Communications Join Computer Era
Communication has become an indispensable instrument of the fire service in its fire fighting efforts. Progress in communication techniques and in their adaptation to the fire service has been rapid over the past decades and has been particularly accelerated within recent times. This is particularly true in the radio field and in sophistication of the fire alarm equipment. Very little happens in the fire department in which some form of communication is not involved. As well as being an emergency organization requiring special communication facilities, the fire department is conducted as a business and requires telephone and other communications for this part of its operation.
Radio makes the fire department’s resources available as never before. It greatly improves the efficiency of fireground operations. We expect the first-arriving officer to give an immediate brief situation report such as “smoke and fire showing” or “nothing showing.” This is very helpful to the fire alarm operators as well as chief officers in permitting them to be prepared for subsequent events. If the report indicates “heavy smoke and fire showing” or “this is a working fire,” the operators know that a multiple alarm is likely to be forthcoming or at least that fire companies are likely to be tied up for a period of time and that if necessary, they may have to relocate companies to cover the area.
Radio speeds operations
The radio also permits chief officers at a fire to give specific assignments to companies en route as to the positions they are to take at the fire and the type of hose streams or service wanted. This greatly speeds operations as compared to former practices where company officers had to report to chiefs in person to receive orders. Companies may be quickly released if not needed at this fire.
In former days, fire departments commonly used the telegraph keys in the alarm boxes to tap special messages. This is little done today because of the greater clarity and convenience of radio communications. At fires it is necessary to limit radio messages and give them priorities based upon urgency. The efficient fire alarm operator will enforce this and will generally accept a message from a chief or his aide rather than from a company officer. Usually all messages from the fireground to the fire alarm office are channeled through the command post, which is usually the radio of the chief in charge of the district.
There is one important function of the fire alarm officer that perhaps is not appreciated as much as it should be. That is, that a chief officer at the fire depends upon the fire alarm office to get him any type of assistance and help that might be needed and almost any information that might be needed, and also to be able to contact various persons and agencies in an emergency. Perhaps this general directory service of the fire alarm office has not been given the recognition it deserves. A chief may need a crane or a bulldozer at 3 a.m. Sunday or an added supply of foam, or countless other items. He may need to get in touch with the state fire marshal’s representatives, with chemists, various types of utility services. The fire alarm office is the place to which he turns and expects to obtain the needed help.
Department nerve center
It is appreciated that many fire alarm offices are very seriously undermanned for what is expected of them in present-day fire service. Originally, about all they had to do was to occasionally transmit a box alarm. Today, it is the nerve center of the department. They are expected to know where every officer and every piece of mobile equipment is at all times. They handle hundreds of radio messages and thousands of phone calls. They have to assist in getting back off-duty personnel when needed and keep in touch with fire departments in the mutual aid setup, keep building and street directories up to date, know when streets are under repair and hundreds of other matters important to our operations. More and more fire departments are furnishing the alarm offices with various directories of hazardous materials and information on key buildings so they can supply needed information to chiefs at fires.
Probably, the majority of fire chiefs are not experts in the field of signaling or communications and they need the help and advice of fire alarm specialists to keep their facilities up to date and operating efficiently. They need to know the advantages and disadvantages of various types of radio and alarm equipment. They are concerned with costs because they have to persuade the manager or mayor and council to provide the money. In cases such as in my own city, where both the fire department and electrical departments are concerned with fire communications, cooperation and understanding are necessary. The fire alarm man needs to know what the fire chief wants and expects from the systems. No doubt, reliability is one of the most important factors. The chief should be consulted on box locations and should have the say as to what type of response will be made to various fires.
On the other hand, the fire chief should be careful not to let his fire fighting personnel interfere with the proper operation of the signaling system. Perhaps there has been some tendency for fire officers to butt in on operating details which alarm personnel are better qualified to handle. We think that having a fire department communications officer helps to iron out any such problem.
The fire alarm people need to keep the fire chiefs informed because often the chief is asked questions about the various types of alarm service and whether some different type might not have advantages and economies. Fire chiefs tend to be conservative people in that they know what their present alarm system will do and while they welcome extensions and improvements, many are reluctant to accept changes which reduce service and efficiency.
The above are only part of the communications concerns of the fire chief. In a city such as Lynn, we have many properties protected by automatic sprinklers. In some of these, we may permit master boxes which will transmit an alarm directly to the fire department. A number of properties have systems for sprinkler or fire detection alarms which are then retransmitted over fire department circuits to our stations. Some of the big industries, such as GE, have their own proprietary alarm systems going to their own guardhouse or watchhouse from which calls are sent to the fire department.
A new problem that will bear watching is the use of recorded messages on private telephones. Where these are arranged to call the fire department in case of emergency, they might not only tie up our incoming fire phone lines, but could make it very difficult for us to verify calls. As you know, a well-trained alarm operator will generally obtain verification and pertinent information when taking an alarm over a phone. A recorded message made by persons not familiar with fire signaling standards may give both fire departments and fire communications people some difficulties.
Usefulness of computers
Some forward-looking departments are now being equipped with computers for dispatching apparatus. They are highly complex but more flexible than the older types. With such a system, dispatching can vary with time of day, weather conditions and the need for special equipment. A continuous record of the activity of each company can be automatically maintained, and the dispatching system can automatically consider the state of readiness of particular crews and equipment and select the companies to be dispatched. All that is needed is the proper tie-in by the fire alarm office and the development of a computer program. And, as the success of this computer depends, as in other fields, upon the programmer, this must be supplied from the experienced fire alarm supervisors, operators, etc., currently in charge of fire alarm offices.
I am well aware that planning for the future insofar as fire alarm communications are concerned has been inhibited or deferred because of many factors. However, we must push forward not necessarily correlated to present limitations, such as inadequate radio channels, computer programmers, types of systems, etc.
It is apparent that in this space age, we are virtually poised on the threshhold of a new era in which communications will complete the transformation of every means by which we generate, transmit, receive and use information.
Communications technology has contributed much to the growth and change in the communications field. Fire alarm systems will increase in efficiency through such new technology. Daily responsibilities in the fire alarm field loom larger and larger in our troubled society. Hopefully, the burden will be eased somewhat, resources conserved and efficiency improved through expanded and imaginative uses of communications.
Adapted from, a speech presented before the 74th annual conference of the International Municipal Signal Association at Boston, August 17-20.