The Orange County Fire Authority uses computer mapping to coordinate the activities of all parts of its organization.
The fire service is turning to an old tool with a new futuristic twist — the map. Computer mapping, mobile technologies and linked databases are helping both firefighters and incident commanders use information as a precious resource that can be the tipping point for more safe, secure, and effective response. Geographic information system software, including powerful servers that send applications anywhere in an organization, are supplying firefighters with instant access to information and analysis tools. This helps agencies make precise decisions more quickly.
Agencies are building large data warehouses with preplan information — much of it transferred from paper files and maps — combined with historical incident data and dynamic data such as weather and remote sensing. By building an enterprise capability, staff in all areas of the organization are becoming technology beneficiaries without any cumbersome or laborious training.
One such agency is the Orange County (Calif.) Fire Authority. The agency's first foray into computer mapping dates back to the 1990s, when desktop software packages helped automate production of paper maps of service areas, streets, buildings and fire apparatus. The desktop software helped replace simple paper maps that hung on fire station walls with push pins representing fires and other incidents.
As computer mapping moved into easier-to-use, less expensive and more powerful applications, the agency began to outline a new vision. Using a spatially enabled enterprise consisting of fully integrated Web, server, desktop and mobile solutions, OCFA supplies an integration platform that seamlessly fuses data, applications, processes and previously isolated departments into a synergistic whole. The server capability provides the centralized digital nervous system.
"OCFA is an organization that uses large amounts of location-based information," says Joe Mangiameli, GIS manager, Orange County Fire Authority. "Spatial data is central to most services performed at OCFA and a commodity with which many OCFA business needs are met. Our vision involved streamlining, standardizing and centralizing GIS so we could ultimately make spatial data and applications available throughout the organization."
Develop a strategic GIS plan
OCFA maintains a staff of 841 career and 390 reserve firefighters who work out of 61 fire stations. Six divisions and eight battalions serve 22 cities and county unincorporated areas. It maintains a service area covering 550 square miles, 120,000 acres of wildland, and a population of more than 1.3 million. Its center of operations, the Regional Fire Operations and Training Center, consists of a 20-acre complex with state-of-the-art buildings such as a 911 emergency communications center, a public services and support center, a vehicle maintenance center, a material management center, and training grounds with a fire-simulation tower.
"Service to our community drives everything we do," says Katherine Litchfield, OCFA's information-technology manager. "We develop technology for strategic and tactical purposes by considering what our fire personnel need to get the job done and how we can best serve the public. Our mission is to protect life and property. GIS helps us carry out this mandate."
Fires, medical aids, rescues, hazmat incidents, wildland fires, and aircraft fire and rescue services to John Wayne Airport are just some of the duties of the OCFA operations department. It's also responsible for specialized emergency-response capability and equipment for urban search and rescue and swiftwater rescue, the reserve firefighter program, an emergency-command dispatch center, special operations such as helicopters, and emergency planning and coordination, EMS, and training and safety sections.
OCFA has worked with computer mapping software and increased its expertise in managing spatial data and desktop applications. With the increased use of spatial data throughout the organization, OCFA achieved tactical success for meeting basic mapping needs. Yet as mapping use increased, the organization recognized the need for a more comprehensive strategic GIS plan.
"We had an environment that consisted of limited GIS functionality; multiple platforms; no documented GIS governance, processes, or protocols; and no GIS standards," says Mangiameli. "There were also disparate spatial datasets and workflows, redundant layers of spatial information, and no central management of GIS technology. In addition to this situation, many of the mapping products used throughout the organization were produced in a legacy system that had limited information and inaccurate spatial data."
Based on the organization's GIS vision, OCFA produced a master plan for technology that included an enterprise GIS strategic plan. The blueprint was in place for fully fusing digital mapping into the organization's core information system architecture.
After months of planning, configuration, and implementation, OCFA built an enterprise GIS that provides benefits to many sectors of the organization to solve daily operational challenges, as well as meet long-term organizational goals. More staff than ever benefited from spatial data, GIS products, and applications for planning, analysis, response and post-event study.
