Fire Technology: Three Ways to Join the Smart City Movement

June 10, 2024
Jason Moore tells how intelligent traffic control and preemption, data collection and exchange, and a more sophisticated use of drones are possible when fire organizations reach out to other departments.

What comes into your head when you hear the term “smart city?” The first time that I heard the term, visions of a futuristic environment that provided better coordination of resources, automation of specific tasks and a whole new world of metadata to use for preplanning popped into mine. However, as I learned more about what was being considered smart city initiatives, I quickly realized that public safety wasn’t necessarily in the conversation as other functions of government were.

Although your department’s path toward this movement must go through a community and mission-centric process, there are three ways that most departments would benefit from and have a significant effect on saving lives and protecting property.

Traffic control & preemption
Following the COVID pandemic, the federal government’s release of millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements opened the door to upgrades to digital traffic control systems from analog systems. This singular improvement can modernize how a city’s street or public works department times traffic control lights, monitors outages and performs routine maintenance.

If a fire department makes an investment to tap into this digital control system, the preemption systems that help to give priority to emergency vehicles gain a new level of functionality. Older systems rely on the proximity of an approaching response vehicle to change the traffic signal to green. Newer systems are smart enough to know where the apparatus is trying to go, to help to move traffic out of the way well ahead of the response. This option can improve response times by as much as 25 percent and help to reduce traffic collisions (and liability claims) and reduce responder stress. Furthermore, the system easily can pay for itself if it prevents one apparatus crash that involves a fatality.

As a bonus, multiple levels of priority can be established. Incorporating this technology into public transit and public works vehicles can provide, for example, preemption for a bus that’s behind schedule or help to minimize the number of times that a snowplow must stop while clearing roads. If your community is looking for ways to reduce its carbon footprint, intelligent traffic control systems also can reduce the amount of time that vehicles sit idling at an intersection that has no traffic.

The versatility and wide application of this option makes this a high return on investment that also has the best chance to gain allies in other departments. If a fire department only can pursue one option, this is the gateway project for most areas that are looking to enter the smart city movement.

Internet of Things
The second way that a fire department can benefit from embracing smart city technology requires significant investments in communication systems. That said, such communications systems already might be available to departments that are in areas that have deployed smart water meters and/or integrated video monitoring systems or established sensor networks for other purposes.

Simply described as the Internet of Things (IoT), this option is a growing market that refers to the network of physical devices and objects that are embedded with sensors, software and connectivity, which allows the devices and objects to collect and exchange data over the internet. If your area already created the backbone of communication systems to accomplish other smart city initiatives, you might be a few sensors away from adding new insights or automations to improve safety.

For example, sensors that identify when a road is too flooded to be crossed safely can trigger warning lights, gates or bollard systems to help to deter people from endangering themselves. Other sensors can provide early notifications of vehicle crashes at intersections that are based on the sound of a collision. (Police have similar technology in areas that are prone to gun violence that can detect and triangulate the sound of a gunshot.)

Still other sensors are capable of detecting sudden temperature increases or products of combustion.

Beyond sensors, the IoT promises other advancements, such as the Emergency Vehicle Alert System (EVAS), which is powered by HAAS Alert’s Safety Cloud. This system sends a message to other drivers when an emergency vehicle is in close proximity of them. There also are similar options for drivers who use smartphone or vehicle apps, such as Waze, which is a social network-powered navigation app. Although siren technology has been advanced and most progressive departments incorporated low-frequency or bass siren technology into their apparatus, in-vehicle alerts come through the speakers of citizen’s automobiles and, thus, aren’t subject to their vehicle’s sound-proofing.

Drone programs
Drone programs are at a price point that makes them more obtainable than ever. Paths toward truly automated systems that will change how we respond to emergencies are being pursued.

My very first conversation about smart city initiatives for public safety was a dream of a drone network that could put eyes on a 9-1-1 call location while the dispatch center gathered information. As organizations that are experiencing historic increases in their number of simultaneous responses reach a breaking point, advanced dispatching protocols might not be enough to help. Tailoring a response to what’s needed and maximizing efficiency are sincere considerations for departments that are meeting resistance in staffing requests.

If food take-out and delivery companies can experiment with drones to automate their delivery service, why can’t public safety consider this option? Although most of the programs that are researched are police-based, these programs already are proving themselves in regard to reducing the number of incidents that require a dispatched officer, eliminating the need for dangerous, high-speed pursuits, and aiding in tracking suspects.

For fire applications, drones commonly are used for situational awareness or to deploy thermal imaging to aid in rescue operations. However, to truly consider a drone as a smart city initiative, a drone must evolve beyond a tool that’s carried in a case and takes critical time to prepare to launch.

Every major initiative is built on the concept of establishing drone stations at strategic locations throughout a geographic area. Does this sound like anything that the fire service already has in place?

Although it might not be for a drone program for your department, offering up fire stations to host drones for other applications might provide the fastest path toward having this tool available for fire service utilization. The best part of this option is that it builds on proven programs, grant funding and efforts of those who are in law enforcement.

Where to start? Numerous platforms (e.g., DroneSense and Motorola’s Cape) and drone companies help organizations to navigate Federal Aviation Administration-approval processes. Don’t forget to coordinate with law enforcement counterparts that might be working on this possibility.

Providing the impetus
The fire service must make sure that it’s engaged and finds ways to give responders every edge that they can get. The options that are noted above require a varying level of commitment. Intelligent traffic control and preemption can be led by departments. Data collection and exchange via IoT can be supported by leadership. Drone programs can drill down to members themselves.

Don’t let these opportunities pass you and your department by. Join the smart city movement.

About the Author

Jason Moore

Jason Moore is a 23-year veteran of the fire service who began his career with the U.S. Air Force as a fire protection specialist. Moore is involved with the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Technology Council and is a founding member/associate director of the Indiana University Crisis Technologies Innovation Lab. He delivered presentations on implementing technology, using technology for community risk reduction and best practices to justify funding for innovative programs.

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