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How Emerging Technology Can Augment Urban Search and Rescue Communications

Author: Mark Stevens, Managing Director, DNA Tracker

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-02-14
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As population growth has accelerated and cities have expanded, Search and Rescue’s focus has turned to the most complicated and high-risk environment in which such operations are carried out, the urban space. Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) presents a unique challenge, demanding both a highly-specialized, yet multi-disciplinary approach and therefore modern US&R teams include personnel from police, fire and emergency medical services. Where previously deployment of US&R teams was confined to the results of natural land disasters such as earthquakes and landslides, their remit has grown to encompass extreme weather like tornadoes and hurricanes and, more recently, terrorist attacks. Events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and recently super storm Sandy showed the central importance of US&R teams in emergency situations when attempting to limit loss of life and locate, stabilize and rescue survivors. But with so much wider a focus and the expanded collaboration required to respond to these disasters, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a cohesive communication strategy and relay key information to rescue operatives.


Evaluating Equipment

United States US&R teams are among the best and most highly-trained in the world. But often the success and failure of operations is dictated not by training or ability, but rather by the equipment at a team’s disposal. The past decade has seen the proliferation of a wide variety of engineered tools designed to enable US&R teams to extricate and stabilize victims. But in the critical search phase of the operation, technologies designed to locate trapped persons have proven frustratingly ineffective, and the extent of a team leader’s ability to communicate locations and information is often simply imprecise verbal instruction relayed by robust but antiquated radio technology.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established the National Response Plan for disasters in 1991 and sponsors 28 national US&R task forces trained to deal with structural collapse; these provide a supporting role to local and state emergency systems, who act as lead. FEMA publishes a list of recommended equipment for teams that runs for nearly 60 pages, listing over 2,000 items. Although not the same as the official cache list that all 28 US&R task forces are required to maintain, which contains dozens of items for technical search and communication equipment, this ‘recommended’ list nonetheless demonstrates the paucity of the types of devices available. Listed under ‘technical search specialist equipment’ and ‘communications equipment’, there is just a fiber optic cable camera, snake-eye camera (or equivalents), portable electronic listening device, GPS receivers used with mapping software and portable UHF radios.

It is widely acknowledged that existing methods of victim detection and communication of their location throughout the team are less than ideal and that any improvements are likely to come from technological breakthroughs. Currently, US&R teams rely on physical void search, audible callout, electronic viewing, electronic listening and canine search. Even if all are used in conjunction, experienced searchers know that the techniques and equipment at their disposal are often insufficient. Physically searching and audible call-outs involve the mass deployment of teams, using grid-patterns to ensure full coverage. Aside from being unable to detect hidden and unresponsive victims, and therefore those most in need of attention, the tactics and accompanying communications strategy are inefficient.


Communicative Chaos

With communications issues relative to coordination and interoperability commonly arising when multiple teams are deployed, a solution that can both assist in the search phase and relay accurate information of victim location, along with all search team members’ positions, could radically alter and improve US&R strategy. This solution is one that would need to stem from technological innovation, as the tactic of improving or adapting existing systems has simply failed to deliver. 

This shortfall is something that has been recognised, with FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security co-sponsoring an effort to identify and define functional requirements for new and improved technologies. They published a report stating that events during the rescue efforts in the World Trade Centre in September 2001 had led to the belief that there was a “need for new and improved US&R tools and technologies”.

While material gains have been made in the rescue and medical aspects of the field though, communication capability remains largely unaltered. Teams still, by and large, rely on tactics and equipment developed over a decade ago and, particularly when multiple teams are involved and there is often no standardised protocol or strategy, difficulties arise when carrying out operations.

Much time, expense and effort is continually being pumped into researching and developing future technologies, such as robotics, which might minimize risk to rescuers and improve both capability and durability. But such breakthroughs are some ways off, and focus should be centered on devices that can deliver results more immediately.

A summary of the highest priority needs cited by US&R personnel participating in the FEMA/Department of Homeland Security report concluded that “improved real-time data access”, “the ability to accurately and non-invasively locate survivors following structural collapse” and the development of “real-time, portable, multi-function devices that expand on existing detection capabilities” are essential if tactics are to improve and evolve. The report seems to acknowledge the fact that the search and communication aspects of US&R operations, in technological terms at least, lag far behind the recovery and stabilisation of victims. But this is changing, with systems being engineered with a view to assisting in the difficult task of locating trapped survivors and broadcasting their position with speed in order to stabilise and extract as quickly as possible. When multiple teams are required to collaborate, all members involved need to have a complete overview of the situation on the ground and awareness of colleagues’ movements in order to deliver on the identification, medical assistance and extraction of survivors as quickly and efficiently as possible. 

Some such devices are, fortunately, on the horizon.


