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GLANSER (Geospatial Location Accountability and Navigation System for Emergency Responders) is a heatproof and waterproof wireless tracking system designed to locate and aid firefighters and other emergency responders should they become trapped in a fire. GLANSER units are small black boxes that attach to a firefighter’s air tank. The black box combines a microwave radio, a lightweight battery, and various navigation systems into a “tracking device the size of a paperback book.” [1] The new technology of the GLANSER units brings up questions concerning the responsibility and accountability of autonomous artificial agents that are designed to track and save the lives of human beings. The GLANSER units are expensive to purchase, priced at $3,000 to $6,000. Thus, not every firehouse can utilize the benefits of the new tracking technology, raising questions about the digital divide in modern communications technologies.

Firefighter wearing the GLANSER unit

GLANSER Technology

The GLANSER units use a global positioning system (GPS) chip to track the exact location of firefighters. Since “GPS satellite signals are too weak to penetrate most buildings,” GLANSER is also able to “[track] the wearer’s location by measuring the speed and direction of his or her body movements.” [2] The device contacts the laptop command center if the firefighter stops moving, as lack of movement in rescue efforts usually means that the firefighters are in danger and in need of assistance. GLANSER units also utilize air pressure sensors to help the command center determine what floor the firefighters are located on, and Doppler radar to “identify walls and doors” to better navigate a disaster scene where visibility might be nonexistent. [3]

GLANSER was developed by the Science and Technology Directorate within the United States Department of Homeland Security. The product was designed and built by Honeywell First Responder Products in Dayton, Ohio, Argon ST in Fairfax, Virginia, and TRX Systems Inc. in Greenbelt, Maryland. Extensive testing was conducted at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Emergency Personnel Communications Problems

Communication problems between firefighters and other emergency personnel was brought to the forefront after the September 11 attacks. The NIOSH Firefighter Radio Communications report states that “the events of September 11, 2001, and other emergency situations in recent years have highlighted the need not only to improve firefighter radio communications, but also the communication systems available to law enforcement personnel, emergency management officials, and other public-safety responders.” [4] Of the 2,753 total casualties on September 11, 343 were firefighters and emergency personnel. In 2011, the Congressional Research Service reported, “The United States has yet to find a solution that assures seamless communications among first responders and emergency personnel at the scene of a major disaster.” [5] The GLANSER units were developed to facilitate smoother communication between the command center and firefighters in the field to rescue emergency personnel that need help.

GLANSER [1] tracking firefighters on each floor of a building

These communications problems mainly stem from the use of outdated communications technology. The NIOSH report states that the majority of fire departments “use conventional analog or digital mobile two-way radio technology operating in the 30–50-MHz band (VHF, low band), 150–160-MHz band (VHF, high band), 450–470-MHz band (UHF), and more recently the 800-MHz band.” [6] The radios operate effectively at close range, but “structures such as high-rise buildings, tunnels, and sub-basements may disturb the effectiveness of portable radios and communications.” [7] Conversely, the GLANSER units operate at 900-MHz, allowing them to “penetrate walls” to locate and track firefighters. [8]

According to the NIOSH report, historically the most common radio communications problem plaguing firefighters and emergency personnel is “…mechanical or technical issues related to unsuitable equipment, radio malfunction, system design, inadequate system capacity (too much radio traffic), and failure due to extreme environmental conditions (e.g., fire, heat).” [9] GLANSER’s heatproof and waterproof design allows it to counter some of these common problems.

Potential Benefits of GLANSER Units

There are numerous potential benefits for the GLANSER tracking units. As the world moves to newer communications technology, the development of GLANSER units could exponentially increase the number of firefighters and emergency personnel saved during dangerous rescue situations. GLANSER facilitates smoother communications between different types of emergency personnel, meaning that rescue groups can act quickly and deliberately in the field. All of the firefighters are accounted for and tracked on a laptop, and there are various devices used together to locate trapped or injured firefighters inside buildings so they can make it out alive. As the design is further tested and improved upon, GLANSER could also be incorporated into the military to locate missing or injured soldiers.

Ethical Implications


The development of the GLANSER units for tracking exemplifies the ethical implications of responsibility and accountability. GLANSER brings to light the issue of how much people rely on new technology, and, if the technology fails, how the blame is allocated.

