How Firefighters Reduce Risk Increase Preparedness Using Technology

New World Public Safety The Call

How Firefighters Reduce Risk and Increase Preparedness Using Technology

The Call recently sat down with Dan Stringer, a former fire captain and 12-year veteran firefighter, to discuss how technology helps fire crews reduce risk and increase preparedness when responding to fire emergencies.

The Call: What's changed in regards to how fire crews respond to a fire emergency?
DS: In one essence, firefighters will always respond to a fire emergency the same way in that they're always going to strive for preventing injuries and loss of life, and minimizing damage or property loss. However, as with anything, technology has really helped with the way firefighters get to the scene and technology helps crews to be more prepared when they arrive at a fire emergency.

For instance, many fire departments no longer rely on rifling through three-ring binders to find out information about the structure they're responding to. Instead, when fire departments have mobile data terminals (MDTs) in their fire engines, ladder trucks, and other vehicles, they're able to quickly access information they need, when they need it.

The Call: What kind of information can they access using the MDT?
DS: What's great about MDTs is that they take information straight from the computer aided dispatch (CAD) system and feed it to first responders. When fire crews are heading out to an emergency, at least one member of the crew can access all kinds of information that can help them stay safe while they're on the scene, protect citizens, and potentially prevent catastrophic damage to the structure involved.

Fire Stats*

(According to the National Fire Protection Association, on average's 2015 stats).

  • 1.2 million firefighters in the US
  • 70% are volunteers
  • 1.3 million fires reported in the US
  • Fire reported every 23 seconds in the US
  • One structure fire reported every 63 seconds
  • One home fire reported every 86 seconds
  • An outside or unclassified fire reported every 52 seconds
  • A highway vehicle fire every 181 seconds
  • $14.3 billion in property damage

Some of this information includes building floorplans, entrances, windows, owner contact information, hydrant locations, knowledge of any hazardous materials on site, location of hazardous chemicals on site, and things of that nature. 

The Call: With information like that available, are crews more prepared when they arrive on scene?
DS: Yes and no. What you have to realize is that not everyone responding to the fire is going to see the information on the MDT, especially considering not all fire departments have MDTs.

For instance, in the rig, you might have the officer in charge relaying information from the MDT to a firefighter, but the individuals in the back won't receive that information. So they're not going to know much of anything other than what they hear through the chatter on the radio. In a sense, they're going to arrive on the scene blind.

Then you've got your volunteer firefighters who certainly don't have access to the MDT. All these individuals have are cell phones, pagers and radios and their focus while in transit is to arrive on the scene as quickly as possible, so they can't check these devices continuously while in transit. It's the same for a fire officer who arrives on scene in her or her own vehicle with no access to an MDT.
Without a way to share all this vital information in transit — aside from what's communicated via radio — attack plans are created as soon as fire crews arrive on the scene.

The Call: So, it sounds like the value of this information is dependent on who gets to see it, which is reliant — to a degree — on who has access to the MDT equipment.
DS: That's correct.

The Call: Does an attack plan differ for each member of the crew?
DS: The overall goal of any attack plan is going to be the same in that all fire crews want to ensure the safety of those involved in the fire and reduce damage. However, each member of the crew is going to work toward that goal by adhering to the specific role they play in a fire response. 

For instance, a crew member who is a part of a ladder company will likely arrive on scene and be responsible for ventilation. While crews can still attack a fire before ventilation occurs, it's helpful for every member of the crew to know when ventilation will happen, as this action helps protect crews from possible hazards when they're fighting a fire. Sometimes, you have to get in there immediately if there is someone trapped or in need. 

Sharing role-based information with one another while in transit or on the scene is really important so that everyone can work together and be equipped with vital information.

The Call: It seems like creating an attack plan once on the scene of a fire could be potentially dangerous for citizens and firefighters. How does this impact risk?
DS: Risk is something firefighters and virtually everyone working in public safety deal with on a daily basis. Consider this: It takes just 30 seconds for a fire to double in size. That means every 30 seconds that go by, that fire is growing exponentially.

Imagine a trash can fire starting in an office building. When the call to 911 is made regarding that fire, it might still be small enough that office workers think they can handle it. But then the fire jumps from the trash can and onto the curtains in an office. Then it's on the wall and it's too big to fight off with an office extinguisher. Fires grow rapidly.

When fire crews are dispatched to a fire emergency, they're well aware of the fact that it is growing and getting more dangerous by the minute. You also have to factor in how long the average response takes.

In a suburban area, the average response to a fire emergency — meaning from the moment fire crews are alerted at the fire station until they arrive on scene — is just four minutes. Then you factor in that 25 percent of that time is spent suiting up in gear, grabbing a rip and run card, and getting into the truck, and you're left with just three minutes.