For instance, department staff can use GIS maps to place new fire stations in the best locations possible by plotting incidents and calculating response times. The analysis helps identify areas where more staff and resources are needed. Factors such as road networks, traffic congestion and incident frequency are brought in from other information systems and processed to see where a high rate of incidents occur, where existing fire stations and assets are located, the time it takes vehicles to reach these incidents, and where gaps in coverage might exist based on preexisting response time benchmarks.
Because the GIS is standards-based and used by other city and county agencies, OCFA can access datasets from planning, public works, utilities, law enforcement and other departments. Spatial data on parcels, buildings, streets, address locations, water, wastewater, electric infrastructure and other data can be fully integrated with the OCFA GIS. In addition, maps and reports generated from a Web-based map tool with a GIS-centric automatic vehicle location system help staff make spatial queries of GIS data and identify the location of apparatus.
The GIS is used to create all division, battalion, and first-unit-due area maps as well as station-coverage areas. Spatial-run-time analysis maps show predicted or historical travel time required from the station to the outermost area of a coverage zone for approximately 300 fire apparatus. Using one map layer displaying fire station locations and another map layer displaying streets, response-time analysis can be performed and represented as a series of lines that intersect on the map, creating a GIS network. Each street line segment in the network identifies the road type, distance and travel speeds. This allows users to identify a station location, specify a travel time, and run a street-driving network analysis. The result is illustrated by a drive-time ring around the station that closely approximates where a fire apparatus could travel in any direction for the specified time.
In addition, OCFA GIS data can help chief officers or incident commanders when they respond to an emergency. Mapped data answers questions such as, What adjacent exposures or facilities are threatened by this incident? Where should the incoming units be positioned to access hydrants and effectively support the units already on the scene? What parking lots, schools, churches, malls or other suitable facilities can serve as a staging area or incident command post? What land sites are suitable for helicopter evacuation? Whether relaying information by radio, carrying hard-copy maps into the field or deploying mobile terminals receiving wireless data feeds, OCFA uses maps to graphically render accurate data for fast decision-making.
OCFA maintains six professional GIS staff, one database administrator and three GIS interns. The group produces and updates spatial data, performs GIS analysis, and is responsible for mapping products for OCFA fire operations.
Approximately 80 spatial-data layers are in use, including digital aerial photography, topography, fire history, fire hazard severity zones, fuel modification zones, trails, and wildland and urban interface. This is combined with fire station, points of interest, hospital locations and more. Datasets are purchased, acquired through sharing agreements, generated by hired consultants and developed by in-house GIS staff.
Value of geospatial enterprise
"The benefits of implementing the infrastructure, capabilities, and functionality of the OCFA enterprise GIS are many and go beyond the usual data-sharing and improved efficiencies," says Mangiameli. "They include streamlining and elimination of redundant activities, reduction in the time it takes emergency response vehicles to arrive at an incident, fast assessment of the situation using maps to visualize incidents and their related variables, and improved ability to share information and create interoperability with partner cities and local public safety-agencies."
For OCFA, GIS rapidly is becoming an essential tool to analyze and visualize problems and opportunities for improved service. It provides access to a wide array of data, including digital text files, scanned documents, photographs, drawings and data tables. GIS helps measure response time capabilities, identify incident hot spots by time and day of week, and target hazards. First responders have immediate access to critical information for emergencies, and incident commanders have a better understanding of incidents when they occur. As the department grows in size and scope, GIS will continue to supply a powerful server-based platform for better decision-making, increased productivity and optimized service.
"It's the outstanding commitment, vision, and support for GIS technology by the IT manager and OCFA executive management, as well as the outstanding work of the GIS staff that have resulted in our GIS success as it stands now," says Mangiameli. "It's these same attributes that will spur our future successes."
Jesse Theodore is a writer for ESRI, a GIS software company. He has more than 13 years of experience covering topics in public safety, energy, business, government and other markets.