Information-Sharing Applications & Technology for the Fire Service

The digital era has rapidly been providing new  public safety applications (aka apps) that, once implemented, are intriguing, progressive and intuitive—not to mention extremely useful on the fireground. The process of investigating and deploying these new offerings can be overwhelming and cumbersome; however, if applied appropriately, they can aid in speed, effectiveness, overall accountability and increased safety for both responders and the public.

A Virtual Shift
Implementing the new and unfamiliar has always and will continue to be a challenge to the fire service. It’s long been stated that firefighting is “100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” Change, however, has been occurring more rapidly in recent times as technology embeds itself into the life of the everyday consumer. Take the average person’s morning, for example: waking up to an alarm clock, checking their calendar for the day, reading the newspaper, watching the morning news, checking their mailbox and reading letters. These simple activities and thousands more like them have all been consolidated into digital apps that can be accessed via smartphones, tablets, computers or TVs. Apps can also be linked to a user’s profile to allow for seamless, instantaneous synchronization between devices. Physicality of process has progressively been diminishing as virtual representations are becoming more of a reality.

Prove It!
Proving new innovations’ usefulness to the fire service, however, can be a long and difficult task. Safety is key and primary when it comes to anything relating to the public and responders as well. Altering protocol and implementing a change is challenging for many reasons. For example, fire service agencies normally require a product or item to undergo thorough testing to prove that it can function properly in their normal operating environment. The average atmosphere encountered by an interior firefighter involves high heat, heavy smoke and lots of water and steam—which basically rules out using any smartphone, tablet or computer you come across in today’s marketplace. Firefighters also wear gloves that don’t usually provide the dexterity needed to operate the digital devices of today. Furthermore, should firefighters be interacting with a device while performing suppression and rescue activities?

Regardless of whether users will be interacting with additional devices, technology is available now that allows firefighters to gather information and store it, either for use at a later time or for transmitting live to a dispatcher or their commanding supervisor. Similar to our morning routines, there are hundreds of tasks that public safety professionals might perform throughout a common shift. Tracking the progress of events, monitoring the status of personnel on scene as well as requested resources, and locating personnel and resources are among the highest priorities because they directly relate to responder safety.

EMS Makes the Transition
EMS providers have been rapidly making the transition into the electronic realm by transitioning their paper records into electronic patient care reports (EPCRs). The EMS applications of today not only allow for provider input, but can sync up with monitoring equipment and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems to automatically populate data related to each assigned call. The providers of today have the ability to track and input the progress of a patient’s vitals, automatically record medication dosage and times, capture and electronically save EKGs and transmit that information to the awaiting hospital. As a result, you often see fewer clipboards and more laptops and tablets being used by paramedics and EMTs. One app can sometimes be utilized by the EMS user to manage all the information from a shift—from populating dispatch and patient information, to gathering and documenting current findings, to the transmission of a patient’s records to a health-care facility.  

The IC & Accountability
Why has there been such a slow adoption of smart technology by the fire service? You don’t often find an interior firefighter who previously carried a clipboard, and run reports usually wait until the return to the station. With the incident commander (IC), however, there’s a different story. To be analogous to EMS, firefighters are essentially the IC’s “patients.” The IC is accountable for everyone at the scene and therefore needs to be provided with all the pertinent information surrounding the incident at hand.

How does the IC receive, track and document information about an incident? Initial call dispatch information is almost always provided verbally via radio dispatch. Redundantly, it may also be provided through a mobile data computer or terminal (MDC/MDT). Mission-critical, two-way radios have made their way into every IC’s hand; laptops are also becoming more prevalent. You will, however, still find a whiteboard in combination with a passport board or accountability ring system as a common information-collecting and managing tool.

The invention of an app on today’s market that seamlessly incorporates the data needs of the fire users hasn’t yet come to fruition; however, if you want to look at just certain aspects of the fire scene, there are some options. Firefighter accountability is the logical place to start the digital transition. Gathering information verbally from every firefighter can sometimes be a hassle. Performing a personnel accountability report (PAR) on a large fire scene can also expend valuable airtime on your radio network. There is a land mobile radio (LMR) manufacturer that provides an accountability app that allows you to collect PAR information electronically instead of verbally over the radio network. A simple press of the transmit button can now send data back to an IC’s laptop, which replaces the need for verbal conversation. Previous practices that took minutes to complete can now be completed in seconds.

Sending Signals
Conversely, the IC can send evacuation signals from their laptop to radio users at the incident on that same application. This emergency signal can also require an acknowledgment by the user, which adds additional verification that each responder received the command to evacuate the structure. Of course, every interior firefighter should be wearing a two-way radio, which allows for a convenient anchor point for accountability of all on-scene personnel.

Air Pack Monitoring
SCBA manufacturers have started to provide electronic solutions to track the status of a user’s air pack. Units are now being outfitted with a transmitter that relays information about the SCBA components—including PASS status, air level and even breathing rate—back to a central application receiver and corresponding laptop application.

Biomonitoring Information
Biomonitoring sensors can now be placed on firefighters to relay live physical health information. Heart rate, body temperature, user position and even EKG information can be made available to the IC so they can ensure firefighters aren’t over-exerting themselves and provide informed commands based on his troop’s active status.

Things to Remember
There are two important caveats to all of this information sharing: First, the more information you provide, the higher the likelihood that the IC may become overwhelmed. This is why it’s important to choose and implement apps that provide the most pertinent information in the most seamless fashion. The IC’s tasks should not have to drastically change with the implementation of technology. The basic functions of commanding the incident should become easier with the addition of this new equipment.

Second, it’s important to recognize that new technology must be thoroughly tested with your department’s procedures before it’s fully implemented. User testing and training prior to deployment is highly recommended to ensure technological readiness in your common environments.

Testing new apps, especially those that will be used with other electronic equipment on the fireground, will help enable the IC to determine whether these tools will help or hinder the completion of their tasks. There will likely come a day when most of the tools needed by the IC will be combined not simply into one device like a laptop or tablet, but into a single application as well. For now, though, it’s critical that digital information be seamlessly gathered and shared between responders on the fireground. Situational awareness can be dramatically improved with the implementation of some of these technologies, which are already available in today’s marketplace.

Sidebar: Comm Grants & Funding Information & Resources

Bureau of Justice
Provides formula grants, discretionary grants, earmark funding and funding for payment programs to support state, local, tribal and community efforts to build safe communities (e.g., the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Grant Program).

Department of Commerce
Includes information about the NTIA/Public Telecommunication Facilities Program and other DOC grant programs.

Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office)
Grants for tribal, state and local law enforcement agencies to hire and train community policing professionals, acquire and deploy cutting-edge crime-­fighting technologies, and develop and test innovative policing strategies. COPS Office funding provides training and technical assistance to advance community policing at all levels of law enforcement.

Federal Grants Wire
This free resource currently indexes 2,481 federal grants and loans organized by sponsoring agency, applicant type, subject area and a convenient directory.

FEMA Grants & Assistance Programs
This site includes information on the Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program (CEDAP), the Emergency Management Institute, National Fire Academy Education and Training, Assistance to Firefighters grants and more. Search by audience, grant type or alphabetically.
This site is a comprehensive source to find and apply for federal grants.

NTIA State Broadband Data & Development Grant Program
A competitive, merit-based matching grant program.

SAFECOM Guidance for Federal Grant Programs
Not a grant-making body, but outlines recommended allowable costs and application requirements for federal grant programs.

USDA Rural Utilities Service
Provides programs to finance rural telecommunications infrastructure, specifically, the Community Connect Grant program for broadband.

Current Issue

April 2017
Volume 12, Issue 4