Pre-Fire Planning: New Technology, Tailored Software

April 1, 2004
To this day, Milford, CT, Fire Chief Louis LaVecchia still can’t believe what happened at a major fire in his town 20 years ago. One day, a huge blaze erupted at the Lighter Division of the BIC Pen Company in Milford. Lacking a pre-fire plan, firefighters had to climb over conveyor belts and maneuver around machinery as they groped their way into the burning structure.

“It was pitch black,” LaVecchia recalled. “We had no idea where we were. If we had to get out, we probably never could have gotten out.”

Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone Inc. Gary Guilmette, a 28-year veteran with Milford, CT, Fire Department, accesses a pre-fire plan on a ruggedized computer installed in an apparatus. The computer is one of several installed in apparatus as part of Milford’s new wireless pre-fire planning program, which Guilmette helped develop.

With the fire finally extinguished and the smoke cleared, the chief and his crew suddenly noticed a major exit on the opposite side of the building from where they had been fighting the fire. To their amazement, the double-door exit extended the entire length of the building, with all corridors running off of it. The impact of this discovery has never left LaVecchia, nor has his resolve to know exactly what’s in a fire-engulfed building into which he sends his crews.

“If we had a floor plan enroute to that building, we would have taken that exit, had the fire under control in minutes and been a lot safer.”

The BIC fire was the ultimate wake-up call for the Milford Fire Department – one that LaVecchia answered by making pre-fire planning not just a top priority for his personnel, but part of the department’s culture.

“We have seven companies doing pre-fire planning daily,” LaVecchia explained. “Each company is responsible for about 100 pre-fire plans a year.” The result of this aggressive approach is that Milford has achieved a Class 1 rating by the Insurance Service Offices Inc. (ISO), a daunting challenge that only 44 fire departments in the nation have met.

Wireless Pre-Planning

Pre-fire planning isn’t just the right thing for a fire department to do. It is one of the most vital aspects of a fire department’s charter. Support for pre-fire planning is growing significantly among fire chiefs. It’s been an especially hot topic of conversation and concern at fire service trade shows. And part of what is making it so revered in fire departments is the range of technology now available to accomplish pre-fire planning efficiently and affordably.

Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone Inc. Included in the First Look Pro pre-fire software program is a complete U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) hazardous materials guide that can be quickly and easily located enroute to a call. The computer shown displays hazmat information from the guide.

A few departments, like the one in Milford, have pursued the very pinnacle of what technology has to offer. In 2001, the Milford Fire Department obtained a federal grant of $200,000 that helped it create a totally wireless pre-fire planning program. The program partly includes installation of ruggedized computers in the department’s 11 pieces of apparatus. For software programs to be used on the computers, Milford chose the MapMobile mapping program for locating each and every address in its community. Also chosen were The Fire Zone and First Look Pro software programs from The CAD Zone Inc. of Beaverton, OR. The Fire Zone program creates pre-fire, post-incident and fire investigation drawings directly from a laptop or desktop computer.

First Look Pro complements The Fire Zone by letting fire personnel organize and locate pre-fire plan diagrams and information within seconds. By simply selecting an address, occupancy name or pre-plan identification number, the incident commander has immediate access to all the pre-fire plan information that is critical to the firefighting effort. Along with floor plans, photos and maps, First Look Pro can be used to display building structure and access information, hydrant locations and even hazardous materials located at the site.

The Milford Fire Department’s wireless pre-fire planning system gives it the kind of instantaneous information it needs when responding to a fire call. Each engine’s computer has an I.D. reference number. When a 911 emergency call comes into the department’s Emergency Operations Center, the call is dispatched immediately and then routed to a central computer, which then locates the I.D. reference number on the ruggedized computer within each engine that will go out. The computer then sends the address of the fire to the engines’ computers, and simultaneously brings up the First Look Pro and mapping programs, pinpointing the address. These wireless, computerized functions happen within a span of roughly 10 seconds.

Daily Pre-Planning

Today, with the wireless program on the apparatus computers, Milford’s firefighters visit every building in their city each year and develop a basic pre-fire plan or update an existing one. According to LaVecchia, “First Look Pro allowed us to start out with basic information and build on the pre-plan every year.” The software also can import digital photos to help a firefighter or incident commander recognize the building. The Milford Fire Department currently is obtaining detailed photos of all flat roofs on buildings.

While Milford’s pre-fire planning effort is exemplary, LaVecchia stressed that other fire departments nationwide can still accomplish superior pre-fire planning on a far lesser scale. And many departments will be forced to do just that given their constrained budgets. Just the same, he said, “You’ve got to start (pre-fire planning). If you can’t go wireless at first, at least get onto a laptop so that when you get to a scene you can type in the address and bring up the matching pre-fire plan. Obviously, that’s a lot lower cost than going wireless.”

