Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

April 5, 2013

Jacksonville's Bravest: New monitoring system syncs firefighter gear with central computer – a life-saving arrangement

Ben Tinsley
Jacksonville Daily Progress

JACKSONVILLE — While firefighting has always been part of the good fight, it historically has been a perilous proposition in terms of technology. Much of the equipment involved in saving lives also posed potential danger to firefighters such as Jack-sonville's Bravest.

Problematic equipment included those heavy, heavy, oxygen bottles. Masks that constantly fogged up. No clear indication of oxygen levels when fighting fires. Difficulty being heard when issuing “maydays” for help. Really, not that much time has passed since the outmoded firefighter gear of yesteryear was commonplace.

But these days, more and more new and innovative technologies are coming into play and saving the lives of firefighters.

There is, for instance, the Personal Account-ability Safety System, otherwise known as “P.A.S.S.,” currently is in use by Jacksonville.

“You really need a system like this to fight fires, because it helps keep track of everyone at a fire scene,” explained Jacksonville Fire Chief Paul White.

Under P.A.S.S., firefighters now carry equipment containing sensors linked to and monitored by an outside computer mounted in the fire chief's or fire marshal's vehicle.

This allows officials, for example, to determine exactly how much air they have left to breathe in a 30-minute supply.

If a firefighter goes still for a couple of seconds but is wearing a mask with air still flowing, a special alarm sounds.

“If someone falls motionless during a fire, it will start chirping until he moves,” said Jackson-ville Firefighter Joseph Nix, who has been with the department eight years.

“It also has an emergency button that will bring any crisis up up on the chief's screen.”

If this situation turns out to be a false alarm, a Jacksonville firefighter can easily deactivate it with a touch, officials said.

White said his department received access to the P.A.S.S. technology through an unspecified grant awhile back. But it was only a few weeks ago he was able to link a computer laptop with the gear and equipment worn by the city's 29 firefighters.

“This really, really helps us keep track of everyone,” the chief said. “It's a great system.”

Although the department has not yet been able to truly test the equipment through a – pardon the expression – “trial by fire,” officials are confident  the state-of-the-art computer ac-countability system won't fail them.

Additionally: Former “mouth-to-ear” communications by firefighters during blazes are largely a thing of the past now. This new technology enhances voices at any level and relays sound from helmet to helmet from a range of at least 15 feet.

Of special importance is the system's “mayday” function, which through the computer can immediately identify a person in trouble. This allows superiors to immediately issue the commands necessary for a rescue without having to engage in confusing and contradictory intercom conversations.

When starting their shift, each firefighter swipes their specified air pack with this device. Much like a grocery store scanner tag, this function immediately logs all their information onto the air pack, allowing the synced computer to track each individual’s air supply.

“You scan it one time in the morning and your air pack has your name for the rest of your shift,” Nix said.