Computers, A Tool You Need

Feb. 22, 2005
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.


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. Since you are reading this article on the Web you are well oriented to the use of the computer and the infinite amount of information it makes available to you. This series will, hopefully, help you use the computer to more effectively improve fire department operations.


Firefighting is a dangerous and physically demanding job. It is also highly technical and a voracious consumer of information. Each day tasks of record keeping, hazard and risk assessment, planning, training, health and safety of personnel, firefighting operations, investigation of cause and origin, and fire incident patterning are becoming more information intensive. In addition to an officer trying to do the job better and safer, there are evolving best practices, standards, laws, and regulations demanding it.

Improved fire service knowledge about how to effectively do the job and use this new technology has increased the expectations of the community and the fire fighters themselves. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has begun to codify those expectations in the NFPA 1710 (Career) and NFPA 1720 (Volunteer) Standards. And from a negative perspective, in these litigious times, the most effective defense to a negligence lawsuit is a solid foundation of a full spectrum of information: e.g., records, training delivered and operations action taken. "If it wasn't written down it didn't happen."

Computer technology helps us fight fires every day. From Enhanced 911, to the processors on newer apparatus, to PASS alarms, and computer main frames and desktops that drive administrative systems, the technology saves us time, keeps apparatus functioning efficiently, keeps track of people and budgets. Based at the dispatch center, Enhanced 911 software instantly retrieves information about the location of the alarm and other location specific data and permits the clear and effective dispatch of first responders. Computerized Assisted Management of Emergency Operations (CAMEOFEMA/NOAA/DOT) offers a suite of programs to provide responders with valuable site and chemical information at the command post.

Fire house computers come in many forms. Desk top personal computers (PC), notebook computers, tablet computers, and personal data assistants (PDAs) are growing in popularity. And flash sticks, wireless access, and the web are pushing the fire service toward another horizon. These machines require standard and specialized software to carry out their functions. But the most important component is the data collected about hazards, risks, populations at risk, and operations that is turned into decision making information.

The command fire officer faces increased complexity of response tasks and processes to resolve problems. There is increasing consciousness and concern about personnel health and safety, basic Fit-For-Service screening, personnel tracking during operations, rehabilitation, exposure monitoring, and the maintenance of adequate records

Example. Determination of cause and origin of suspicious fires frequently leads to an investigation to find and prosecute the perpetrator. In a recent case, the location of many suspicious early morning fires was plotted on a geographic information system (GIS) and analyzed using other coverages including aerial photography. As the investigators reviewed the data spatially they discovered that the plots formed a line. At one end of the line were a number of late night restaurants. At the other end of the line was a residential area. Acting quickly, investigators correlated the addresses of the restaurant workers who worked late hours and lived in the residential area. An arrest followed shortly thereafter.


Information is flying at the fire command officer from every direction. What is good information? What is necessary information? How do we retain it and in what form? How and when do we retrieve it for use? We need information but at what expense? We are firefighters, not IT office workers, right? In the past, firefighters paid homage to "experience" as the repository of important information. But with improved information management and more efficient information retrieval the benefits of this "experience" can be realized by all firefighters.

Information is Power. Knowledge unlocks the door to problem solutions, to correct decisions. "A reasonable person with the correct information, will make the correct decision." But when information is not shared, that is, held closely among one or a few, the control of knowledge is the source of serious department dysfunction.

Example. In one department an extensive planning effort was underway to prepare for a possible fire in a major building complex. A junior officer was leading a team to develop a computerized preplan and wanted to develop a list of special hazards. He asked an experienced chief officer of over thirty years service who had been in the building often, for help. The answer he received was "I had to learn it for myself. So should you." This translates: "Sure, I have the answers and everyone has to come to me to get the answers." Information is only valuable when it is shared.

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.

  • Administration.
    • Personnel Records
    • Budget
    • Equipment Inventory and Tracking
    • Incident Analysis and Patterning.
  • Pre-Planning
    • Identification of:
      • Hazards
      • Risks
      • Vulnerabilities
    • Prioritization
    • Flexible Plans
  • Training
    • Roles and Responsibilities
    • Identification of Resources
    • Training and Exercises
  • Health and Safety
    • Fit For Service
    • Rehabilitation
    • Exposures
  • Fire Operations
    • Accountability
    • Decision and Action Tracking
    • Incident Management
    • Interoperability
    • Information
    • Interoperability
  • Fire Prevention
    • Community Outreach
    • Code Based Inspections
    • Community Self Inspections
    • High Risk Populations Training

As the series progresses, we want to share real applications from career and volunteer departments. Feedback and suggestions are welcomed and appreciated. "Information is only valuable when it is shared." Stay safe.

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