One of several other fire departments inching closer to installing ruggedized computers in its apparatus is the Bowling Green, OH, Fire Department. Bowling Green’s 50-member department uses the same software programs (Fire Zone and First Look Pro) as Milford.

“We create the pre-plans, make the drawings, do the surveys of the properties and then enter them into a computer at the main station,” Captain Stephen Meredith said. “Then, they’re printed out and placed in notebooks in each apparatus.”

This level of progress would be an accomplishment for any fire department, and so far, Meredith said, the approach is working. Until pre-fire plans can be accessed on computers inside apparatus, the main goal for Bowling Green’s department is to prepare as many plans as possible and make them accessible and easy to update. This task is much easier now that the department has software specifically designed to build pre-fire plans.

Automated Pre-Plans

When the Bowling Green Fire Department bought its pre-fire diagramming software, Meredith recalled, his personnel made their own drawings with it, then carried the drawings around on disks. “They were not stored on the central server,” he said. “It was difficult to find the drawings when they needed updating.”

Today, however, firefighters can access diagrams for most of Bowling Green’s buildings on computers tied to a centralized server, regardless of whether they are on duty at the main station or the city’s west side station.

Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone Inc. The Fire Zone diagram gives accurate and clear pre-fire information that is created with the software from a laptop or desktop computer.

The sprawling campus of Bowling Green State University also is under the protection of the Bowling Green Fire Department and is included in the pre-fire surveys. The university boasts a population of 20,000 when school is in session, and it constitutes a large number of the fire department’s runs for both fire and emergency medical calls. Therefore, having quick access to pre-fire plans is essential.

Not only have the pre-fire software programs helped Bowling Green quickly find pre-fire plans for reference or updating, but they also have helped the fire department collect and organize as much information about a single building as possible and make it all available with a simple keystroke at the computer. The department has used The Fire Zone for at least the past eight years. By adding First Look Pro in the past few years, the department can tie its pre-fire surveys to each building diagram. Using the pre-fire software allows each pre-plan to be easily updated twice a year. By having both programs tied together, Meredith said, “We can find both the survey (in First Look Pro) and the building pre-fire plan diagram (in Fire Zone) when we need them.”

This benefit is equally important when there’s a confirmed structure fire and both of Bowling Green’s stations must respond. Firefighters at both stations can view the pre-plans and survey information simultaneously.

More Complete Data

The software’s ultimate benefit, of course, is that it helps the department reduce property damage by giving complete information on a building during a fire call response. “There’s also less stress on the firefighters,” Meredith said. “They don’t have to work as hard to find or fight the fire, and they are better able to identify and handle the potential hazards.”

For Battalion Chief Brian Johnson of Clark County Fire Protection District 6 in Vancouver, WA, pre-fire planning has always been a priority, yet he admits that his department has been playing catch-up.

“We’ve been trying different things over the last five years to get pre-fire plans to where we could really use them on the engines,” Johnson said. “The tools just weren’t there. We had been preparing pre-fire drawings by hand, yet it seemed like an exercise in futility because we’d draw them and put them in the file cabinet. Why would we do this when we don’t have access to that information on scene?”

Today, however, the department uses Fire Zone and First Look Pro to create the plans and provide the critical cross-reference information about any structure’s construction, internal contents and hazards. The pre-fire plan diagram and corresponding textual information about each structure is housed on computers at Fire District 6’s main fire station and at its two substations. More importantly, Fire District 6 now has this same information uploaded into mobile data computers (MDCs) on all first-out apparatus, including three engines and a squad, as well as two command vehicles and one second-out engine.

Hazmat Guide in Software

Johnson noted that the main reason for initially installing the MDCs was to have a live link to the 911 dispatch center. The computers have only become more valuable by being able to house the Fire Zone and First Look Pro programs. Johnson said he particularly values First Look Pro since it now features a hazmat emergency response guide and an open-view window for all of the pre-fire drawings.

Even though the installation of MDCs on Fire District 6’s apparatus can be considered a quantum leap by any fire department’s standards, Johnson cautions that this step still isn’t enough for meeting total pre-fire planning needs. “This just accomplishes pre-fire surveys,” Johnson said. “That’s half the process. Then comes pre planning.”

Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone Inc. A view of the MapMobile mapping system on an apparatus’ ruggedized computer. The mapping system is used simultaneously with First Look Pro to coordinate the location of an address for a fire call and the corresponding pre-fire plan information.

To illustrate his point, Johnson cited the use of First Look Pro in the department’s training room. “We pre plan with it, discuss strategy and tactics for a particular structure, and where we might have problems,” he said.

