Bringing Firefighters Back to the Future

Main page content

UW Tacoma's Matt Tolentino is using new technology to help the Tacoma Fire Department solve old problems.

Assistant Professor Matt Tolentino brought a chainsaw–sans chain–to class. He needed something that would generate small amounts of carbon monoxide. His students would monitor the emissions with specially outfitted drones. The experiment is part of a broader project Tolentino is spearheading with the Tacoma Fire Department.

In the fall of 2016 Tolentino approached Tacoma Fire Chief James Duggan. The pair talked about challenges facing the fire department. Among the issues discussed were tracking chemical spills and the “lost firefighter” problem.Tolentino demonstrates how the digital sensor might be attached to a firefighter's equipment.

Billions of dollars in imports and exports pass through the Port of Tacoma every year. The fire department is responsible for managing incidents at the Port including chemical spills. Under current protocol fire fighters first establish a safe perimeter. Next, a team outfitted in hazmat suits moves into the “hot zone” to collect samples. Once the substance is identified fire fighters begin the process of containment and clean up. “We spend a lot of time making sure we’re positioning ourselves up wind and up land from the incident,’ said Duggan. “Keep in mind any shutdown at the Port has huge financial implications.”

Tolentino, who is on the faculty of UW Tacoma’s Institute of Technology, tasked his computer engineering students with finding another way. “What we’ve done is augment drones with a series of sensors that can identify what the material is as well as track its movement,” said Tolentino.

The project is ongoing but early tests in the classroom and Tolentino's Intelligent Platforms & Architecture Lab (i.e. the carbon-monoxide-generating chainsaw) have been successful. Tolentino and his students have added autonomous capabilities to the drones with the goal of reducing risk while providing better data. In a real-world scenario, this information would be relayed to an incident commander in a matter of minutes. Duggan believes this technology would be useful in other locations besides the Port. “Imagine if there was a spill on the rail line or on I-5,” he said. “Remote sensing would help us identify the problem and develop a solution much quicker.”

Digital Bread Crumbs

NSF Funds Tolentino's Work at the "Edge"

The National Science Foundation has awarded a multi-year grant worth at least $175,000 to Matt Tolentino to support his work at the “network edge.”

Tolentino’s collaboration with the Tacoma Fire Department, for example, aims to bring emerging technologies of cheap, ubiquitous computing (the so-called Internet of Things) to places where broadband, backbone network access is impractical (like the scene of a fire).

Tolentino has recruited Jeff Lytle, ’16, B.S. Computer Engineering & Systems and the 2016 UW Tacoma Chancellor’s Medal recipient, to work as a research assistant, funded by the NSF grant, while pursuing his master’s degree in the Institute of Technology.

Fire broke out at a large plastics manufacturing company in November of 2016, in Tacoma’s Nalley Valley. “There was a lot of noise and zero visibility inside the building,” said Duggan. Firefighters train for these kinds of situations. They orient themselves in structures by feeling along a wall, counting doorways or following the hose line. “In this case the hose got stuck underneath some machinery,” said Duggan. Two veteran firefighters inside the building became disoriented. They radioed for help and were eventually rescued.

The incident in November 2016 highlights the “lost firefighter” problem. The Tacoma Fire Department maintains a backup crew at large-scale events for just such emergencies. “We’re using the most modern technology outside the buildings but as soon as our firefighters go inside we’re back to 1880,” said Duggan.

Tolentino and his students might have a solution. “We’ve built self-powered beacons that firefighters can drop or put on a wall,” said Tolentino. “Essentially we’re creating a bread crumb trail that calculates position and relays this information outside through a dynamically deployed peer-to-peer network.”

Tolentino envisions a future where the scene commander can pull up an array of real-time data on a tablet. “The idea is to transition every firefighter into a mobile sensing platform,” he said. A host of information can be transmitted, including location, floorplan and even vital signs. For this last part Tolentino has been developing a device similar to a Fitbit that firefighters would wear and could record things like blood pressure, heart rate and respiration. Ideally, Tolentino would like all of this information to be available to individual firefighters through a heads up display that could be controlled via voice. “We’re really trying to take the guess work out of firefighting and provide information needed to make more informed decisions.”

The work being done by Tolentino and his students has the potential to save lives. Tolentino, who worked in the private sector for 15 years before coming to UW Tacoma, says his interest in this project stems from a desire to make an impact. “I want students to address hard problems, to move beyond the theoretical into the practical.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / October 18, 2017
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or