Why blue force tracking and situational awareness require vertical positioning

Blue force tracking is a simple concept:  how do you maintain situational awareness in a complex, chaotic operational scene? 

The term was originally coined for military command and control, building a common operational picture to keep tabs on soldiers in the field and distinguish between friendly forces and the enemy.  It has since been adopted by first responders – we now talk about blue force tracking for law enforcement, firefighters, and EMTs. 

Blue force tracking systems use the location services on phones, tablets, and other devices to provide instantaneous intelligence on how an operation is unfolding in real time.  By seeing where their people are in relation to each other and the unfolding operational goal, incident commanders can both increase safety and improve operational effectiveness. 

When firefighters enter a burning building or EMTs respond to a 911 call, incident commanders use blue force tracking to keep their personnel safe.  When you’re fighting a fire or searching for victims in the middle of a crowd, it’s surprisingly easy to get disoriented.  Blue force tracking gives commanders the perspective needed to keep firefighters, EMTs, and police officers away from potentially dangerous situations and guide them through hazards.

Situational awareness is also critical for operational effectiveness.  With blue force tracking solutions, incident commanders can direct resources where they’re needed, even as realities change on the ground.  Whether it’s an active shooter moving through a building or a fire burning through several floors of a structure, knowing where your officers are means being able to direct them to the right place at the right time.

What’s missing: vertical positioning

For all the value they bring through increased safety and improved operational effectiveness, blue force tracking solutions have one common Achilles heel – they only operate in two dimensions.

Since they rely on location services like GPS, every situational awareness application on the market today can only track people on a 2D map.  In rural areas or an outdoor emergency, that may be enough to get the job done.  But most of the world’s population lives in cities, where multi-story buildings are the norm.

If you’re responding to a fire in a skyscraper or trying to apprehend a suspect in a three story mall, the flat maps used by today’s blue force tracking solutions aren’t going to help you at all.  They may actually make things more confusing by showing police officers or EMTs standing right next to one another when they’re actually ten stories apart.

To be effective in every emergency response scenario, blue force tracking applications need vertical positioning.  Only a 3D view provides incident commanders with the full picture.  That context will ultimately save lives – both of first responders and the people they serve.

Vertical positioning is a long-standing need for first responders.  For decades, they’ve been asking for more data and context, particularly in urban areas where 2D maps don’t provide enough information.  It’s mostly a technology problem.  GPS unfortunately can’t deliver – it doesn’t produce vertical location information with anything close to the right level of accuracy, and its weak signal strength can’t penetrate buildings at any rate.

The solution: NextNav Pinnacle

All this is why NextNav created its Pinnacle solution for vertical location.  We found a way to measure altitude using the barometers in phones, tablets, and other devices.  Combining this device information with data from our nationwide system of altitude stations, NextNav produces vertical positioning information with the accuracy first responders need. 

In extensive independent tests, NextNav’s solution proved to be the most accurate on the market for vertical location across a wide variety of devices and operational conditions.  NextNav delivers vertical location with “floor level” accuracy (defined as ±3m) 94% of the time, significantly exceeding the operational standards set by the FCC.

Having the most accurate solution for vertical location is one thing.  Making that solution widely available so it improves situational awareness and blue force tracking is something entirely different.  That’s why we’re taking our Pinnacle solution one step further, integrating it into the blue force tracker applications first responders use every day.

We recently added our Pinnacle SDK to the FirstNet API Catalog, making it easy for developers to integrate vertical positioning into public safety applications.  Our outreach is starting to bear fruit – over the next few months, first responders will start to see vertical location pop up in the blue force tracking solutions they know and love.

NextNav’s Pinnacle solution is also starting to unlock an entire vertical location ecosystem.  Wireless carriers will roll out vertical location for E911 in 2021.  New visualization tools will improve the ways first responders use vertical positioning data.  And the benefits of vertical location will also start to filter out into the larger world of commercial applications.

Learn more about NextNav Pinnacle and how it improves public safety.