Satellite Tracking

Over the past few years, great strides have been made in improving search and rescue satellite-aided tracking, or SARSAT. Pioneered by NASA’s Search and Rescue Mission Office at the Goddard Space Flight Center, efforts have concentrated on refining the next generation of satellite-aided systems. Called the Distress Alerting Satellite System (DASS), the new solution has been attached to a network of GPS satellites and could soon offer full, worldwide coverage after prototype hardware was used for proof-of-concept testing in 2009.

When completed, DASS will be able to almost instantaneously detect and locate distress signals generated by emergency beacons. While mainly intended for installation on aircraft and maritime vessels, the beacons can be carried by individuals. The GPS satellites will have instrument clusters to relay the emergency signals from beacons

If the technology is evolved, it could use micro personal locator beacon which could be carried at all times, for instance being woven into clothing. Where previously beacon locations could only be determined to within a radius of 5 kilometers and can be obstructed by terrain or rubble, DASS promises to overcome these limitations.

The DASS system uses three or more antennas to track different GPS satellites equipped with repeaters, which capture distress signals and retransmit them to the ground. The use of multiple antenna and satellites with varying orbits ensures a higher fidelity and accuracy of beacon positioning. And the technology is already being refined, with built-in future improvement in location accuracy made possible by modification of the beacon signal, if improvements are innovated.


Cellular Tracking

A particularly promising avenue of research, which might assist in providing a solution, is in cellular tracking. Cell tracking usually works by triangulating the location of a wirelessly transmitting device such as a cell phone, tablet or computer. With statistics showing that nearly every person in an urban environment carries one or more of these devices, the capability to accurately locate and track these could prove invaluable when searching for survivors. This presents clear advantages to operatives carrying out the search phase of US&R, with systems able to provide more detailed location data than was previously possible.

Cell tracking utilizes geo-fencing and other sophisticated technologies to find, identify and track the movements of cellular devices that enter a pre-determined, ring-fenced area. Officials would place tracker boxes around a zone of interest, and these would determine the location, movement and direction of cellular devices through the tracking of a unique Media Access Control address (MAC). The information is fed back to a central control unit which can be programmed to display a map of the area and pinpoint the exact whereabouts of any cell within it in real-time.

Because of the properties of the MAC code, the information attached to each tracked cell is exclusive to it. Therefore, there is the potential to superimpose on the real-time map the location and ID of each US&R team member via their own communication devices. Data can also be stored and ‘played back’, providing valuable data for debriefing.


Organic Tracking

Equipment is being developed that might cut out the requirement for a technological intermediary, be it a beacon or cell phone, by detecting vital life signs instead. So-called ‘triage sensors’ have advanced rapidly in the past decade, with prototypes being produced by a team at the University of South Florida, which directs the Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology, as far back as 2005. The team explored the possibility of detecting life signs in a disaster zone in tracking heartbeats and breathing. Unfortunately, initial prototypes met with limited success and were hampered by short range, with a maximum capability of three feet.

Since then, however, the basic principle has been explored by several commercial firms and the most promising utilise microwave sensors that rely on the Doppler effect to penetrate and circumvent obstructions, allowing for the detection and response to minute movements, such as breathing and heartbeats. The equipment uses complex statistical modelling to differentiate between minute human movements and environmental factors in real-time.

Such microwave technology holds great promise, as the sensors do not need exposed sensor units and are unaffected by ambient temperature fluctuations or heat sources.

Were this technology to be perfected in the coming years, portable detection devices could be carried by S&R operatives to be set up within an area of operation. The basic principles could even be scaled upwards, with a larger device affixed to a pilotless drone or helicopter in order to provide a less localized search radius. If this is to become an operational reality, software will need to be produced that is capable of interpreting the mass of data received, with the amount of movement on the ground possibly overwhelming such a sensitive device.


Real-Time Information and Mapping

Satellite, cellular and organic tracking each have the inherent capability of more accurately locating and tracking trapped survivors in real time. This level of data, when assimilated and combined with existing knowledge such as the location of S&R team members, would afford commanders on the ground an unprecedented overview of the situation and rescue effort as it unfolds.

If each S&R operative was issued with a unique identifier or broadcast signal (something satellite and cellular tracking technologies could do with minimal adaptation), there is the potential to superimpose on a real-time map the location and ID of each US&R team member via their own communication devices.

The possibility of a central map containing the probable position of survivors, in addition to the actual location and movements of search and rescue operators, is an appealing one for those on the ground. Such a solution would of course not replace any existing equipment or search strategies, but rather could be used to augment techniques used in the locating of victims and the communications strategy used.

If combined with other technologies, such as robust tablets or mini screens, the map could be instantly updated and broadcast to all team members. By no means is it a catch-all remedy designed to entirely replace existing communication methods, but the technology could nonetheless represent an interoperable solution that would take a large burden off labored communications systems.


Mark Stevens is a leading UK expert on security technology and managing director of DNA Tracker, which develops and provides specialist mobile tracking applications related to crime reduction and public safety. Visit its website at

Photos by Randall D. Larson from US&R CA TF-3 training sessions.



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