Heartbeats in the Rubble

Portable radar device can detect trapped victims following a disaster


In the event of an earthquake, tsunami, or other natural disaster that could leave people buried under destruction, first responders refer to the window of time when a victim has the greatest chance of survival as the “golden hour.”

FINDER (Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response)—a collaboration between the Department of Homeland Security’s First Responders Group’s (FRG) R-Tech division and NASA JPL—employs low-power microwave radar to locate small movements from respiration or heartbeats in the rubble and lead emergency response workers directly to victims in need.

“It’s not just suspecting there might be someone under the rubble,” said FRG Chief Geospatial Scientist Dr. David Alexander. “FINDER detects where they are and locates their position to help prioritize rescue and recovery.”

FINDER has been available commercially for about three years, and in that time 166 units have been sold, including to many international urban search and rescue teams. It was reported in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake that FINDER helped detect and rescue four individuals.

The technology, more formally known as laser Doppler vibrometer, is a portable, suitcase-sized device now manufactured by SpecOps Group and R4.

R-Tech Director Greg Price said FINDER is significant because it helps prioritize recovery of those that are still alive. Search and rescue dogs, for example, locate both dead and living bodies at the same time. The device can even help responders know how many people to look for.

“If one heart is beating fast and another is beating slow, the responder will know there are two individuals under that rubble pile,” Price said.

Price added the device is popular on the international market, where events such as earthquakes and tsunamis are more likely to occur, but it is ready for deployment in the event of such a disaster in the U.S.

FRG and NASA JPL teamed with the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department’s Virginia Task Force 1 (VA-TF1) international search and rescue team several years ago to test and prove FINDER.

“I am fortunate to have seen the FINDER device continue to develop from its first generation to the current state-of-the-art machine,” said Fire Captain II Randal Bittinger, a station commander with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue as well as a search team manager and rescue officer with VA-TF1. “I hope the device will continue to improve and save countless lives.”

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