GIS and public records improve emergency response

Pre-incident planning is an essential component of modern fire response. In the wake of firefighter deaths in the line of duty, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has often called for departments to conduct better reconnaissance of structures within their districts.

However, developing a complete database of these plans can take a department years and require sustained commitment from all levels. For instance, the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has one of the largest pre-fire databases in the country. It covers more than 45,000 addresses in its district, but the effort to build and maintain the resource dates back to the 1960’s.

Thankfully, recent advances in technology and information systems have made pre-incident planning a much more powerful, yet time-efficient proposition.

Departments gain exponential benefits from GIS
Municipalities using geographic information system (GIS) technologies have recognized the beneficial application to fire and rescue services for more than a decade. By mapping historical incident data with station locations, departments have identified gaps in station coverage. Because NFPA 1710 requires departments to respond to 90% of incidents in under eight minutes, this information has been used to obtain funding for new facilities and develop better strategies for emergency response.


Despite these benefits, most fire departments have not fully realized or embraced the benefits of GIS. Research from the United States Fire Administration revealed that less than 20% of fire departments use GIS technology. Of those that do, only 5-7% use it in a “more aggressive manner.” As that small contingent of departments can attest, the benefits of GIS increase exponentially when the data helps to automate the process of pre-incident planning.

At its best, GIS can provide an overlay of utility lines, fire hydrants, hazards, and other pertinent information on an easy-to-read map. As these factors bear directly on emergency vehicle placement and approach, GIS allows departments to identify and visualize response tactics that may be difficult or time-consuming to perform on-site.

Court records show context of buildings
Even if a jurisdiction has not invested in GIS technology, fire departments still have the ability to leverage public records to help automate pre-incident planning. Assessors’ records are often accessible via the Internet, so critical information about a burning structure may be just a few clicks away.  According to NFPA 1620 (Recommended Practices for Pre-Incident Planning), departments must evaluate protection systems, building construction, building contents, and operating procedures to help manage fires and emergencies.

Recorded Plat Plats show the location of buildings, streets, pipelines, and geological features.

In jurisdictions that provide these property records, departments can more easily meet this standard by accessing building plans, information about construction materials, photos of the exterior, and photos of surrounding areas on the way to an emergency.

Court records may also contain elements of building plans, but provide additional value with descriptive illustrations of the surrounding land and structures. Architectural or geological features noted in the records may alert first responders to potential hazards that are difficult or impossible to see in darkness or through thick smoke.

Moreover, recorded plats may show the affected building in relation to roads.  For subdivisions, trailer parks, or apartment complexes with their own network of streets—which may or may not show on official maps—it may be difficult to otherwise navigate through the labyrinth in an efficient way.

Of course, not all court records are internet-searchable. Each year, more and more clerks are adopting and implementing paperless systems with online portals, but the costs of this infrastructure can be prohibitively high.

Fire departments in these locales may still be able to ramp up their pre-incident planning efforts using other data sources, such as Google Earth or Street View on Google Maps. The former provides comparable information to plats, showing the property layout and the proximity of nearby structures, while the latter may give an indication of construction materials used in the building or the number of residents (based on number of people or vehicles in the photograph).

Performing on-site inspections provides the most up-to-date and robust information about a structure. While inspections should still be considered the foundation of any department’s pre-incident planning, digital tools can certainly accelerate that process.

Information can also be misused
Criminal background searches—readily available in most jurisdictions—are another source of information that can be highly relevant to fire and rescue services. For departments that can and do use public records, however, it is equally important to carefully guard against their misuse.

For example, clandestine drug lab fires are dangerous for firefighters not only because of traps, chemicals, and explosive potential, but also because chemists will actively try to hide a lab’s existence. As a result, firefighters may have little to no indication of the dangers presented until very late in the operation. As awareness is the first line of defense, firefighter safety would be improved if a search on the way to a house revealed that the property owner or resident had a previous conviction for the manufacture of illicit drugs.

That type of search may have many unintended consequences, not least of which is defamation. If the property owner does have a previous conviction and members of the public overhear firefighters discussing the possibility of a clandestine drug lab, someone’s reputation could be improperly and irreparably harmed.

Firefighters may also be tempted to use arrest records, as opposed to convictions, as indicators of illicit activities. However, impugning the character of a person who has not been convicted on the basis of appearance in a court case is both morally wrong and illegal.

Administrators must also be careful not to use the public records for impermissible purposes, such as the evaluation of job candidates or employees. State and federal laws, such as the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, govern how and when employers can use this information, so departments should consult with an attorney when developing their procedures.

Though compliance with privacy and defamation law may require some attention, the use of these tools gives departments the ability to save valuable time during pre-incident investigations and in the critical moments before an emergency response. Departments cannot afford to ignore an opportunity save more lives, especially when many of the resources are available at no cost.

To see which public records your jurisdiction makes available online, check the list of Free Public Records Sites.

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