That means from the moment fire crews were dispatched until they arrive on scene, that fire has the potential to be 64-times bigger than it was when they were dispatched. That fact alone highlights how much risk there is in any fire emergency.

The Call: Knowing that a fire can double in size so quickly, how much time do fire crews spend on the scene before they begin fighting the fire?
DS: The good thing about arriving on the scene is that all members of the fire crew can get a visual of what's happening. They will be able to see if there are visible flames or smoke billowing out of the building and they can read that smoke. They will be able to see the size of the structure and mentally prepare for what they'll need to do. A lot of times they'll use their own prior knowledge of firefighting to know what needs to be done. Depending on the firefighters role, he or she might be able to get to work right away by connecting to hydrants.

Most of all, when firefighters arrive on the scene, they determine if they're going to attack the fire from the interior or exterior. This small amount of time, and we're talking less than a minute, still gives the fire time to get bigger before crews are able to get water on the flames.

The Call: Is there anything that can be done so that fire crews are more prepared when they arrive on the scene?
DS: Preparation is always going to be one of the biggest ways fire crews can reduce risk to themselves and the people they're helping when they respond to any emergency. What's happening in the industry is that crews are using their time to make use of technology that helps them to do more while they're in transit on the way to a fire emergency.

If you think back to firefighting over the years, it's really only been the last decade where virtually everyone has a mobile device of some sort on them at all times. It's not like crews are sitting in the fire engine on the way to an emergency texting, but having access to mobile devices helps get even more information in their hands.

Being able to communicate with other responding fire companies and first responders while in transit really helps aid in that preparedness that fire crews seek out.

The Call: How are mobile apps different from the functionality fire crews get with MDTs?
DS:  The thing is, mobile data terminals aren't available in all fire departments. So for fire crews with no mobile capabilities, sometimes an app is all they have to work with.

But if a fire department uses both, then the key differences are accessibility and information. Mobile apps can provide crews with information about who is responding to an incident and help crews know if they need to call on more support.
What's great about the way technology is going is that it is taking the communication and ease of use that we all experience with our mobile devices and bringing into the way we prepare to fight fires.

The Call: If fire crews have access to an MDT, why would they need a mobile app?
DS: In situations where crews have access to an MDT, you have to remember that in many cases, this MDT comes in the form of a mounted, ruggedized laptop that is not easily shared with all members of the crew. You can get information from the MDT, but when it's a mounted device, crews can't pass it around and get the information they need out of it. However, in today's world, virtually everyone has a mobile phone or device of some sort in their pocket or at their fingertips, which is why mobile dispatching apps are so attractive to fire crews.

What's really interesting about mobile dispatching apps is that some have the ability to blend the best of an MDT and standard dispatching app together to harness the power of CAD and bring it right into the hands of the crew.

That means crews get better routing information, information about the structure, access to their own pre-plan information, history, maps and map layers, and just more information about everything pertaining to the situation right there on their phones. All of this information enhances contextual awareness for crews.

An app on a mobile phone is also more portable than an MDT, and that's attractive to first responders who need immediate access to information, since not all members of the crew have access to the MDT.

So it's not really that crews would choose the mobile app over an MDT; instead, crews that have both are equipped with as much information as possible.

The Call: How do a mobile apps help crews with contextual awareness?
DS: Imagine using an app that knows what your role is while you're using it, so it knows what role-specific information you need to see when you need to see it; it knows where you're located and what you need while you're on your way; it can show you what the scene looks like so that you can get a visual before you're anywhere near the actual location. With hands-free features like that, it's almost like having another member of the crew that is sharing all this important information with you. 

The Call: Talk to us about the importance of hands-free communication tools during a fire response.
DS: When you consider the fact that firefighters often wear large gloves and are otherwise occupied while in transit, remaining hands-free is also a big feature of a mobile app designed specifically for fire users. When an app can read text to users — including a call's narrative — and understand spoken commands, that takes things to the next level for fire crews.

The Call: What would you say to fire crews interested in how this technology can help them?  
Any firefighters interested in how mobile apps can help their department should look for an app that is truly built for fire users as this allows users to take their own existing CAD information and extend its functionality. A mobile app should also be intuitive, so the user's individual and role-based needs are met.

The Call: How would you summarize the use of technology to reduce risk and improve preparedness?
DS: When fire crews use the technology that is available to them, they make better use of their time, have easier access to information for everyone, and use tools they already have at their disposal. The goal of a mobile fire app is that it helps fire crews to make better use of time spent in transit so they can increase their preparedness and arrive on scene armed with information that will keep them safer, keep citizens safer, and reduce damage and property loss.

Dan Stringer spent 12 years with the Clay Township Fire Dept. in Michigan. During that time, he held roles as a firefighter, fire sergeant, and fire captain. He now trains hundreds of clients throughout the US on New World Fire Records Management solutions.