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Tools of the Trade Center

Find out how handheld computers and GPS systems are helping fire chief Joseph Pfeifer’s team of firefighters document and track evidence found at the world’s largest crime scene: ground zero.

On September 11, New York City Battalion One Fire Chief Joseph Pfeifer lost a brother and 22 of his men when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. Now he’s one of the lead firefighters overseeing the identification and tracking of victims — as well as equipment, evidence, and significant wreckage — from ground zero.

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To fulfill his tragic task, chief Pfeifer relies largely on human resources — tireless New York firefighters and rescue workers. But he also uses high-tech satellites and wireless handheld technology to do the job that may ease the minds of other people who lost friends and family on September 11. So far, his tracking efforts have benefited tremendously from rugged handheld computers and bar codes made by Symbol Technologies and from global-positioning satellite applications and a real-time tracking database created by Links Point.

These technologies give the fire department an immediate and accurate reading of where each victim was found — a problem that confounded Pfeifer and his men in the days following the World Trade Center attack. The 16-acre site has been divided into a grid consisting of 75-square-foot blocks designed to make sense of the scene. But the site contains few landmarks or points of reference, and the scene changes daily as more pieces of steel and building debris are removed. Amid the chaos, chief Pfeifer says that noting the exact location of each body is of the utmost importance.

“Knowing where someone died might be a minor detail to other people,” says Pfeifer, 45. “But to the families, it’s very important.”

The Writing on the Wall

It’s also important to the ongoing investigation. The teams — eight firefighters who patrol four quadrants, tagging and identifying items the searchers find — are able to track findings in real time. By entering a corresponding bar-code number into the tracking system, rescuers can keep tabs on anything found at ground zero. For now, the data is only available to the fire department.

For a week after the towers’ collapse, searchers were tagging items and jotting down corresponding information by hand. They often had to guess items’ exact location on the scene. By the second week, Pfeifer and his colleagues at the site began searching for a better way to conduct the investigation. “We wanted to learn about technology that could replace our manual methods,” he says.

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Firefighters use rugged handheld computers to log in evidence at ground zero.

On September 19, the ground-zero team sat down with a number of technology companies, including Links Point, which makes global-positioning satellite software and hardware. Links Point’s technology can be accessed through the Symbol Technologies handheld computer that reads bar codes and records GPS coordinates.

Pfeifer quickly realized the benefits of assigning to each piece of evidence a bar code that would signify its GPS coordinates and allow the crew to track items digitally with fewer mistakes and less manual input. “It’s far faster and far more accurate,” he says about the GPS tracking system. “Plus, we can gather a lot more data than we could if we were doing it all by hand.”

On One Hand

Pfeifer’s team joins a growing number of people using handhelds, bar codes, and satellites to do their jobs. Despite a technology slump and continued pessimism about the relevance of wireless technology, there’s growing evidence that handhelds can accomplish important tasks that have nothing to do with storing addresses or tracking stock prices. Doctors are using PDAs to track patients, and the U.S. Army is equipping some soldiers with Palms. Companies like FedEx have used wireless inventory tracking for years. But these systems have just started to assist public-safety projects, and Pfeifer says that he’s never seen them used on a sophisticated urban level.

It’s hard to imagine a crime scene larger than the World Trade Center. The statistics are familiar by now: millions of tons of debris and more than 4,000 bodies. Symbol attempted to put the mass destruction into understandable, manageable terms. “We began to see this as a very important, serious inventory-management system,” says Vincent Luciano, vice president of product management for Symbol, which is based about 70 miles from ground zero.

Symbol’s technology, which is also used by the Red Cross to track blood supplies, was assessed by New York firefighters who determined which tools would work best and fastest. Symbol sent Luciano down to its warehouse to dig through existing inventory and find the most rugged handhelds — the industrial-strength PPT 2800 — that could withstand heat, dust, and long hours.

Design Language

Links Point, which usually takes three months to create a unique application, began working 24 hours a day to create database software that would allow searchers simply to tap on the description of an item needing a bar code. The machine would do the rest — log in the location of the evidence within one to three meters, stamp the date and time, and create a record to be updated wirelessly as evidence leaves the scene.

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Links Point’s software also had to translate the GPS latitude and longitude readings into the crime scene’s grid system. Pfiefer hopes that the information will help investigators visually map the site and reconstruct just what happened as the towers collapsed. Within three days, Links Point’s engineers created a system that took into account the searchers’ needs and that required just one hour of training. Such ease of use is essential for firefighters who don’t often use computers and who have to work with and in bulky equipment, including cumbersome gloves.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t certain that this was a great time to introduce a new technology,” says Greg Fucheck, Links Point vice president of sales and project integrator. “These guys were tasked with a horrible job. But the firefighters immediately saw the value. It made them feel as if they could do an even better job.”

Fara Warner (fwarner@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior writer.

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