APPLYING TECHNOLOGY TO PREFIRE PLANNING
A 1992 survey of Austin, Texas, residents placed the Austin Fire Department (AFD) first of all city departments in the service delivery category, with a 93 percent satisfactory response. Our goal always has been to deliver the best service quickly, efficiently, and effectively. Our citywide response time has averaged under four minutes.
But while getting there fast is one thing, knowing what you’ve got when you get there is something else. As with many departments around the country, the AFD has had a prefire plans program in place for quite a while. The city of Austin is divided into five geographic districts (battalions) with a battalion chief initially in charge of all companies and alarms within his/her district. Operations companies are assigned a specific number of target sites within their districts each year. Prefire plans were developed for these districts using standard information forms in conjunction with site plans and floor plans.
Copies of these plans were made and distributed to all affected companies, and a copy of each plan within a battalion chief’s district was carried on that chief’s vehicle. As the city grew, so the files grew from a couple of ring binders to a specially designed file box for the back of each battalion chief’s car. The chiefs drive suburbantype vehicles, and the file box could take up fully one-half of the back of the car. Each battalion chief carried only those prefire plans relevant to his/her district. This posed some problems when simultaneous incidents in a district required the response of an alternate battalion chief who might not have the plans associated with the second incident. With a total of between 2,500 and 3,000 prefire plans for the entire city (and more to come), it was impractical for each chief to carry all of them. We had to find a better way.
Two years ago all of the chiefs’ vehicles, three rescue/haz-mat vehicles, and certain other units were equipped with cellular telephones. Chief Bill Roberts posed the idea that perhaps the prefire plans problem could be solved by faxing the plans to the vehicles through the cellular phone connection via portable machines.
The idea began to take form in the summer of 1991 when Captain Don Smith (acting chief of communications) purchased 12 portable fax machines. In October 1991 I became communications lieutenant, and one of my first assignments was to make the idea work—to find a practical way to store large amounts of data that could be recalled at a moment’s notice to provide specific information for an incident commander, and then send it remotely in a coherent form. This was the first time, to my knowledge, that anything of this nature had been tried in a fire service application. It was going to be a challenge.
It was by no means a “one-person” operation. A task of this enormity could be fulfilled only by a comprehensive team effort. Our resident “computer man,” Lieutenant Garry Brown, was invaluable for his contributions during the writing of the specifications for the computer hardware and also during the program installation and initial implementation phases.
It also helps to have support at the top. Phil Jack assumed the position of division chief of communications at the height of the development of this program and was very’ supportive, as were all in the upper echelons of the department, who realized the project’s potential benefits. Operations personnel worked tirelessly to provide the latest up-to-date prefire plans.
The exploration process began in earnest. Although many fire department-related softw are programs were on the market, none addressed our particular needs. Questions arose: Could this be done? Even if the software could be written, was there an affordable computer on the market that could handle the task? After all, we were going to be dealing with graphics applications, which require a large storage capacity. How could we enter 3,000 individual prefire plans into a computer data base, retain their integrity, and still allow for easy retrieval?
After some investigation and much discussion, we decided that a scanner was the best choice for data entry. Once the files were in the computer, the next concern was how to fax the plans. Combining the two separate facets of the program, scanning and faxing, and finding applications unique for fire department purposes with fire department labels were major concerns.
For a while we thought about writing a program “in house,” not because we wanted to, but because we thought we didn’t have a choice. About this time an advertisement for fire service software came to our attention. Although the company did not have a program specific to our needs, it developed a program tailored to the needs of the AFD that allows us to scan our prefire plans into a central data base; allows retrieval via address, business, owner name, and box number through a single “window”; and allows us to fax the plan to its destination with a minimum number of keystrokes. The ease of movement through the program, together with the clear menu definitions, makes it very “user friendly.” We took possession of the program in late August 1992, only 10 months after our search for a solution to our problem began. At this time, we have placed it through several dry runs and are completely satisfied with the integrity of the system, the speed of the fax transmission, and the quality of the faxed material.
The hardware to support a program of this magnitude is of paramount importance. Given the need for quick processing and large storage capacity, we specified a custom-built 486SX/33mhz CPU with a 1.2 gigabyte (one billion, 200 million byte) hard drive, extended memory, SMARTDRIVE. tape backup, MS DOS 5 0, and an SVGA monitor. The scan/ fax hardware was supplied as part of the package. It included the “complete scanner,” a combination scanner and fax machine (hardware/ software inclusive). The scanner card and fax card are combined in one card. The modem is built into the system.
