, is popular in software and weapons manufacturing because it allows an early version to be released quickly, with later updated versions, if necessary.

TechSolutions is the brainchild of DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology Jay M. Cohen. In less than a year, Cohen has remodeled the directorate with several of the innovations he brought to the Office of Naval Research, where he was chief before joining DHS. One of his ONR programs was TechSolutions. "We're very innovative with the names," jokes Jose Vazquez, who ran TechSolutions at ONR and now heads DHS' TechSolutions. "It was very similar, except first responders for the Navy are sailors and Marines. Here, they're fire, police, EMTs and bomb disposal."

Vazquez came with Cohen to DHS last August as a special assistant to the undersecretary, before assuming his new position as director for first responder technologies. He says TechSolutions is driven from start to finish by first responders to ensure that "what is delivered is something that meets their needs. This is not done in a vacuum."

To jump-start the $10 million program, DHS solicited the InterAgency Board for Equipment Standardization and Interoperability, a quasi-governmental group that develops nationwide requirements for incident response. As a result, it received 15 of the group's highest-priority requirements. One of them is a 3-D situational awareness device that can locate fire crews inside a building.

Vazquez says DHS is working on a "cocktail of solutions" that employ GPSs, altimeters and dead reckoning-a navigation system that advances a course using a known position and variables such as speed and time.

The goal is to release a prototype by April 2008 that can estimate first responder positions within a meter. But Vazquez says the department will introduce a version with 3-meter accuracy by September to begin testing. Such spiral development could expedite the development of the more accurate version, Vazquez says, because lessons learned during the testing of the less accurate model could be incorporated into the later design.

Vazquez's group-which currently has one other staffer, but eventually will include two more-is developing other technologies. One is an ocular scanner that could screen emergency responders' eyes to determine whether they had been exposed to certain toxic chemicals. (Fires frequently give off poisonous chemicals in buildings, Vazquez says.)

Another is a remote triage device that could determine from afar an individual's pulse rate, blood pressure and other vital signs. This would come in handy in the event of a mass casualty incident, Vazquez says, because emergency responders could determine before they arrived on the scene which victims to triage. TechSolutions also is looking at what improved tactics and training it can offer to emergency personnel who respond to an improvised explosive device attack in the United States.

Cohen arrived at the department in August 2006 on the same day news broke of the foiled liquid explosive plot to down transatlantic airliners. He had to set up an ad hoc group at the directorate to look at that threat immediately.

If a similarly urgent need arose now, Vazquez says, TechSolutions could take it on, even if it was unrelated to first responders. The program gives DHS a core group of people dedicated to short-term technology development. "The ability to do these kinds of things always existed in the department," he says. "But if you don't have a TechSolutions-type budget and a group doing that, then for each event you're going to have to put together a new group and work through the mechanics."