Picture This

Barry Furey discusses the increasing role of graphics in fire service communications.


Throughout history, man has continually invented new ways through which to communicate. Because we are a visual animal, many of these methods involved some sort of imagery. Markings on cave walls tell us today that even in our most primitive times we relied upon drawings to convey our messages. Of...


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Throughout history, man has continually invented new ways through which to communicate. Because we are a visual animal, many of these methods involved some sort of imagery. Markings on cave walls tell us today that even in our most primitive times we relied upon drawings to convey our messages. Of course, since caves are hardly portable, animal skins, papyrus and eventually paper and canvas became media for transporting and sharing these symbols. Postcards have little space to write more than the obligatory, "Having a wonderful time, wish you were here," because they don't need it; the photo on the front depicts the bulk of the experience.

Movies, TV and the Internet have taken visual communications from a static to an active role, to the point that wireless telephones have become a mechanism for taking snapshots and movies and for viewing streaming videos. Maxims such as, "one picture is worth a thousand words," and "every picture tells a story" dot our language. The fire service itself has had a lengthy association with visual records, although throughout our history much of this has taken the form of recording events by artists such as Currier and Ives and photographs used by arson investigators to document evidence. Training diagrams, slides and videos have also consistently been a part of how we learn to do things in the classroom. However, for a very long time, the bulk of our visual involvement dealt with concerns other than response.

Perhaps the first change came with the advent of the pre-plan. Somewhere, somebody once got the idea that visiting buildings in the first-due area before they actually catch on fire was a good idea. What might have started out as a few hastily scribbled notes and some crude diagrams has now morphed into the ability to store, share and interactively update data and blueprints concerning the target occupancy. While many agencies still effectively keep hard copy plans stashed in the rear of the command vehicle, an increasing number have turned to storing electronic copies at central locations or on laptops.

Building information can become an integral part of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, where it can be remotely updated by fire inspectors in the field. This information can be transmitted across a fixed-data or wireless network during an alarm automatically or selectively shipped on demand in response to a user request. These images can help the dispatcher in visualizing the emergency scene; a benefit not often considered. Their primary use, of course, is to directly support decision making and operations on the fireground.

Centralizing these and other images requires appropriately sized disc space, as well as communications links that are sufficiently robust to transfer large files in a few seconds or less. In the past, this was somewhat problematic, because mobile data terminal (MDT) networks often ran at less than half the speed of an average dial-up connection. And, since the graphic files are significantly larger than the "thousand words" they replace, many agencies took to providing compact disks (CDs) to make the data available in the field. Digital video disks (DVDs), thumb drives and other portable media further increased this capacity. This saves bandwidth, and soft-copy storage obviously has several advantages over paper; it requires less space, it can be more quickly updated, it's cheaper and there's no ink to run if it gets wet. Regardless of the source, electronic blueprints coupled with emerging firefighter accountability hardware and software have the promise to provide remote real-time tracking of crews inside the fire building.

Improvements in communications systems have also created the ability to move more data than ever before, making wireless distribution of larger files more practical. Included here are the recently opened 700 MHz band, which utilizes frequencies vacated by TV stations, and mesh networks that use either a series of fixed routers or daisy-chain portable computers to relay the appropriate files.

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