Each year, public safety professionals learn more about the complexities of firefighting. Technology has advanced with that knowledge, allowing first responders to capture critical data and use it to inform future calls. Faced with budgetary and personnel shortages that hamper management of that data, however, fire departments stand to benefit from adoption of cloud-based solutions.
Taking on the burden of hardware and software maintenance, Software as a Service (SaaS) greatly mitigates the technical overhead for a firehouse. Cloud computing improves performance, increases access to important information, and lowers the total cost of ownership for software. For fire departments, that efficiency translates into more effective emergency response.
Data explosion forces fire departments to adjust
Along with the documents most organizations regularly process—such as payroll and employee schedules—fire departments have to track and recall information collected when preparing for emergencies and combating fires. Recordkeeping responsibilities include incident reports, dispatcher records, and emergency response histories. Such information becomes more valuable on scene when combined with other data sources, such as building and zoning records, neighborhood demographics, and criminal activity.
As a result, the amount of data that a fire department encounters on a daily basis is massive, quickly overwhelming existing manual processes. The data explosion is not over, either—by 2020, firehouses will deal with 40 times as much information. To handle that data, departments would need an influx of personnel, hardware and storage space. Those are challenging goals under current circumstances, when budgets and the pool of volunteers are in decline.
It is vital to public safety, however, to be able to wrangle all of this data into useful knowledge about a fire scene. When aggregated in a way that can produce timely insights, information from diverse sources can combine to help fire departments combat fires more effectively.
For example, knowledge of building materials—obtained from blueprints filed with city hall—in conjunction with police reports on a neighborhood’s criminal activity will augment records of past fire inspections, helping dispatchers anticipate the degree of environmental risk first responders will encounter on scene. Such knowledge can save lives.
Technology keeps up with data
Surfacing those critical insights in a moment of need is complicated. The location of a fire and the type of conflagration that develops from it can vary based on population density, land zoning and seasonal weather patterns. Response times are impacted by traffic patterns and current street conditions, which can change from one moment to the next with the weather and the status of construction projects. When able to analyze each of these variables in real time, firehouses can reliably predict when they can get a truck of trained responders to arrive on scene and begin addressing the emergency.
A great example of such data intelligence is the VENUS-C fire app, developed by the University of the Aegean. The software integrates Microsoft Bing Maps with data entry to determine the daily risk of wildfires. Firefighters have been able to use the app on their computers and mobile devices to better predict the path an uncontained fire will follow.
“You need a large cloud infrastructure such as Windows Azure to be able to bring these sources together,” explained Dennis Gannon of Microsoft Research Connections. “The use of massive data analytics and machine learning is now the new frontier in many areas of science.”
Two other cloud-based solutions tackle problems tied more closely to a specific incident.
The Chemical Companion Decision Support System (CCDSS)—software developed jointly by American and Australian governments—is a deep resource for chemical details that a firefighter may face when interacting with hazardous materials. CCDSS quickly identifies unknown chemicals at the scene by typing in the physical appearance and symptoms of victims. The software can also determine the blast radius and fragmentation of a bombing, along with marking the decontamination area of a chemical spill. Because of its value in assessing HazMat dangers, CCDSS has grown to more than 1,200 accounts managed by emergency services, military organizations, and government agencies.
A fire department in Pennsylvania adopted Active911 software to improve communication during emergency responses. Hanover Fire Department uses a computer-aided dispatcher, which identifies the origin of the call, the type of emergency, and the equipment needed by the nearest firehouse. All of this information is delivered in real-time on a television screen, helping firefighters prep and send out the right team to address the call. Trucks can determine the fastest driving route while looking at the town’s water system and identifying the levels of the nearest hydrant. The end result is faster and more effective efforts to contain fires, minimizing losses.
SaaS frees up support for human resources
Because in-house expertise is often in short supply, adopting SaaS tools can provide the power of data management software without the technical overhead. This frees up firefighters to consume data that supports their mission, rather than making data their mission.
Cost efficiency is a big concern for emergency teams trying to spend less and hire more. A standard in-house business intelligence program, custom-made for firefighter use, is likely to cost a department $100,000 to implement, excluding ongoing maintenance expenses and hiring technical personnel. A SaaS solution will cost a fraction of that upfront to install and move most technical responsibilities out of the firehouse.
This savings can translate into trained professionals. One firefighter can cost $180,000 per year on average. Migrating from paper to digital records alone can help a state save enough to fund 72 additional firefighters.
The explosion of data resulting from digital recordkeeping is a potential boon for public safety because of the timely insights that can be the difference between life and death during an emergency call. Managing that information, however, is a difficult task that requires both human and financial resources. For cash-strapped fire departments, investing in SaaS and other cloud-based software solutions is an effective way to enjoy the benefits of information while mitigating the cost of technology.
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