Fighting Fire with Microfilm
How a handful of ordinary file cards, with microfilm mounted in apertures, guides routing and dispatching of equipment in Baltimore County, Md.
A HANDFUL of 3 by 5-inch file cards, on which are mounted microfilmed maps of a 615 square mile area, serves as the basic record in the unusual control system installed by the Baltimore County Fire Department, of which Chief Anthony Orban is the head.
The department, newly enlarged by a multi-building headquarters and training center at Towson, Maryland, has more than 100 fire engines, plus ambulance, emergency, rescue and other mobile units.
In addition to fire prevention and fire fighting, the department provides accident and ambulance service, road maps, rescue squads, and performs just about every emergency type of function required for a community of some 380,000 people living in the horseshoe-shaped area that surrounds the city of Baltimore.
Why centralized control is needed
The Baltimore County organization comprises 10 fire houses, 15 established or paid companies and 30 volunteer companies, each with its special equipment, consisting of fire engines and all the supplementary rolling stock needed to go with them. All mobile units are equipped with two-way communications. There are 10 chiefs in the field with eight battalion chiefs. All communications are directed to and redirected from the central facility at the fire headquarters in Towson.
Planned routing for speed, safety
In recent months the department has handled from 144 to 456 actual fire calls per month, not counting a negligible number of false alarms, and the central communications station has faced the problem of eliminating any possible delay that might occur between an alarm and getting equipment to the specific place of emergency. On Christmas Day, 1955, between 8:00 a.m. and 3:15 p.m., 45 calls were received.
Naturally, with such extensive activity and so wide an area to be covered, the actual location of the point of emergency and the shortest way to reach it are of paramount importance. This importance is accentuated by the fact that in many cases equipment comes from several different points and it is imperative that non-conflicting paths of approach be used wherever possible to avoid disastrous collisions, such as may happen when routing is not directed from a central point.
It is significant that in this day of electronics, jet propulsion and atomic power, a few tiny pieces of film on cards should be the instruments through which maximum speed has been obtained, and the application of the control system made possible by these cards takes place in a space less than that occupied by two ordinary office desks.
Full routing directions in seconds
Before discussing briefly the method by which about 40 maps of the Baltimore County area are reproduced on microfilm and mounted on aperature cards for quick reference, a bit about how the control system functions:
The easiest way to visualize these 40 cards in action is to trace a fire call through the central headquarters. The call is received by an operator on duty and is immediately put on the central communications siren system so that the nearest companies are alerted before anything else takes place. The operator then turns immediately to his index where over 35,000 streets are properly indexed and in immediate view. These indexes, on a rotary file, give the number of the map-on-film mounted on a small 3x5inch film card.
The card is quickly inserted into a microfilm viewer which projects the map up to 500 times its film size on a 24 x 36inch screen so that it is immediately readable by the fire station communication directors. While the dispatcher looks at the map the nearest fire fighting unit that has to answer the alarm is called and given the streets of access, the left and right turns and the immediate location on the street that must be reached.
Inexpensive, easy to operate
The mapping and routing or dispatching control equipment used in Baltimore County’s new fire headquarters installation is both inexpensive and easy to operate.
First step in the procedure, that of reproducing the original map, diagram, engineering drawing, etc., on a 35 mm film, is handled by a commercial microfilming service center.
Next the film is cut and mounted in the special glassinc-framed apertures of ordinary 3 x 5-inch file cards.
Once the film is mounted in the card apertures, the system is ready for use. As referrals to the maps, diagrams, engineering drawings, etc., are to be made, the card is extracted, slipped into a viewer and the light switch is thrown, reproducing the image on a large screen.
Viewers range from desktop units to the large model shown at the right of the Baltimore County Central Alarm and Control Room photo.
Before the system of activating frames of microfilm by mounting them in card apertures was adopted, the actual maps were filed where they could be readily obtained, spread out and examined. The finding of the maps, no matter how carefully filed, and the cumbersome mechanics of putting them where they could be carefully examined need not be explained to anyone who has tried to examine and refold a simple automobile road map while at some puzzling intersection. When this procedure is compared with the selection of a 3 x 5-inch file card inserted under an enlargement type viewer, one can quickly sense the new facility without even seeing it.
Potential savings high
A few statistics will convey the magnitude of the savings that may be effected by the application of this ingenious procedure.
There is an average of 200 calls to the fire center each month and the average property loss on each one of these calls represents an estimated $200 or a total of $40,000 a month.
No one can, of course, say just what difference a matter of minutes might make in answering calls of this nature, but it does not seem to be any stretch of the imagination to assume that in the early stages of a fire a matter of some one or two minutes saved in issuing instructions, to say nothing of these instructions being strictly accurate, could mean a savings of 10 to 20 per cent in fire losses even if the savings in human life were to be completely ignored.
Carrying these figures to a hypothetical conclusion indicates a saving amounting to some $4,000 per month or $48,000 per year. And this has nothing to do with lives that may have been saved or serious collisions that may have been avoided in getting to a fire, accident or other emergency.
The photographs used in connection with this story have been furnished FIRE ENGINEERING by Filmsort Division of Dexter Folder Co.