Computers, A Tool You Need

This is the first in a series of articles that will focus upon the use of computers to support all phases of fire department operations.


The fire service must expect the unexpected emergency scenario, and the needs for information that it generates. A philosophic and economic (money, time, or both) commitment must be made to develop this information. The command officer must closely examine the budget and manning level to develop the capability to gather and manage the information. And he or she must engage the junior officers and front line firefighters to form the department's information network.

The derivation of a solution to most problems requires information. Sometimes it comes from the brain (experience and training), sometimes it comes from a book, and sometimes it comes from someone else either by radio or face to face meetings. Often the information you have is not what you want. The information you want is not what you need. And, mostly, what information you need is not available.

Computer Management of Information

One of the fire service impediments is the general lack of command level understanding of the effective use of computers in general, the vast amount of available software, and the configuration of hardware to solve specific problems. The various functions of the department often separates the interests of staff and line personnel and results in many different purposes for computerized information. Each of these purposes requiring a different mix of hardware and software. There is a need for administrative support, development of plans and procedures, delivery of focused training, tracking of personnel health and safety, supporting operations with real time access to information, and assisting in managing the Incident Command operation.

The skeleton of the emergency response is effective communications - the sharing of information. During an unfolding emergency the incident commander is often flooded with information from dispatch, on-scene radio communications, person-to-person discussions, and his or her own observations. Before a decision can be made the IC must distill this information to arrive at a conclusion. The longer this process takes the fewer viable options remain. Upon this concept is founded the mandate for in-depth planning, and, in a quiet and controlled environment within which to make routine decisions. This leaves more time for more critical decisions during the response.

Computers in the Fire Service

Most product manufacturers know their products but not our work. It is important for them (and us) to realize that fire fighting is more like platoon level combat than star wars fighter aircraft or combatant ships. Industry and other experts have the capacity to create marvelous new technology and to apply it to perceived problems of first responders. However, often the solution first starts with technology and not a clearly defined problem. For example, one manufacturer perceived the need for a new solution to fire ground accountability. Their solution was a network of existing technology and widgets configured to solve the problem. Upon field test it was discovered that the equipment could not be operated with a gloved hand...and it was five times the price of the next highest bidder.

The environment surrounding computer software and hardware creates more confusion for the fire officer. The type and configuration of computer software from an almost infinite number of sources, embedded basic word processing, data base, and presentation software, and commercial off-the-shelf software pose daunting choices. Of equal importance is hardware selection: desktop computers (PCs), notebook computers (NBs), personal data assistants (PDAs), wireless connectivity of PDA to notebook in the field, and wireless web access capability.

Computerized information management techniques, including various mixes of hardware and software, are applicable to a wide variety of department needs. In future articles application techniques and product mixes will be discussed in depth for seven functional areas of a typical fire department.