First responders in Santa Barbara County, Calif., no longer need to strain to catch the details of a dispatch call—they can simply check their iPhones. Craig VanderZwaag, a fire captain with Santa Barbara County Fire Department, has developed an app that can display real-time data from local dispatch.
“My boss [Division Chief Eric Peterson] and I were trying to engage firefighters and their commanders on their mobile devices,” VanderZwaag explains. “We figured that’s how you engage younger people—we’re all using our iPhones and iPads all the time; we don’t even watch TV at the station any more. We’re all on our devices!”
VanderZwaag created the Response Deck app from scratch. “I took it upon myself to learn how to program,” he says. He didn’t realize how much work it would end up being; ultimately, the project took hundreds of hours, including learning how to program in Objective-C.
The first version of Response Deck was released in 2011 with only basic functions. Eventually, VanderZwaag added real-time posting of data from Sheriff’s dispatch—and that’s what required so many hours of programming. (This link-up is easy from the perspective of the dispatch department.)
VanderZwaag set out to improve firefighters’ jobs through information. He wanted to give firefighters instant notifications when a call comes through. “We tied it in with our dispatch system. When a call goes out, you can get a notification,” he explains. The user can select what alerts they want to get by selecting incident type, location, etc.
“With the app, you can see where you’re going, know what type of incident you’re traveling to,” VanderZwaag says. “Sometimes when we get paged, we can’t quite hear the location or the details. But with the app, everything is right on our phones.” The result: Every firefighter on the call who wants to know the details can access them instantly.
The app also includes route mapping via Google maps or Apple maps.
“Firefighters love it,” VanderZwaag states. “They’re able to use this instead of our onboard computers—the app is better, quicker and easier to use. They love the fact that all the critical information from dispatch is there for them.”
The latest version of Response Deck also includes paramedic protocols and a hospital information and contact section. “These aspects are very handy for paramedics,” VanderZwaag explains. “Say I’m a paramedic who hasn’t delivered a baby for quite a while. If I’m on a call for a woman in labor, I can look up the protocols on my phone on the way there.” And the hospital identifier will automatically give directions to the closest hospital and provide the option of an instant phone call to that hospital.
Personal Technology, Professional Use
VanderZwaag points out that “there’s no requirement to use the app, and it doesn’t replace our existing dispatch system or radios.” And while he has not heard of Santa Barbara County firefighters having trouble or resisting using the app, he says, “I have seen [firefighters] switch to the iPhone so they can get this, or get an iPad. People who aren’t savvy about this type of technology are getting there because of this app.”
The only complaint he’s heard is that firefighters want an Android version. He’s working on it, but it’s not a simple task. “Android uses a completely different programming language,” VanderZwaag points out.
Response Deck is designed specifically for an “internal audience” of Santa Barbara County firefighters. “Our target was those firefighters who were staring at their phones—but now users in the community are using it too,” VanderZwaag says. There’s no way to know who has downloaded the app, but VanderZwaag says he recorded more than 11,000 users recently. “I can see that the app is opened 600 or 700 times a day,” he says. “And we have more than 200 firefighters in 16 stations here.”
VanderZwaag believes those outside users are monitoring Response Deck just as some people use a police scanner. “It’s natural to want to know what’s happening in your community,” he points out. “And this area has quite a history with wildfires, so people are waiting to hear about those.” The app also allows access to the California Highway Patrol’s CAD system to check traffic.
If you’re interested in exploring Response Deck on an iPhone or iPad, you can download the app for free. Just search the iTunes store for “Response Deck.”