Harnessing Data to Make Firefighting Smarter

ESO Staff

The “smart technology” that you find in your phone, in your car, in your watch, and in your home can make life easier, more integrated, more efficient, and even safer. Today’s fire responders are increasingly looking to smart sensors and their related data to help protect team members and improve situational awareness during emergencies. 

Improved Personal Safety 

From lightweight materials interwoven with sensors and fiber-optics, to “heads up” data displays and airborne chemical alarms, emerging sensor technologies for PPE continue to increase the level of safety for firefighters on the fire ground, both during an event and after. For example, thermal imaging cameras can help firefighters “see” what is going on behind a closed wall, while heat flux measurement gauges monitor for potential flashover conditions.  

Meanwhile, incident command can monitor the movement and vital statistics of the team as they make their way through an event, getting alerts when someone is still for too long, when their body temperature is reaching dangerous levels, or where they are in the fire field, thanks to GPS. After an event, when PPE is being decontaminated, or when firefighters are helping with the overhaul phase, gas dosimeter systems can help pinpoint what chemicals may still be present and pose a risk to team members. Data can keep fire fighters safer through the entire spectrum of event response. 

Better Situational Awareness 

Today’s proliferation of a wide range of unmanned drones – from the small and affordable to the large and expensive – are opening up a new world of use cases for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in firefighting. Before an event, a drone can be used in pre-inspection to collect imagery and video of properties to store and use in case of emergency.  

Additionally, drones can provide helpful overhead imagery in multiple situations, like inspecting roadways and finding alternate routes, checking for fire progression in a building or over acreage, or aiding in the search for missing persons over large areas. Some departments are even experimenting with using larger drones for water drops over wildfires. Drones can offer data that a firefighter could never acquire on his or her own on foot. 

Increased Cross-Department Communication 

For the thousands of fire departments across the nation, operating procedures and data collection and storage processes can be varied and even outdated. This can make it incredible difficult to share important information with other teams and departments, especially during an emergency. 

Employing easy-to-use pre-inspection software and improving the data storage systems – moving from hard-copy card systems to digital tools that are searchable and shareable – can ensure fire departments can share helpful information with other emergency responder teams, saving more property and lives in the process. Whether its inspection data, building layout, or aerial photos, this additional data can make a life-and-death difference for first responders and citizens during an event. 

How do we get there? 

As the available technologies develop at a break-neck speed, a new challenge encountered in what data should be collected, how it should be stored, and when it should be shared.  A “data deluge” on the fire field can actually hinder decision-making and add to the noise on the scene. Fire departments from across the country can come together to agree on the top data points that are most helpful to increase situational awareness for incident command and individual firefighters. 

For example, New York City fire departments have worked hard to establish and maintain their FireCast database that collects and updates 26 pre-inspection data types from dozens of agencies, providing shareable information on more than 35,000 city buildings. 

Additionally, once new smart technology is introduced to your department, you must work to ensure proper training and adherence. While many of the tried-and-true, old school ways of doing things remain steadfast in the firefighting industry, getting buy-in and acceptance from team members is imperative to ensure that the value added by smart tools is not lost. This could mean scheduling training activities to ensure team members are comfortable with new technologies, or simply opening up lines of communication for questions and feedback. Certain technologies – like department drones – will need specific team members to be trained in the use and maintenance of the equipment, and might present good opportunities for career development and advancement. 

Finally, fire departments should look for ways to support developers working to create new PPE or other smart tools for firefighting. While many of the smart firefighting technologies currently deployed have their roots in commercial smart technology, there remains room for industry-specific organizations and groups to support and encourage innovators who are working to further integrate new technologies into firefighting. For example, groups like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and The Fire Protection Research Foundation (the research affiliate for the National Fire Protection Association – NFPA) regularly hold workshops and working sessions to advance this cause. 

The future role of data in firefighting is truly unlimited. The important next step is identifying how and when this data can be most usefully tracked, stored, and shared, to make firefighting safer and more efficient at every event. 

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