Frances Grodzinsky and Luciano Floridi have written extensively about the responsibility and accountability of artificial agents, such as the GLANSER units. They both agree that artificial agents are “nonhuman [entities] that [are] autonomous, [interact] with [their] environment, and [adapt]…” [10] The issue arises about the blame if technology malfunctions and lives are lost. In the past, human error and radio communications failures were the main problems encountered by emergency personnel. If, as Grodzinsky argues, these artificial agents possess “intentionality” and “self-[modifiability],” where their “behaviors escape prediction,” it is difficult to discern if designers or users are at fault for technological malfunctions. [11] Grodzinsky asserts, “Designers have an increased burden of care in producing artificial agents that exhibit learning and intentionality”. [11] Designers are more at fault if their inventions fail and cause evil because it is their job to complete enough testing and brainstorm about potential problems. Using Grodzinsky’s ideas, if the GLANSER system malfunctions the designer could be seen as mainly at fault, since they did not screen for all problem scenarios.

Floridi makes a slight distinction between responsibility and accountability, where “moral responsibility…requires intentions, consciousness, and other mental attitudes, and moral responsibility” does not. [12] Floridi defines moral agents as “interactive, autonomous, and adaptable” agents that “can perform morally qualifiable actions.” [13] The GLANSER unit interacts with a command center and is designed to adapt to disaster situations to locate trapped firefighters, making it an agent that can perform good or evil actions. Using Floridi’s ideas, the designers and the GLANSER unit as an agent would be accountable but not responsible, since they did not intend to backfire or cause harm. Using that same logic, the firefighters could be responsible because while they did not intend on causing harm, they intentionally used the tracking device.

Either way, failure of the new tracking technology raises questions about the design and testing process of all new technologies, especially those designed to save lives, over-reliance on technology, and the need for human back-up plans. Firefighters have survived without technology in the past, so unless the new technology presents a vast improvement and increased chances of living, they might not need to utilize new technologies like GLANSER.

Digital Divide

Another issue is the concept of the Digital Divide. The digital divide is defined as “lack of access to technology” and “extending unequal power structures” in terms of the use of technology. [13] The digital divide can be used to describe issues of the job industry, as information or knowledge-based jobs can potentially take jobs away from the traditional workforce, or issues confronted by employers attempting to train their employees in new technology. In this case, there is a digital divide with the emergency personnel because they have previously relied on outdated radio communications technology, and the work is transitioning into a digital age. As a result, firefighters will have to receive the proper training to operate and maintain the GLANSER units. Floridi states, “Useful access which can overcome digital divides requires individuals to have education, high levels of literacy, and the ability to evaluate information gained through technology.” [13] Firefighters possess the literacy component, but without the proper training they might not possess the adequate skills to understand and evaluate the GLANSER technology, which could lead to fatal mistakes at a disaster scene.

Economics of the Digital Divide

New York City firehouse: one of many that, without the right funding, might not be able to utilize the potential life-saving benefits of the GLANSER units.

The GLANSER units are also expensive to produce, priced at $3,000 to $6,000, and thus expensive investments for firehouses. Not every firehouse is able to utilize the potentially groundbreaking technology to locate and save firefighters. If GLANSER proves to be better at rescuing trapped firefighters than human-based communications systems like radios but is too expensive for the average firehouse to purchase, it raises questions about the designer’s intentions, if the importance of saving lives can be trumped by monetary gain.


GLANSER is designed to track or provide surveillance on firefighters. It is designed with positive intentions, but could be a precursor to large-scale surveillance efforts that could potentially invade privacy. In the hands of the wrong people, the tracking device could be used for evil, not good, leading to the end of the concept of private civilian life.

See Also


  1. Where there's smoke, there's a signal - Department of Homeland Security |’s-smoke-theres-signal
  2. WPI demonstrates next-gen first responder technology - The Boston Globe |
  3. WPI demonstrates next-gen first responder technology - The Boston Globe |
  4. NIOSH Firefighter Radio Communications - Center for Disease Control |
  5. 9/11 10 years later - Homeland Security Digital Library |
  6. NIOSH Firefighter Radio Communications - Center for Disease Control |
  7. NIOSH Firefighter Radio Communications - Center for Disease Control |
  8. Where there's smoke there's a signal - Department of Homeland Security |’s-smoke-theres-signal
  9. NIOSH Firefighter Radio Communications - Center for Disease Control |
  10. Grodzinsky, The Ethics of Designing Artificial Agents (2008)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Grodzinsky, The Ethics of Designing Artificial Agents (2008)
  12. Floridi, The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (2010)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Floridi, The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics (2010)

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