Computerizing the Fire Service: How Computers Are Transforming Day-to-Day Functions

Thirty years ago, personal computers were nonexistent in the fire service. Today, that scenario is very different as the use of computers is the norm as a result of lower costs, microprocessors, smaller sizes, grant funding and the Internet.

According to Wikipedia, over a billion personal computers are in use worldwide and the projected trend will be that another billion will be in use by 2014. Even with these impressive numbers, it should be noted that as important as computers are, many fire departments across the country do not have computers and still consider them a luxury. This article will provide a high-level overview of the significant ways that computers are transforming the fire service in management, training, preparedness and response.

â?¢ Management/organization â?? In the area of management, computers are an essential tool for so many purposes. Aside from the general organizational management applications (such as word processing, database management, financial spreadsheets, presentations and website management), a must do is to implement a fire and EMS records management system (RMS) that meets the requirements of the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), especially since NFIRS reporting is a requirement to be eligible for many federal grants. These statistics are invaluable when it comes to understanding your locality's fire problem as well as validation of the worth that each fire department provides to its community through its fire suppression, EMS, fire prevention, fire safety education and training activities. A comprehensive fire RMS software package is also necessary to effectively meet the documentation requirements for an Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating review and International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) certification.

For EMS, the need is similar to capture patient reporting, incident trending and ambulance billing information. It is a recommendation that this software meet National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and National EMS Information System (NEMSIS) requirements.

Bar coding is another tool that adds the ability to manage and inventory a department's equipment. This type of technology is also being used for fireground accountability.

â?¢ Training/education â?? There have been so many technological advances in training that it is dramatically changing how and when fire personnel can train. Training software/applications simulate everything from emergency incidents to vehicle-driving scenarios, and provide interactive training (online and offline), certification training/testing, promotional preparation and much more.

The National Fire Academy (NFA) now offers many online courses accessible through the Internet ( in the area of command and control, terrorism, etc. DVD case studies are also available free from the NFA. This becomes especially important as training can be conducted and documented via the computer in the fire station while volunteering or working (or from a firefighter's home) when convenient.

In higher education, many colleges and universities now offer online public safety and public administration degrees. This makes it possible for firefighters to utilize their personal computers to achieve a two- or four-year degree from work or home.

â?¢ Planning/preparedness â?? In preparedness/planning, computers provide value through the software applications that enable the ability to visualize and analyze the local environment prior to, during and following an emergency event.

Geographic information system (GIS) integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. In its simplest form, GIS provides maps such as flood plains, risk zones and coverage areas, to name a few. In its most advantageous form, it provides a relative link to time, geospatial location and resources. GIS can generate a static and/or dynamic (real-time or near-real-time) representation depending on the type of link to data. This also offers the ability to perform modeling simulations to determine potential impacts of areas based on certain conditions such as weather.

Situational awareness applications are designed to share and access information between local government, public safety and their respective emergency operations centers (EOCs). These applications can be interactive through an intranet or Internet application and are transforming the way information is being distributed between the various operational stakeholders.

Information/Intelligence Sharing applications share specific information and/or intelligence between public safety and the various levels of government. This also includes manual and/or automated emergency text/data messaging that can send information to a plethora of devices.

Building pre-fire plan applications capture important building information such as floor plans, attributes, occupancy, suppression features and storage within. This is incredibly useful from a fire suppression perspective and it is noteworthy from the aspect of the ISO rating process.

Mobile fire prevention/building inspection applications provide the ability to perform inspections, reference online fire prevention/building codes while in the field and instantaneously capture inspection data thereby eliminating the duplicative process of data entry upon return to the fire station.

â?¢ Emergency response â?? Computer hardware, software and wireless connectivity are transforming the ability and effectiveness of public safety and emergency management to respond to and manage emergency incidents and natural or manmade disasters.

Incident Command System (ICS) applications automate and create a permanent documentation of incident command operations, resource allocation and personnel assignments; they may work independently or connected through a wireless network.

National Incident Management System (NIMS) applications now provide an effective way to enter information that compiles incident/event data and distributes it accordingly to the appropriate NIMS forms and then generate the necessary Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports following a major event to identify staffing costs and reimbursements records.

Firefighter accountability systems leverage the wireless personal alerting safety system (PASS) devices that link to the incident commander. Similar to the standard non-wireless PASS, the distress signal can be manually activated using the alarm button or automatically activated if the firefighter is injured and ceases movement. Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) monitoring systems are now linking the personal SCBA to the incident commander as to the amount of air remaining, if the SCBA is in range and alarming capabilities.

Vehicle response tracking/routing applications often known as automatic vehicle location (AVL) applications identify where a unit is located geospatially through the use of the geospatial positioning system (GPS), receive automated incident location information and provide the most effective response route on the computer screen combined with audio directions. These programs can also provide a date/time-stamped tracking of the unit during its travels. Personnel/patient/resource tracking is being achieved through the use of a computer application that interacts with wireless radio frequency identification (RFID) or through manual bar-coding technology.

There are numerous communications applications where computers are used to compliment operations. Some communications gateways utilize computers to establish interoperable communications via Internet Protocol (IP), which may be used in a tactical field operation and/or permanent connection between permanent disparate public safety radio systems.

Hazardous materials detection/monitoring systems enable monitoring of environment, rapid detection, analysis and identification of hazardous substances. These programs guide the incident commander and hazmat response teams through the process of making critical decisions with immediate access to huge data resources. This is a significant resource with the threat of terrorist attacks.

â?¢ System infrastructure and hardware â?? Many of the services/programs that have been discussed in this article require the use of specific system infrastructure and/or hardware. One such infrastructure systems is the computer-aided dispatch (CAD). CAD generally automates the call taking/dispatch process and sends that information to the responders by radio, text message and/or data. Mobile Data Computer (MDC) systems provide a private network generally owned and maintained by a government agency and is usually only used by the government's public safety agencies. These systems, depending on system sophistication and capacity, offer various levels of functionality and bandwidth.

Broadband networks are dramatically changing the way in which computers will impact public safety. Broadband networks that are in use today by public safety may be private public safety systems, municipal Wi-Fi systems, satellite and/or commercial. These networks provide access via computer to Voice over IP (VoIP), Radio over IP (RoIP), data systems, video, digital images, traffic cameras and many of the applications referenced in this document that require some type of wireless connectivity.

Ruggedized and handheld computers have and will continue to revolutionize the way that computers are integrating into field operations. Many of these devices have been developed to meet military specifications and many have been a result of a military technology transfer program to public safety. This militarized or ruggedized capability is imperative in order to function in the fire service environment. Ruggedized handheld or mini computers are also changing the landscape of the fire service. These smaller devices interface well with users in the field and they require less space, which means they can easily be carried and used.

Computers will continue to change the way that the fire service and public safety do business individually and collaboratively. Ultimately, computers will enable more robust and effective methods of communication across public safety disciplines and throughout all levels of government through the enhanced delivery of data. The deployment of a national public safety broadband network will create an entirely new and exciting paradigm in the way computers impact public safety.

CHARLES WERNER, a Firehouse® contributing editor is a 34-year veteran of the fire-rescue service, currently serving as chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He chairs the Department of Homeland Security's SAFECOM Executive Committee and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Technology Council and is vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association (VFCA).