Fire Commentary: Technology Supporting Our Mission

By Don Oliver

Recent events have highlighted the complexity of routine and nonroutine fires and our need to keep pace with our ever-increasing responsibilities. Many of today’s fire service leaders have been researching and helping develop tools to help today’s firefighters cope with difficult challenges, no matter where they work across our nation and around the world.

Numerous technologies are currently available to assist firefighters in safety, strategic planning, tactical operations, command and control, accountability, and management. These tools dramatically enhance the capability needed in the profession today. In addition to keeping pace with the ever-changing fireground, today’s fire service professional must keep pace with the technology that is available for faster and more precise dynamic fireground decision making. Firefighters are eagerly researching and testing available technology with which to monitor buildings, track resources, and create and maintain real-time situational awareness.

Firefighters, company officers, and “new age” fire chiefs are asking for technological tools that improve their capability in planning, response, and tactical operations.

Most fire service personnel are emergency first responders; in performing their primary role, they have little time to interact with information technology. As information consumers, they need fast access to accurate information, unencumbered by time-consuming data crunching or computer processing. For first responders, technology should provide specific information about the incident scene (e.g., preplans, layout, and hazards) to allow for a safer, smarter, and more efficient deployment.

As with all fire department operations, quality training is essential, regardless of whether it involves new technology, basic fire behavior, or tactical considerations. The depth of instruction received depends on the department member’s role. As the fireground responsibility increases, so should the understanding of technology applications.

Operations officers are responders who are responsible for incident management and scene control, which requires managing resources, directing tactical operations, and communicating situational awareness to achieve mission objectives. Operations personnel are also information consumers with minimal time to interact with information systems. For the operations officer, technology can assist in resource tracking, identifying site-specific exposures, staging and triage, apparatus placement, and firefighter tracking and accountability.

Executive staff officers are responsible for the successful execution of the fire service mission within existing policy, budget regulation, and available resources. This responsibility continues to become more complex with reduced budgets, increased responsibilities, and demand to meet new mandates. The executive staff need Information Technology (IT) support and systems that can conduct rapid analysis and information for executive-level decision making. To help provide support for the executive staff and operations personnel, a fire department technology specialist or a dedicated person within the information technology sector becomes essential.

FDIC 2008 Technology Training Opportunity

During FDIC 2008, a workshop will be presented for fire department personnel at all levels of the organization responsible for the deployment of technology. The workshop will focus on how technology can provide greater safety, efficiency, and quality for fire service operations. It will also highlight how technology can make a difference by enabling more informed decision making and by reducing risks and ultimately saving lives.

The five modules include:


The introduction will outline workshop objectives and outcomes for each module. It provides an overview of available information technology, how it can support various aspects of the fire service mission, and demonstrates how existing assets can be leveraged for service support. The session objectives will include the following:

  • Identify existing information systems within the fire service agency as well as local and regional government agencies.

  • Outline how information can be integrated and used for more effective planning, response, and situational awareness.

  • Understand how information can be integrated and delivered to those who need it when they need it to support deployments.

  • Demonstrate how spatial information can improve communication, situational awareness, command and control, accountability, efficiency and safety.

  • Illustrate what resources are required to implement and maintain technology systems to support the fire service mission.

First Responder

This portion of the workshop will focus on how first responders can benefit from the deployment of information technology without needing extensive training or meeting special requirements to operate a computer system. The first responder class will illustrate first responder technology requirements, technology user profiles, and the benefit of training. It will demonstrate how technology can improve on situational awareness, performance, and safety. Using needs-assessment analysis and user case studies, the class will show how specific technologies can support all phases of response: from the time the emergency call is received, through traveling to the incident, to actual on-scene deployment. Objectives for this session include the following:

  • Convey the type of information relevant for response and deployment.

  • Describe hardware and software requirements that support the first responder mission and user profile.

  • Demonstrate how information can provide for quicker, safer, and more informed response and deployment without adding significant user requirements or complex training.

Operations officer (responder)

The training will demonstrate how officers can perform the incident management role more effectively and efficiently using vital information with minimal technology interaction. The session objectives include the following:

  • Show how technology can provide the type of information relevant for response and deployment for both the first responder and other operational responders.

  • Verify how technology can provide valuable information for monitoring personnel (tracking), and time exposed, as well as supporting crews with alerts. This decision-support capability for any incident commander is critical while fire crews are operating in an immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH) atmosphere, whether inside a burning structure or an outside event.

  • Understand how technology can assist in overall scene management as well as implementing the National Incident Management System (NIMS) processes and procedures.

Executive Officer

The session will illustrate how executive staff officers can benefit from the using information technology for analysis, reports, and the delivery of continuous situational awareness. It will provide executive staff members with information and knowledge concerning what types of information products can be provided, what types of analysis can be performed, and what kinds of questions executive staff can ask of technology information specialists. This will assist executive staff members in maximizing and benefiting from the department’s existing disparate data and information stores. This class will also clarify the executive staff officers’ role as both consumer of data for better decision making and a driver of organizational technology development.

Technology Specialist

This section of the workshop will focus on the technical requirements, data requirements, and application development requirements needed to support the department from a fire department’s technical specialist position.

It’s NOT Magic

With the advent of wireless technologies, pervasive use of global positioning system (GPS) devices, the Internet, and various software systems, the technology landscape for the fire service can be confusing. This workshop’s objectives are to develop a set of requirements (needs, problems, or best practices) and to demystify the information technology landscape. It will emphasize how technology can directly support the fire service mission without adding complex training or user requirements.

This extensive, customized workshop will focus on understanding the needs of all levels of the fire department organization and the practical realities of implementing information technology in the fire service. The workshop will categorize the missions and tasks of personnel within the fire service, their capability to use technology, their needs and use cases, and the type of training required to implement successful technology solutions that are easy to use.

Various companies in the industry provide geographic information system (GIS) software. Attendees should be aware that not all GIS data layers are immediately compatible with all GIS platforms. Therefore, it is recommended that a thorough study of options be completed before embarking on this process.

Don Oliver, a 40-year veteran of the fire service, has been chief of the Wilson (NC) Fire/Rescue Service since March 1992. He began his career as a firefighter with the Wichita (KS) Fire Department in March 1967. As a member of the Thornton (CO) Fire Department from 1973-1992, his ranks included lieutenant, training officer, assistant chief, and chief. He has a B.A. degree in individual studies with a concentration in fire service administration from Columbia College (Missouri). He graduated from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and the Management Excellence Program at the Center for Public Service, University of Virginia.

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