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.

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.
Photo Insurance Services Office staff

The Station Fire perimeter from 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.
Photo Atmospheric and Environmental Research

The methodology used by ISO to evaluate a community’s fire protection capabilities is reflected in the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule, which is available to a community’s fire chief at no charge.

Advanced GIS Applications
As high-value structures continue to be built in fire-prone and difficult-to-access areas, the challenges faced by fire departments continue to increase. In municipalities that contain wildland urban interface (WUI) areas, a detailed understanding of the environment around a particular residential area or neighborhood is vital to making the best decisions about fire resource deployment and allocation.

To assist in the decision-making process, GIS technologies can integrate multiple data sources into a single quantitative spatial data resource. For example, to calculate potential wildfire exposure, companies like Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) use GIS technology to combine data sets, such as structure location, surrounding vegetation type, terrain slope, road access and weather and climate information, into a set of hazard factors available in its Fireline product.

To keep large amounts of data current with respect to changing weather conditions, the use of “remotely sensed” data is essential. Remote-sensing capabilities have improved dramatically over the last decade. Currently, these capabilities can be uploaded and integrated into the GIS, allowing multiple streams of data to be viewed on platforms ranging from orbiting multispectral scanners to automobile-mounted color cameras. Higher spatial resolution combined with high spectral resolution and rapid refresh are now available on a limited basis with aircraft-mounted hyperspectral imagers, but we’ll likely see an expansion of this capability on satellites in the future.

Today, data sources tend to be capable in either spatial or spectral dimensions. Spatial resolution determines the size of the features that can be seen, while the spectral resolution determines color clarity of objects in the scene. With proper use of advanced processing techniques, increased image spectral resolution can help users gain a better understanding of a variety of hazards.

Rapidly improving remote-sensing technologies can help determine answers to critical questions, such as: Are trees and bushes located directly next to a structure? Have insects destroyed vegetation in the immediate area? Is a structure’s roof made of wood or asphalt? Is the area a previously burned area of vegetation?

The data obtained from imagery is more widely available than ever before, allowing advanced GIS systems to be populated with up-to-date information. As the technology continues to evolve and new data is gathered, GIS analyses will continue to enhance fire and wildfire risk assessments for communities across the United States.

Fire remains the leading cause of property loss in the United States. In fact, 58 percent of total insured fire losses come from homeowners’ insurance policies, while the remaining 42 percent of total insured fire losses come from both commercial multi-peril and fire insurance policies. By using advanced GIS technology and remote sensing capabilities, communities can more effectively identify hazards and develop an efficient response strategy designed to mitigate the risks facing property, occupants and firefighters.

Joseph A. Masington is assistant vice-president of the Risk Decision Services unit at Insurance Services Office (ISO) and a former fire chief of the Upper Darby (Pa.) Fire Department.

Dr. Guy Seeley is vice-president of the Weather Impacts on Sensing Technologies division at Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER). ISO and AER are both subsidiaries of Verisk Analytics.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Roger Stroud on September 29, 2010 at 5:57pm
And even better is having the GIS application reside inside your Records Management System database. That way, you own data, such as actual response times, hot spot locations, "what if" scenarios, etc, are not just pie in the sky, but coming from your real data.

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