Public Safety & Homeland Security

System Tracks Firefighters in Real Time, Improves Incident Management

The Dayville, Conn., Fire Company utilizes wireless tracking of firefighters to improve emergency response and after-incident accountability.

by Corey McKenna / January 8, 2010
A generic photo of a firefighter.

For an incident commander, keeping track of firefighters and equipment at the scene of an emergency can be a paper-intensive, manual process. Before deploying a system that uses radio frequency identification tags to track firefighters, the Dayville, Conn., Fire Company distributed tags to firefighters at the door of a burning building before they entered it and then retrieved the tag when they exited.

“We are in the 21st century and handing in a tag to a person at the door was just not feasible,” said Michael Hewko, chief of the Dayville, Conn., Fire Company.

Hewko deployed OnSite ERT to track his personnel at an incident and improve after-incident accountability. The system is composed of a management console, lunch-box-sized tag readers, and a wearable tag that fits in an equipment pocket on a firefighter’s suit and broadcasts his location to the reader and back to the management software. That allows incident commanders to easily generate an account of the entire incident and where each of the firefighters are at all times.

En route to the scene, the incident commander starts the software. At the scene, the incident commander places the readers around the hot zone as part of the initial size up, defines the different areas in software and ties the readers to the zones in the software.

Hewko said the firefighters like it because they don’t have to remember to turn in any tags as they move around the scene. “You just put it on your body and I will know where you are,” he said.

In addition to letting the incident commander know where the firefighters are, the software also can provide a reminder to do a periodic roll call. “And you get a print out of the whole situation, and you can account for where the people are basically at all times,” he said.


Return on Investment

“Knowing we haven’t had any casualties. That’s a big return,” Hewko said. “My main objective is once that incident is over, everybody goes home safe.”

Years ago, a firefighter with the Dayville Fire Company died in his sleep after an incident. Hewko recalled having to visit the family afterward. “I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I will do whatever I can, not to let that happen.”

The department’s implementation of OnSite ERT cost $40,000, which its board of directors approved as a means to protect the firefighters. “I said I was tired of tags,” he said. “It’s the 21st century. We’ve got to get a computer. There’s enough computer programs and software and wireless stuff out there that this can be done.”


Desired Improvements

While the system provides value to the fire company, there are a few features Hewko would like to see added, such as 3-D personnel location. Readers could be deployed to each of the floors and then tell the incident commanders which firefighters were on which floors of a multistory structure fire. However, that would require a reader for each floor.

“The other thing I asked them to look into recently is a distress button on the reader on the badges,” he said. “If the guy is in distress, he should have a button that tells me at the command center that we have a person down or in distress.”