New app aims to improve fire-fighting

Being beta tested by the Philadelphia FD

The Philadelphia Fire Department is beta-testing a new mobile application that gives crews vital information at a fire scene – information officials say can help save the lives of citizens and firefighters.

The Geographic Information System, or GIS for short, gives fire commanders access to thousands of data points on an interactive, satellite map — using a iPad like tablet.

"We know the size of the building, the dimensions, how many occupants (the building has the capacity to hold.) It lets us know how many resources we’re going to need to get those people to another location. Or do we make the decision to shelter employees? So, it helps us make real-time decisions," says Deputy Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer.

Through the GIS, commanders can review many types of information — including calls coming into the 911 system, the current location of fire trucks and ambulances, licenses and inspections (L&I) data, where hazardous materials are stored, floor plans for large buildings and the location, size and working condition of fire hydrants.

"By knowing those hydrants that are out of service, we can actually deploy our resources to hydrants that we know are working, rather than having them go try to hook-up and realize, ‘Oh, they’re not working,’ and have to go to another location. That helps us get the service quicker," Sawyer said.

This wealth of data that has never been readily accessible in the field. Currently, commanders rely on radio communications between other firefighters on scene and those working back in the dispatch center at the Fire Department Headquarters at 3rd and Spring Garden Streets.

“We had applications that would show it, but relaying that information and getting that out in the field into the hands of responders was sort of a gap that we were trying to meet,” said Kevin Thomas, who helps develop data-driven applications for the city’s police, fire and emergency management departments.

With a few taps, the user can overlay all of the natural gas mains and lines running under a street and into a building – a vital tool that can help prevent an explosion. Looking at the July 29 gas explosion that leveled two homes along the 400 block of Daly Street in South Philadelphia, Sawyer says such a map could have helped.

"It’s going to help us to be able to shut off those gas lines quicker to that area. So you already have an explosion, gas lines are going to be open and we have to cut those off and secure that area," he said.

Sawyer says providing such information quickly not only allows crews to extinguish fires faster, but also reduces the risk of a disaster.

Born from Tragedy

The app was designed following the deadly fire along Fabric Row in April. In that blaze, Battalion Chief Michael Goodwin died as he fought a fire at Jack B. Fabrics at 4th and Fitzwater Streets. The 53-year-old was cutting holes in the building’s roof when it collapsed from beneath him.

"If we had a system like this during that time, we could have gotten real-time information on the shape of the building to help us operate safely in that environment," Sawyer said.

Following Goodwin’s death, the department fast-tracked the development of the application, which had been envisioned, but had yet to be built.

"You already have those kinds of ideas in your mind. And then when you have an incident like this, it drives you to take action," Sawyer said. "It becomes urgent and you say, ‘We can’t let this happen again.’"

Developed over a six-month span by city staff, the application was mirrored after a program for the Philadelphia Police Department that is used to track and map crime.

"Crime-fighting has always been proactive, and fire is traditionally reactive. And now, we’re taking a proactive approach to doing things…and saving lives in the process,” said Grant Ervin, one of the app’s primary developers.

Smarter Firefighting

So far this year, 21 lives have been lost in fires across the city. Last year, 25 people were killed. The department hopes to hold the lower number through the end of 2013, but Sawyer says an application like the GIS can also help further cut the number of fire deaths.

Sawyer says the application can help visually show where groups at high-risk of fire reside in the city. That will assist the department in identifying where they should focus prevention efforts.

"If we can identify those risk groups in advance, if we can identify which sections of the city they live in, we can be more proactive and go out and install alarms and do public safety education and reduce those fatalities," Sawyer said.

Ervin says his team also wants to develop ways to help fire officials see trends by telling a story with the data being collected and shown through this application and others. As an example, should an electrician have a high number of fires related to their work, Ervin would like to give officials the ability to identify the jump by cross-referencing L&I data. Then the city can step in.

"You can tell L&I ‘We should probably bring these people in and have a conversation with them like, Are you doing something different? Because you have a higher fire rate than all the other electrical contractors in the city,’" he said. "It’s one thing to give the guys in the field information, but how do you keep them better informed? It would stop things from happening before they happen."

The GIS mobile application is the first major push by the department to use real-time technology to assist in firefighting in the field. The application is currently being beta tested by a battalion chief in North Philadelphia. Officials hope to roll out a final version, to be used on tablets, in the coming months.

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