Fire departments plan to go high tech
Belleair Bluffs takes the lead in seeking a federal grant to equip vehicles with a global positioning system.
By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published April 7, 2005

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Within the next year and a half, fire departments throughout Pinellas County could be equipped with computer systems that would improve firefighting and rescue capabilities.

Pinellas County is working with Largo and Belleair Bluffs to apply for a federal grant to install mobile data computers in front-line vehicles.

With the technology, firefighters will be able to take advantage of global positioning system technology to find out exactly where they need to be, track other rescue vehicles, find out about road closures and locate fire hydrants.

The technology gives firefighters access to emergency calls the second they're dispatched and provides access to all call notes. It lets them send instant messages to the dispatcher or other vehicles to avoid tying up radio airwaves.

And it can tell rescuers if people on-site have special medical needs or if there are hazardous materials stored at a specific location.

The cost to equip vehicles throughout the county is estimated at $941,760 for 135 units, said Mike Cooksey, fire coordinator for Pinellas County EMS and fire administration.

As host agency, Belleair Bluffs intends to apply this week for a grant from the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program from the Department of Homeland Security/Office of Domestic Preparedness.

Belleair Bluffs was selected as host because its population of about 2,200 would require only a 5 percent match, rather than a 20 percent match required if larger departments applied. The county wasn't eligible to apply directly because it oversees fire departments but doesn't have a department of its own.

Each of the 19 departments would be responsible for a portion of the estimated 5 percent match of about $47,000 if the grant comes through.

"It gives you a location where you are and gives you the location of your destination. The closer you get, the more the map zooms in, and there's less possibility you would go to the wrong address," said Tarpon Springs fire Capt. Don Sayre, who has used the technology.

In November, Tarpon Springs became the first department in Pinellas County to equip its entire fleet with the technology.

And for about six months, a few test computers have been installed sporadically throughout the county.

Largo, one of the first to jump on the bandwagon, has been instrumental in tweaking the technology. Largo Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Karry Bell has been working with county programmers to update the system.

With his help, programmers have decided to add real-time local weather alerts and Amber alerts with pictures of children.

Before the technology, Bell said he received about 2 percent of weather advisories. Now he receives all of them.

Bell said Largo's involvement started after one of his firefighters complained that many of the maps they had were incorrect. So Bell asked the county's emergency communications programmers for a hand.

GPS technology would eliminate the need for several map books and would lighten the load for rescue vehicles outside the area. That's important because departments throughout the county have mutual aid agreements and can often end up in unfamiliar territory, Bell said.

Sayre said the mobile data technology is user friendly because firefighters can pick and choose what information they want to use.

"It just makes our job so much more efficient and that translates to better outcomes," he said.

Nationwide, the Department of Homeland Security intends to distribute more than $650-million in such grants.

[Last modified April 7, 2005, 01:23:19]