“Size-up begins with dispatch.” I've heard that for a long time — during classes with a room full of firefighters, in drills at the station, even in books. So it goes that it is likely an axiom, right?
I'm sure it was, but technology is making big changes: Mobile data terminals and computers now are found in many fire engines that use the latest GIS software. As a result, fire crews immediately have a familiar screen to gather information and formulate tactics from. And with the ability to use sophisticated programs like ArcGIS to analyze and create preplans, different views are only a touch on the screen away.
Access, egress, life-safety issues, fire behavior, water, topography, burn history, staging areas, available resources, and potential and threatened structures all come to mind when a bell goes off. When the alarm rang, firefighters pulled out and consulted the map book, only to toss it aside because it hadn't been updated in years. Firefighters gathered much of the information used for the preplan while driving, hiking or brushing a road, and passed that information on to other crews to store to memory. For many, there was too little storage for too much preplan.
Technology changes aren't limited to MDTs in engines. GPS-enabled digital cameras, GIS-capable handheld GPS units, and laser rangefinders with compass and inclination readings all work together via Bluetooth to create prefire attack plans or guide tactics during an initial attack. These devices have become more user-friendly and intuitive, allowing firefighters to upload images quickly, track logs and change maps. They can spend less time focusing on the how to show the data and more on what data is important to show.
Maps typically form the backbone of most prefire plans. With MDTs, firefighters can upload changes often via a USB port directly into the program. For example, Wind Environmental makes a photo-integration program for Ricoh cameras that imports images into ArcGIS and places the photo according to GPS coordinates.
The two photos below show a water source. The water source might have been overlooked if obscured by smoke or darkness. Options include viewing as a standalone photo or integrated in ArcGIS through the MDT.
From an in-field perspective, the GPS-enabled digital camera is a winner. Most everyone can shoot a picture with a digital camera, so the learning curve is exceptionally short.
Because of this ease of use, firefighters can create preplans using ruggedized GPS-enabled digital cameras linked to mobile GIS ruggedized handheld PDAs or uploaded back in the station. They can create waypoints that have associated photos with embedded GPS coordinates.
Another resource available to fire crews is topographic software with the latest fire symbology sets. Maptech Terrain Navigator Pro offers a plug-in created specifically for emergency response.
One of the latest developments comes from Adapx. A custom pen recognizes a pattern embedded in maps, such as an IAP map, and makes updates with just a stroke. The days of manual digitizing may — and with this tool, should — be near an end. This leads to a quicker workflow either at an incident or while preplanning. Users can touch a structure on the map and immediately color-code it defensible or place a proposed dozer line where they want it. They also can add staging areas, safety zones, helispots and more. The software updates the geodatabase, or the user can reject the changes with the click of a mouse.
It took me about 30 minutes to get up and running to create a map. And since most everyone can write with a pen, it is easy to learn. The photo at the right shows a map after symbols were added. It took only one minute to write on the map, upload to ArcGIS and accept. Symbols just need the names assigned.
But what's so special about all this? Well, instead of having to remember all of this — as well as whether or not I turned off the coffee pot when the alarm bells rang — I can turn on and off the needed layers easily and instantly, seeing the necessary info while hiding important, but not applicable, views/layers. Touch the screen and hydrants appear; touch again and I have the view showing wood-shake roof coverings. I'm only limited by what data has been put in using the GIS software. Instead of erasing the changes on the map itself, I can shoot an image with my GPS-enabled camera and have it brought into the map. When creating prefire plans (or at the incident command post), I can use the pen solution to make quick changes or notations on my map and have them in my MDT later that day. Updating data is no longer tedious and time-consuming.
In the past, when the call came across the radio, engine company personnel ran through the various options and scenarios in their minds. With the advent of mobile GIS and the host of emerging technologies, a new sheriff has come to town. GIS layers can be added to the programs to reflect unlimited useful up-to-date information.
All of this can make the job of first-in captains easier. They can concentrate on the issues in front of them knowing they have the info they want but a touch of the screen away. Preplans can be far more specific with the ability to turn on and off layers showing only the pertinent data for the call.
Size-up may begin with dispatch, but now can include a host of choices to help employ the best strategies and tactics.
Capt. Michael Hoose is a 13-year veteran of the Santa Barbara (Calif.) Fire Department. In the last several years, he has worked as overhead on some of the larger fires in California, including the Old Fire, Millard Complex Fire, Day Fire and Zaca Two. Currently, Hoose is assigned to a Type-III engine.