We have calculated that the average “scanned in” prefire plan requires approximately 25,000 to 35,000 bytes of storage space. Even with the current 3,000 prefirc plans (105,000,000 bytes), ample storage space remains.
We are now in the process of entering the preftre plan data into the computer. Our plan is to place the computer in our dispatch center and, upon receiving an alarm for which a prefire plan is likely to exist, have the dispatchers retrieve the information, inform the responding companies that a plan exists, and send the plans at the incident commander’s request. The system has worked faultlessly in our dry runs, and we have every reason to believe it will function equally well in the field. In its current form the system requires that a vehicle be stationary to receive a fax transmission. In other words, the battalion chief must arrive at the scene, park his vehicle, and activate the fax machine before he can receive a fax. While this system works, we are currently exploring the possibility of “faxing on the move,” using an “errorcorrecting” modem in the vehicles. This would provide the necessary buffer element to allow for distortionfree data transmission via cellular signal when a vehicle moves between cells. Without this buffer signal, distortion is possible.
As with any data base, a backup system should be in place when available. In this case we decided to maintain a file cabinet of the prefire plan hard copies and a regular fax machine in the dispatcher’s office.
The process of entering the plans into the data base requires that a program exist for gathering the necessary information on target sites within the jurisdiction. For our purposes, the AFD developed a universal form to be used by operations units for all types of occupancies. This form acts as the cover sheet for all the scanned-in data. A site plan, floor plans, and any other pertinent information related to the site accompany each cover. Prefire plans could range from a minimum of two pages to a virtually unlimited length. However, efficiency of operations dictates that the plans be limited to only pertinent information.
Inputting the prefire plans data into the computer is a relatively simple two-step process. Part one entails using the scanning portion of the program. During this stage, each prefire plan, regardless of length, is assigned a file name unique to that plan. The city of Austin is divided into five geographic districts; each district is subdivided into boxes, each of which has a unique three-digit number. For example, Box 101 would be in district one and Box 519 would be in district five. Adding a three-digit identification number to each box number creates a unique identification number. Preplan #519001 becomes the name for the first preplan entered into the data base for District Five, Box 519. This system allows for 1,000 individual preplans per box, more than we ever will need.
Once we had organized our paper prefire plans and prepared them for scanning, the entry process became a routine matter of assigning individual file names to each plan and scanning them in one by one. Each plan is saved and filed into the computer’s memory using its identification names.
Part two completes the data-entry process. Here we get into the fax portion of the program. This part of the program serves two purposes: It allows for the written part of the data entry process that gives the scannedin preplans the attributes that make them recognizable (address, business name, owner, box number), and it is also the “working” part of the program used for retrieving and faxing the plans. The most critical entry during this processs is the box number. It must be the same as the identification name assigned to the preplan in the scanning part of the program, as this number links the two program aspects and allows for accurate data retrieval. Once you master these steps, the process becomes routine, and the end result is a system that is responsive, flexible, and accurate.
With this system, prefire plans can be retrieved using any of the data entry fields (address, business name, etc.), since each field creates its own numerical or alphabetical list, which then can be paged through for site location. Once you have located the plan you wish to fax, two keystrokes take you to the destination list, the catalog of all the names and telephone numbers of the fax machines in your system. Highlighting the desired destination and pressing the “enter” key send the fax on its way.
We’ve only scratched the surface of this program’s potential. After all, anything of a graphic nature can be scanned into the system, stored in the data base, and retrieved for faxing. This includes photographs of buildings, hazardous areas, fire alarm control panels, etc. Currently, the AFD’s hazardous-materials engineering division is working on a separate preincident plans program that utilizes hardcopy information. We plan to incorporate this into the computer data base, thereby adding to the overall effectiveness of our operations.
The ultimate goal of the program is efficiency—providing the greatest amount of information in the shortest amount of time to those who need it. Centralizing the gathering, storage, and dispersal of that information adds to quality control and ensures that everyone has access to the same data at a moment’s notice.
The Austin Fire Department is in the service business. Like private enterprise, we must search for better ways to address our clients’ needs. The prefire plans/fax program is one way the AFD hopes to fulfill this goal.