Post-Incident Analysis

Still another way that Fire District 6 uses First Look Pro, as well as Fire Zone, is for post-incident analysis. For example, last January, the district battled a multi alarm commercial fire in a facility that manufactured ornamental concrete products. On the day of the fire, the concrete shop was fully engulfed when Johnson’s crew arrived. The crew had both a Fire Zone drawing of the building plus a pre-plan. The firefighters knew, from this information, that high-voltage power lines were feeding the main building that was ablaze.

“We knew pretty well that we had a huge electrical hazard over there,” Johnson recalled. “But one thing it (the diagram and pre-plan) didn’t tell us was what we had inside the building. We didn’t know much about the interior process.” For example, the building contained highly flammable fiberglass molds into which concrete was poured.

“We were getting a lot of heavy black smoke and a lot of very energetic fire,” he said. “And the roof collapsed very early.” In the final analysis, Johnson added, “We really didn’t have a good idea of what was inside that building.”

Using Fire Zone, Johnson and his crew nevertheless had a good understanding of the property’s layout, not just where the building was. “The software aided me in positioning apparatus,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of room around this building, and I could put apparatus just about everywhere.” Following the fire, Johnson used Fire Zone to analyze lessons learned about how pre-planning could have been tighter, as well as safety concerns.

Incidents like the concrete shop fire are why Johnson has long wanted responsibility for solid, consistent and ongoing pre-fire planning.

“I’m real passionate about the value of pre-fires and the life safety aspect,” he said. “It ties into everything else. The more a guy knows about building construction, the better firefighter he is. The more he knows about specific hazards faced in each occupancy, the better he’s going to be able to take care of his whole crew.”

Life safety and complete and accurate pre-plan information are the two main benefits of the software Fire District 6 now has in place, and which it will use on its MDCs inside the district’s apparatus. “That’s what we really want to have the product for,” Johnson said.

Construction & Hazmat Issues

Another major reason firefighter safety should be every fire department’s top priority is that today’s buildings are constructed differently than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Buildings that once were made mostly of wood now have lightweight construction. As a result, “We have to fight fires differently than we used to,” said Chief Ken Burdette of Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue in Silverdale, WA.

Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone Inc. This diagram is created with the First Look Pro software program. First Look Pro complements The Fire Zone by letting fire personnel organize and locate pre-fire plan diagrams and information.

In addition to a building’s more lightweight construction is also the issue of more hazardous materials. For example, Burdette said he sees more foam rubber being used, which is highly flammable.

“Fires burn hotter and faster, and they’re more toxic,” he noted. “This means you have to make some very quick decisions when you arrive on the scene to plan and execute firefighting the right way.” For these reasons, Burdette feels it is imperative to provide the very best technology tools to fire crews for their safety and to fight fires more professionally.

To accomplish this goal, Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue is fitting its apparatus with ruggedized computers and pre-fire planning software so crews can respond to fires with better information that is easy to access. The department has been able to develop pre-fire plans, using Fire Zone and First Look Pro, for 1,500 buildings.

Thanks to the software, the pre-plans “are all in a format we can use,” Burdette explained. “First Look Pro allows us to quickly and easily retrieve all the information we need,” including text, Fire Zone pre-fire plan drawings, maps and photographs. “It’s all coordinated.”

By having all of this coordinated information at the touch of a computer screen, Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue’s firefighters can more easily know how to attack a fire from the time they board apparatus until they arrive on the scene. From that point, the incident commander, who has the same information, can direct firefighters as they begin battling the blaze.

Someday, Burdette even plans to purchase a printer that produces a printout of this type of information. The actual printout is made on durable paper that can withstand harsh environments. “The information from this printout can be passed along to crews from the incident commander to better guide them in their firefighting effort,” Burdette said.

Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue will have ruggedized computers armed with Fire Zone and First Look Pro on its apparatus before 2004. Computers will be installed in Central Kitsap’s command vehicle, on one engine and on a medic unit. This hardware has been ordered, but for now the department uses the software on its desktop computers.

Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone Inc. A view of the MapMobile mapping system on an apparatus’ ruggedized computer. The mapping system is used simultaneously with First Look Pro to coordinate the location of an address for a fire call and the corresponding pre-fire plan information.

Burdette said he believes there is no better time than now for fire departments to take the same high-tech path for pre-fire planning that Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue has pursued. He cautioned, however, that buying, installing and using the technology takes time, patience, practice and careful budgeting.

Meanwhile, Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue is teaching fire departments about how automated pre-fire planning can help them strategize and execute their firefighting efforts more efficiently than ever before. “Once we show some success stories of departments who have this kind of system in place,” Burdette said, “I think you’re going to see this take off.”

Val Codino is a captain with the Canby, OR, Fire District. He is a longtime champion of pre-fire planning and to works with his department to employ the latest technology available to streamline pre-fire planning efforts. Codino assisted with the original design of The CAD Zone Inc.’s First Look Pro, a software product that allows easy access to pre-plan information and which is used to manage pre-fire plan drawings.

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