NYC firefighters are being tracked with military-developed radio tags

NYC firefighters are being tracked with military-developed radio tags
written by Nancy Scola

A firefighter works at the scene of a five-alarm fire that burned for several hours June 5 in the Staten Island borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City’s fire department is experimenting with outfitting its firefighters with $20 radio tags. Think of it as an E-Z Pass for tracking firefighters during the confusion of an emergency.

The new tool is, in some ways, part of the ongoing response to the chaos of the Sept. 11, 2001,  terrorist attacks. Back then, reports the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Space Systems Development Department, which is working on the project, the technology driving the department’s ride lists consisted of paper and carbon copies.

“It’s in a little sealed plastic — it looks like a little key fob, actually,” said George Arthur, a Naval Research Laboratory engineer, in a statement. “They’re positioned over the left breast, inside the bunker coat in a little Kevlar pocket that’s sewn in there. And it just sends out a little ping every five seconds: Here I am, here I am, here I am.”

Back on the truck, a $1,100 reader picks up the signal. “It just listens and says, ‘Okay, 1234, that’s Jessica Smith,’ so we know Jessica Smith is nearby,” said NRL’s David DeRieux. The data is also sent back to the FDNY’s command center in Brooklyn, too, and projected on a wall to help in the wide-scale coordination of firefighters.  They are currently testing the technology on 15 trucks.

The FDNY has long tried adopting technologies that Arthur calls “beneficial, not just to the warfighter, but also to the average citizen.” That military-to-local tech transfer hasn’t always worked so well in other cities, as we saw recently with the equipping of police with military-grade equipment in Ferguson, Mo. And it hasn’t always worked so well in the case of New York City’s firefighting efforts, either.

Joe Flood is the author of “The Fires,” a book on how, in the 1970s, the city adopted the RAND Corp.’s military-developed models for distributing resources. That data-driven approach, when coupled with political favoritism, helped draw firefighting resources away from New York City’s poorest areas, Flood has argued. That decade saw fires ravage much of New York, particularly the South Bronx. But the RAND model still spread to other cities.

So what, 40 years on, does Joe Flood make of the FDNY’s new location-aware RFID tags? They seem kinda neat, he said in an interview. They hint at a shift from computer-driven firefighting to computer-assisted firefighting. And show that the application of military-tech to local safety efforts isn’t itself fatally flawed, said Flood. “You learn a lot about death and life from war, and so some transfers can be useful.”

But Flood wonders how well the technology can determine firefighters’ precise locations — like what floor of a building they are on. Indoor tracking, admits the Naval lab’s DeReiux, is “a very tough nut to crack,” in part because a six-inch shift in any direction could mean the difference of being on one side of a wall or the other.

To Flood, that’s a real limitation. “There’s not a lot of outdoors firefighting situations happening in New York City where you don’t know where anyone is,” he said. “If it’s outdoors, it’s like a brush fire in Staten Island where you can yell to each other from 50 feet away.”

“It seems like an interesting little gadget,” said Flood, “that doesn’t really have a purpose yet.”

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