2015 Safety, Security and International Affairs

John B. Price

Created a device to find living disaster victims buried beneath the wreckage of toppled buildings by adapting radar-based space technology in partnership with NASA scientists.

In the immediate aftermath of tragedies ranging from earthquakes to tornadoes, emergency responders now will have access to new technology to help them detect the heartbeat and respiration of individuals trapped beneath the rubble of fallen buildings. In its first real test, following the Nepal earthquake in late April, this technology proved itself by finding four men alive, buried in debris, who were rescued and survived.

John Price, a program manager with the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop this revolutionary new device called FINDER, short for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response.

This mighty, but easy-to-use, low-power radar tool enables first responders to rescue people more quickly than previous technology allows, even if the victims are not able to walk or talk, or have been knocked unconscious.

After the Nepal earthquake hit, responders used FINDER to help locate the four men several days after they were trapped. In a small industrial village about 50 miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, they had been buried in two separate 10-foot piles of rubble and debris, composed mainly of brick, mud, wood and bamboo.

Price’s achievement is extraordinary, according to his colleagues, who said he recognized the importance of the technology NASA had developed to measure orbital distance and detect small changes in ocean levels. Price served as a bridge between the technical experts and the first responders, oversaw the field tests and worked quickly to make sure the game-changing device was refined to be most effective.

“We’ve invested in this deep space exploration technology and people wonder, ‘Why are we doing that?’” said Jeri Buchholz, the chief human capital officer at NASA. “This is an example of how the very challenging technical problems we solve in space can actually have real-life implications on our planet.”

Price “pulled people from different areas, different agencies, different levels of government, from first responders and the military to scientists and engineers, to work together to find a practical solution to a very difficult problem,” Buchholz said.

James Lux, an engineer who helped create the FINDER at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said Price was critical to the rollout of this groundbreaking device.

“He understood what the engineers were doing and what the users really needed, and then he was great at communicating back and forth between the two parties to create a strong product,” said Lux.

The technology, a waterproof box weighing about 20 pounds, contains sensors, receivers, a computer with GPS and a camera to photograph rubble piles. It takes 30 seconds to scan for heartbeats, and another 30 seconds to figure out if the heartbeat is human or animal.

The device can detect a heartbeat buried beneath 30 feet of crushed materials, hidden behind 20 feet of solid concrete, and from a distance of 100 feet, and it can be mounted on a helicopter, allowing first responders to hover over destroyed buildings to scan for heartbeats.

The FINDER technology, which has been licensed to a private-sector firm, became available in the spring of 2015 to search and rescue squads nationwide. It will complement and allow more efficient use of current tools for detecting living victims buried in rubble, such as search-and-rescue dogs, listening devices and video cameras.

Price—a federal employee for 39 years—trained as a first responder with the Shenandoah Mountain Rescue Group and the Prince William County Fire and Rescue Association, both in Virginia, and fully understands the needs of the people involved in rescue missions.

Colleagues said Price has a unique ability to communicate his vision and was critical to making the new search-and-rescue tool a reality.

“A lot of talented people like to micromanage. John is great at finding the best people and empowering them to do the job,” said Edward Chow, manager of the civil program office at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Colleagues praised Price’s ability to balance varying interests. “It requires an extraordinary combination of people and technical skills,” according to Tod Companion, deputy director of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. It’s an astonishing balancing act.”

Price said staff members from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory came to DHS to explain a number of different technologies to see what might be useful. When he heard about the heartbeat detection capability, he knew it could be applied to search and rescue based on his years of work in the field and his understanding of the possibilities.

“That’s when we started pursuing this technology,” Price said. “In any disaster, there are a very limited number of searchers and other resources. This technology reduces the need to search hundreds of piles of rubble unnecessarily, and helps first responders stretch their resources and use them where they are really needed.”