By Eric Weld, MassLandlords, Inc.
What began as a hacker challenge in Louisville, Ky., in 2015 resulted in the CASPER, a device that may become the answer to making vacant and unused buildings and homes in urban areas safer for those who live near them.
The CASPER, or Completely Autonomous Solar-Powered Event Responder, is a standalone device placed inside vacant buildings and homes that can alert first responders, owners, neighbors and others when smoke, flood, motion and other warning signs are detected. The device, now placed in buildings in Louisville and five cities in New York—Albany, Binghamton, Schenectady, Syracuse and Troy—has been instrumental during testing phases in giving firefighters early warnings when danger threatens vacant buildings and houses.
That early warning can result in saved lives and saved structures.
“If we get an early warning of any kind letting us know of a potential threat, it will give us an advantage in addressing the threat,” said Joseph Toomey, Deputy Fire Chief in Albany, which recently placed CASPER devices in vacant buildings. Toomey told MassLandlords it was too early to determine measurable effect of the CASPER in Albany buildings.
In Massachusetts, 377 arson fires were reported in abandoned buildings between 2008 and 2017, resulting in numerous injuries, one death and $20 million in damages. In Boston alone, there were 381 vacant properties in 2018, according to a Distressed Building Report compiled by the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development.
Across the state, many communities deal with abandoned and vacant commercial and residential properties for a spectrum of reasons, including residential foreclosures and unresolved probate court cases. Whatever the exact number, every vacant structure poses a potential risk for fire or flooding, and might also attract squatters or others who may pose a safety risk to themselves or others in the neighborhood.
A Potential Lifesaver
Perhaps one of the foremost values the CASPER provides is peace of mind for neighbors of vacant houses and buildings, especially when abutting walls are close. An alert from CASPER Security could give neighbors essential time to assess the situation and vacate a dangerous area, protect their home or call emergency services.
“We think this device will be a game-changer for fires,” said Ed Blayney, a Civic Technology Manager in Louisville, who worked with CASPER Security on installing the remote device for testing in vacant properties. “Potentially this device could save some lives of people in the neighborhood, and firefighters.”
The CASPER works in conjunction with smoke, flood and motion detectors placed throughout a vacant structure. The CASPER is placed in a window so that its built-in solar cell can provide continuous power to the device, which may be equipped with onboard radios, a microphone and sensors calibrated to detect the frequency of triggered smoke, flood and motion detectors and other changes inside the building that may indicate a threat. The device sends an automatic signal when detected events occur. CASPER monitors then alert designated recipients by phone, text, email and other methods.
Further, CASPER Security stores all data recorded from its installed devices, enabling prospective property owners, inspectors, city officials and neighbors to back check any fire, flooding, break-in and other activity that has taken place in the building.
The CASPER was developed when in 2015 Louisville city officials discovered that half of all city fires involving at least two buildings included one vacant property, posing a threat to neighbors and others. The city challenged the community to propose solutions to the problem. A group of civic hackers invented and proposed the CASPER and piloted the device in the city for six months with positive results.
So far, CASPER Security is working with municipal government officials in Louisville and New York, primarily for fire detection, said CASPER Security founder and CEO Nathan Armentrout. “The interest from cities has been great and has kept us busy,” he said. “However, we’re very interested in learning more about private market opportunities.”
“The CASPER is an important safety device,” said Blayney. “This device will be around in a hundred years.”