Using Pre & Post-Event Data for Prepared Fire Response

Nicole Hayes

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “too much of a good thing,” you can probably understand the state of data in the world of firefighting. In fact, there is so much information available to today’s fire agencies that the phrase “Big Data” is often rightfully applied, especially when it comes to the technologies creating so-called Smart Firefighting 

From high-tech, lightweight fiber optic FR clothing that can read body temperatures and chemical exposure, to trucks that automatically monitor water pressure, available diesel, and battery levels, the innovations for today’s fire industry have the potential to save more lives and property. 

But with the blessing of Big Data also comes the curse of Big Data. Data truly only becomes useful when it makes the transition to “information” – that is, being organized and presented in a way that facilitates decision-making. With seemingly unending sources of situational data, how can a fire agency harness what is actually helpful and filter out the noise of all the extra data? 

One key way to do so is by looking at the data before and after an event, collecting and analyzing the information before it is needed, so that you are more prepared for the next event. In its recent publication, Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) shared an extensive compilation of abstracts on the state of Big Data in firefighting and forecasts as to the best ways to leverage smart technologies for more efficient and safe work. Included in the research were recommended sources of helpful data, and the ways fire agencies could leverage these sources pre- and post-event to improve their SOPs and future responses. 

For example, when pre-inspecting your community, or conducting your post-event inspection, you could note data-driven information such as: 

  • Property location: Is it urban or rural? This could dictate your fastest route in the future, and offer ideas for rerouting traffic as needed.  
  • Property occupants: What are the average ages? Any special needs? This could dictate expertise and support systems needed for future responses. 
  • Property size and specifics: How many floors? Construction materials? Surrounding flammable vegetation? Exposure to high winds or sun? This could dictate best suppression and control tactics as well as preferred equipment. 
  • Local water supply: How far to water and what volume is available? This could improve your situational awareness and dictate your management methods. 
  • Neighboring property: What is the condition of surrounding areas? Any nearby high-risk structures or areas that house large numbers of people? This could help you optimize and rebuild support infrastructure. 
  • Cellular coverage: Are you able to access your Wi-Fi and internet-based information systems? Would you be able to share data and information with other team members on site? What about other organizations like police, the Red Cross, The Salvation Army, and other response agencies? This could dictate your response plan and the format for your situational awareness information, such as maps and weather conditions, and communication tools. 

All of these data points – which become helpful information once collected and aggregated – can play a key role in your team’s situational awareness and decisions from command. However, gathering (and storing and sharing) this information is not without challenges. The accuracy of your information is dependent on the firefighter conducting the inspection, and this could range from a veteran to a newbie, each using different terminology to describe and record what they see.  

Additionally, buildings and properties have the potential to change quite often; how do you ensure your inspection records are updated regularly? You probably can think of a handful of government agencies or even insurance companies in your community that might have information that could be valuable to you as well, but how do you go about making the contacts and sharing the helpful data? Finally, how can fire agencies more effectively share information between stations and departments, both proactively and on the firefield? 

Unfortunately, it appears that many of these questions are still in need of answers. However, some agencies are making good headway in widening the communication channels between departments and leveraging emerging tools to increase accuracy. For example, some departments are working together to create a common, agreed-upon dictionary of terminology for their local agencies, then using Twitter to send out updates that all responders (and members of the public) can see in real-time.  

Other departments are using new fire industry-specific software tools during pre-inspection that offer progressive forms, ensuring that no field is left unanswered and that inspectors choose from a pre-determined list of descriptors. This consistency makes it easier to store and search the same information across properties.  

As Big Data in firefighting continues to grow, NITS and other agencies are encouraging fire departments to look for ways to increase communication and teamwork between all involved agencies, standardize on as many variables as possible (like terminology and information recorded in pre-inspections), and support ongoing research to find the best new technologies to support the proper processing and utilization of available data. Once departments can truly harness the power of big data, they are tipping the odds more in their favor of better, more informed responses and a more situationally aware team.

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