First responders serving and protecting their communities are receiving a helping hand of their own thanks to new technology from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the POINTER system is a tracking technology that helps first responders combat the unreliability associated with current GPS devices.

POINTER, which stands for Precision Outdoor and Indoor Navigation and Tracking for Emergency Responders, could represent a "Holy Grail" capability for the men and women who brave dangerous environments during emergencies, according to Greg Price, first responder technologies division director at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"To this day, the ability to track and locate first responders is a number one priority for disaster agencies across the country," Price said. "If the POINTER project continues along its current path of success, first responders will be safer in the future."

"POINTER could represent a 'Holy Grail' capability."

When GPS is life or death
First responders such as firefighters rely on GPS to navigate treacherous environments. Reliable GPS data can make all the difference between escaping a burning building or rescuing a civilian trapped under debris.

Xenophon Gikas, fire captain at the Los Angeles Fire Department and part of the DHS' First Responder Resource Group, recently set the scene for Newsweek, illustrating how even in-depth first responder training is no match for the harsh realities of the job.

"It's hot and it's loud [at a fire]," Gikas said. "People are screaming, saws are going off.… We have blowers that we turn on to blow heat and smoke. It's a crappy environment. It's the worst one we have. That problem of trying to find one of us who's trapped or down or lost – whoever figures that one out is going to have the Holy Grail in their hand."

Instead of relying on radio waves, which can ricochet off walls or fail to penetrate indoors, the POINTER system utilizes magnetoquasistatic fields. This class of electromagnetic field has shown high accuracy and reliability indoors, providing first responders with detailed information regarding individuals' location, elevation and orientation.

GPS can become unreliable when first responders require it most.GPS can become unreliable when first responders require it most.

Salvation the size of a cell phone
While POINTER is life-saving technology for first responders, it's also cumbersome in its current state. As highlighted by Newsweek, POINTER is approximately the size of a shoebox and weighs three pounds. Firefighters wear it like a backpack, with the field it generates being tracked by a separate device nearby.

Now plans are in motion to miniaturize this technology, replacing the backpack with a device the size of a cellular phone. It's hoped that in addition to being used by fire and police departments, the technology could be adopted by military personnel. There are also applications for POINTER to be used in space exploration.

"POINTER could be used in space robotics," said Darmindra Arumugam, the NASA researcher who led the technology's development. "It could be used for tracking robots in underground tunnels, caves or under ice. They need to be able to navigate themselves, and we don't have sensors today that would be able to track them. For us, this is a great opportunity to develop a technology for NASA and non-NASA uses."

The development of POINTER is in keeping with the DHS' renewed focus on new technologies for first responders. For example, the DHS selected 10 startup companies last year as part of its EMERGE 2016: Wearable Technology Accelerator Program. The program is intended to invigorate tech companies to create wearable tools that can replace the heavy and unwieldy equipment many first responders are forced to carry.

Field trials for POINTER are on the horizon, and following them, perhaps speedy adoption among first responders across the country.