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New technology won't rescue firefighters

Firefighters and law enforcement agencies are likely the losers from this week's FCC decision allowing the sale of products based on ultrawideband, a superfast wireless signal.

Firefighters and law enforcement agencies are likely the losers from this week's Federal Communications Commission decision allowing the sale of products based on ultrawideband, a superfast wireless signal.

When the FCC on Thursday decided to make ultrawideband (UWB) available commercially, it set a limit on how powerful the signal can be. The FCC explained the limitations were to help allay fears that UWB's powerful signals would interfere with military operations or broadcasts from television and radio stations.

As a result, companies like Florian Wireless and Time Domain say the UWB equipment they are each developing for rescue workers, with some already in trials, won't be powerful enough to be of much use.

"The signal now has to be 1,000 times less powerful," said Jeff Ross, Time Domain vice president for corporate development and strategy. "To go down a thousand times lower than that--they just won't work."

An FCC spokesman could not be reached for comment Friday. Some FCC sources acknowledge the new rules might weaken the signal's strength, but they are unsure if companies have conducted appropriate tests.

UWB technology provides a faster and more secure way of sending wireless transmissions. Automakers could use the technology to build collision avoidance systems or improve airbags. Consumer products, from laptops to personal digital assistants, could use the equipment to send and receive video or audio.

One of its other proposed uses was for fire and rescue personnel. The powerful UWB signal can chew through flames, smoke and building materials to provide the firefighter's three-dimensional location at all times, and it can be used to help map the inside of a burning building. It also sends back the firefighter's heart rate, and the temperature around him, which can be used to decide firefighting tactics.

Houston-area rescue workers have been using UWB technology in trials, and Time Domain was granted a waiver by the FCC in 2000 to sell 2,500 of its "Radar Vision" equipment to law enforcement agencies.

"Radar Vision" uses UWB signals to spot motion behind walls, giving an edge to officers confronting a hostage situation, for instance. A handful of police agencies are testing UWB equipment now, with the aim of possibly using it in the future.

But "the products they have now won't be legal to operate under these rules," Ross said. The company doubts that the equipment they've been developing will be as effective under the FCC's new rules, Ross said.

UWB wireless networks now won't be able to pinpoint someone's location as effectively, Florian Wireless Chief Executive Brian Valania said.

"We could find someone within an inch or two," which is more accurate than any other global positioning system on the market now, he said. "There are going to be limiting factors to the things that make this a groundbreaking technology," he said.

Houston rescue workers were expected to start using this equipment from Florian Wireless by May or June of this year, he said. He doesn't know if the deal will go forward.