Technology enabling firefighters to retrace steps in a crisis
‘Hansel and Gretel’ inspired system leads those caught up in a fire to safety
Martin Trainor: ‘Existing solutions are only partially successful and very expensive because they are technology heavy.’
Every eight minutes a firefighter dies or is seriously injured while on duty somewhere in the world.
Getting trapped, lost, or disoriented in a burning building is a major contributor to injury and death and this prompted long-serving firefighter Martin Trainor to develop Pathfinder, a technology-led guiding system that brings people to safety.
Trainor is a senior assistant chief fire officer with Cavan County Fire Service and the idea for Pathfinder was sparked while reading a bedtime story to his son.
“It was the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel where the children dropped pebbles so they could retrace their steps,” Trainor says. “It suddenly struck me that we could use the same concept within the fire service if we could make the pebbles ‘smart’ and able to talk to each other. Then, no matter how deep someone went into a building, the signal could be bounced back and firefighters could use the pebbles to retrace their steps. In addition, digital tags would allow the incident commander to monitor the firefighters’ movement and quickly see if someone was lost.”
One day he was sitting in the library when he noticed the DCU Invent building
Martin Trainor is a chartered engineer with an MSc in Fire and Explosion Engineering and a BSc in building engineering and management. To broaden his qualifications, he decided to do an executive MBA at DCU. One day he was sitting in the library when he noticed the DCU Invent building. Curious about its role (it’s an innovation and enterprise centre) he paid it a visit and got chatting to people about his idea for Pathfinder.
Trainor was subsequently introduced to Dr Conor Brennan and Dr Derek Molloy from DCU’s School of Electronic Engineering and they became the principal investigators on the project – or in layman’s terms the people who could turn Trainor’s “pebbles” into a tangible device. Eighteen months later and Pathfinder is about to begin robust testing in live environments with Dublin Fire Brigade and the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service.
“Existing solutions are only partially successful and very expensive because they are technology heavy. They are also an ‘outside-in’ approach which involves locating base stations around the perimeter of a building to track the signal from a lost firefighter,” Trainor explains. “These solutions have inherent weaknesses, particularly loss of signal strength, and getting them up and running requires a certain level of technical ability. It also takes time which delays the firefighters’ mission. Despite a lot of industry effort, a workable solution has yet to be developed and the International Forum to Advance First Responder Innovation has identified this problem as their number one global capability gap.”
The devices have a light and emit an audible signal and the firefighters use this route to find their way back out safely
Trainor’s solution tackles the tracking problem from the perspective of the firefighters who adhere a series of Pathfinder devices to walls or other structures on their way into a building. The devices have a light and emit an audible signal and the firefighters use this clearly marked route to find their way back out safely. “The way finders create a localised ad hoc mesh network within the structure to reliably track the progress of firefighters through personalised digital ID tags,” Trainor explains. “The way finders also allow the incident commander to monitor the temperature and immediately identify any rapid rise that could potentially cause people to get trapped.”
Pathfinder is still at an early stage and will be spun out from DCU in September when Trainor will go into the business fulltime. It has cost about €340,000 to develop the product with funding from an Enterprise Ireland commercialisation grant. The technology is aimed at fire authorities and other first-line responders across the globe and the next step is raising money to roll out the commercial launch. Keeping the device cost competitive will be vital as many fire services around the world are voluntary and don’t have big budgets to spend on equipment.