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Area search and rescue officials say a new method could soon provide a better chance of finding those lost in the rubble after a natural or man-made disaster.

Since April, 2012, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate have been developing a new radar technology device that locates trapped individuals and knows immediately whether they are alive or not by detecting their heartbeat.

A prototype of the new device, called Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response, or FINDER, was field tested Wednesday in Lorton at the Virginia Task Force One Training Facility, which closely resembles and recreates urban post-disaster conditions.

“Sounds are severely muffled by concrete, rebar and steel,” said John Price, program manager for DHS’ S&T Directorate. “And dogs get tired climbing rubble. They generally work for 20 minutes at a time and then need to rest. This new technology is one of the greatest advancements in the search and rescue field in quite some time. Testing proved successful in locating a Virginia Task Force One member buried in 30 feet of mixed concrete, rebar and gravel rubble from more than 30 feet away. This capability will complement the current Urban Search and Rescue tools such as canines, listening devices, and video cameras to detect the presence of living victims in rubble.”

According to NASA, the technology used for FINDER is based on the tracking technology that NASA’s Deep Space Network uses to monitor the locations of spacecraft, sending out a radio signal and using a radio tracking monitor to locate and determine the distance of that craft from earth.

“We have now adapted that technology for search and rescue applications,” Mason Peck, NASA’s chief technologist said Wednesday.

According to Peck, FINDER uses low-power microwave radar to detect the heartbeat and breathing rate of a living human victim trapped in wreckage from a disaster. The microwave power is 100 times less than an average cell phone, but is sensitive enough to be able to tell the difference between a human heartbeat and one of an animal or any other similar type of movement.

In appearance, the FINDER unit looks like a piece of hardshell carry-on luggage, complete with wheels and a pull-out telescoping handle. “It actually was designed to fit into the overhead bin of an airplane,” said Jim Lux, JPL task manager for the FINDER project. In addition to the “luggage” unit, a “tough book” computer pad displays readouts and results. According to Price, the technology could be ready to be used in search and rescue operations as early as spring 2014.

“Virginia Task Force 1 is excited to test FINDER with our federal partners,” said Matt Tamillow, a VATF-1 member from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

“Our team has spent the last year working with DHS and JPL on this,” said Chuck Ryan, Special Operations Deputy Chief for the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department. “This technology can potentially save lives in Fairfax County, and as members of VATF-1, we will have full access to its use.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com