By Joseph A. Masington & Guy Seeley
Today’s challenging economic climate has had a substantial impact on fire services across the country, forcing many communities to slash budgets, and forcing even the most fiscally minded fire department leaders to make tough choices regarding available resources, from closing fire stations on a rolling or permanent basis to reducing the number of firefighters on duty during a given shift.
As a result, the amount of geographic coverage per station has increased, causing an increase in response times. Thus, upon arrival, crews may lose precious time attempting to mitigate rapid fire progression and flashovers, which can endanger occupants, property and firefighters.
Such challenges are likely to continue, say economic experts. According to a September 2009 National League of Cities survey, approximately nine out of 10 city finance officers reported a reduced ability to meet fiscal needs as compared with 2008. The survey also showed that a large number of cities are attempting to close budget gaps by postponing infrastructure projects, laying off employees and enacting hiring freezes. Such changes will likely have a significant effect on the way firefighters are able to respond to calls.
But as firefighters know all too well, responding quickly to a structure fire is critical because fire can spread and intensify in mere seconds, fully engulfing a room and sending temperatures to nearly 1,000 degrees F.
In ideal cases, a nearby and adequately staffed and equipped fire department will arrive quickly with access to a sufficient water supply. But today, in communities across the United States, the responding fire station is not always the station nearest to the scene. And the further the resources are from the actual fire, the greater the likelihood of property damage, injury or even death. Simply put, the risk of total property loss and death increases dramatically when response times increase.
The Ultimate Preplanning Tool
One way to mitigate key economic challenges facing communities, fire departments and insurers is to utilize geographic information systems (GIS) technology, which can integrate diverse data sources to capture, manage, analyze and display geographically referenced information. When used properly, GIS can help develop and customize a detailed fire station deployment analysis for a specific community—which can help reduce response times.
Remember: Collecting the right data is critical when utilizing an advanced GIS system for fire mitigation planning. For optimal effectiveness, fire officials should ensure they’re entering the most up-to-date information for their coverage area, including street addresses, nearby fire station locations, building development and zoning, fire hydrant locations and water lines, electrical and gas main locations, hazardous materials and more.
GIS can assist fire officials in many other ways. It can help identify the building profile in their response areas (downtown, commercial or residential) and the type of apparatus needed to fight fires. It can also help personnel identify gaps in coverage due to station locations and where automatic aid may be needed.
Furthermore, GIS can be used in strategic preplanning by providing a visual display of high-hazard occupancies; places of assembly, such as arenas, stadiums and healthcare facilities; hydrant flow rates; or areas with alternative water-supply sources.
GIS & ISO
Ultimately, the rewards of using GIS are directly related to the time and effort invested into entering the proper information into the system. Case in point: ISO uses advanced analytic techniques based on GIS technology to enhance its Public Protection Classification (PPC) evaluation. The software creates an optimal fire apparatus response polygon for each recognized fire station in a fire district compared with the actual distribution. Then, water-supply points are charted and recorded within each polygon, which ISO calculates and analyzes to determine the appropriate number of points that should be credited to the community for its fire defense evaluation.
Community officials can use GIS technology to create similar analyses to more accurately determine where hazards and vulnerabilities exist so they can improve a community’s strategic response planning in the event of a structure fire.
This map provides ISO staff with a visual depiction of fire station locations, corresponding first-alarm response areas and fire hydrant locations in each fire district.
The Station Fire perimeter from www.geomac.gov as of Sept. 17, 2009, is displayed over a map of Landsat-derived wildfire fuel loadings on an increasing green, yellow and red scale. Urban, non-wildfire areas are shown in gray, with road network information shown in dark red. Black dots represent some reported fire losses during the Station Fire.
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