New programs, staffing & funding sources bring electronic preplanning to volunteer fire departments

VFDs Go High-Tech
New programs, staffing & funding sources bring electronic preplanning to volunteer fire departments
By Bob Galvin

Pre-fire planning, undeniably a critical activity toward preventing and fighting fires, has become an uphill battle for most fire departments to accomplish. A lingering and brutal economic recession that has nearly routed every city’s fire protection budget is largely to blame. Reduced funding for upgrading technology and equipment is reinforced by the fact that there are fewer firefighters to conduct preplanning, pushing it even lower on the priority list.

Feeling the pain in particular are the nation’s volunteer fire departments (VFDs). VFDs often work with generally outdated preplans, often on paper, and rarely have time to update them. Inspecting buildings and generating new or updated preplans remains equally elusive for most volunteer fire crews.

However, several resources can make this task easier. VFDs across the country are using software to automate preplans, while also getting creative with grant funding and staffing to build effective preplanning systems.

Asstistant Chief Rodney Soderman of the Hershey, Penn., Volunteer Fire Department, uses the OnScene Xplorer software on a Panasonic Toughbook to verify sprinkler preplan information. Photo courtesy Hershey VFD

Firefighters from the Ligonier, Penn., Volunteer Fire Department, use the CAD Zone's First Look Pro prefire planning software to quickly learn key aspects of a structure as they travel en route to the scene. The software's mapping feature provides call locations, water sources, hidden dangers, plus other vital information. Photo courtesy Ligonier VFD

Ligonier, Penn., Volunteer Fire Department firefighters instantly bring up the address on their engine's preplanning software as they are about to respond to a fire call. The preplan will provide essential data such as building floorplan diagram, maps, hazmat directory, building access information, occupant contacts, and hydrant locations. Photo courtesy Ligonier VFD

Using prefire planning software, volunteer firefighters can easily organize and access preplans for any structure. This sample preplan, as shown in CAD
Zone's First Look Pro V.4 program, displays floor plan and description of contents, building characteristics, and potential hazards. Photo courtesy CAD Zone

CommandScope's CommandSummary page displays building information that can warn first responders of unique building features. The caution/warning section identifies dangerous conditions or unique characteristics about the property; hazmat diamonds
identify hazardous materials quantities and locators; and floor plan buttons expand detail evacuation floor plans.
Photo courtesy RealView

A Line of Defense
Lynn Hill, assistant chief with the North Lenoir (N.C.) Fire and Rescue (NLFR), provides a simple reason why preplanning is so essential: “It’s traumatic how firefighters have been killed because of the way buildings are not inspected properly, or at all,” Hill says.

NLFR is 45 years old, boasts 60 members and 14 pieces of apparatus. It is one of 10 volunteer departments in Kinston County, and it provides mutual aid to thoese departments within a 6-mile radius.

Hill adopted Fire Zone diagramming software from The CAD Zone in 2005, to “prevent accidents from happening in our district.” He adds that the software helps lower the fire department’s ISO rating. NLFR and one of its neighboring mutual-aid departments decided to buy the Fire Zone software together. By doing so, they have been able to help preplan each other’s buildings.

NLFR also uses companion software to Fire Zone called First Look Pro (FLP), which organizes and locates pre-incident plan diagrams of buildings, maps and information. Firefighters take photos of businesses once they’re inspected, then import them into FLP and attach descriptions to each photo.

“It’s helpful to look at this along with the drawing,” Hill says. “All new structures have digital blueprints. We can import these too.” This capability is especially helpful for maintaining preplans of large manufacturers in the town.

Safety & Interoperability
Many preplanning programs exist, and VFDs should evaluate the way they collect and use preplan data before choosing one.

CommandScope, for example, is one of several Microsoft-based preplanning software programs that can run on tablet PCs in the field in addition to desktop units. These programs allow fire inspectors to populate preplan forms in the field as well as import building information from other sources.

Given the predominant mutual aid aspect of volunteer departments, it has become necessary for preplanning software to be easy to use and have an “interoperable” design. This design can be pivotal should large-scale incidents occur, requiring respondents from a wide geographic area.

CommandScope’s software enables all responders to share a structure’s preplan data within the department, or among other regional fire departments, 911 dispatch centers and police agencies. “This quick education on a building’s critical details enhances the safety of all first responders who may not be familiar with the property they’re being dispatched to,” says Dave Howorka, executive vice president of RealView.

Go for Grant Funds
While VFDs struggle just to survive today’s economic storm, other worrisome issues are mounting, according to Jack Carrigan, first vice-chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

Among these issues are lack of technical knowledge about preplan software; few, if any, computers to run such software; a rising volunteer firefighter attrition rate; and growing resistance among employers to allow volunteers to leave work to respond to fire calls.

Carrigan feels these issues are surmountable. One reason he gives is that VFDs can receive support through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. AFG awards 1-year grants to fire departments to improve their abilities to handle fire and fire-related hazards.

Carrigan explains that the special fire assistance grant program is the “only one that’s ever been directed by Congress to the fire service. The point of it was to bring the whole fire service up to a basic level of being able to provide service.”

The Ligonier (Penn.) Volunteer Fire Department (LVFD) is an excellent example of how grant funding can be used to enhance preplanning. The department is one of 12 that provides fire service to three counties. It obtained grant funding to purchase 71 laptop computers on fire trucks and on the chief’s and assistant chief’s vehicles; it also adopted FLP software.

According to LVFD Assistant Chief Corey Blystone, the software streamlines information gathering, imports photos and offers a complete hazmat directory. Because the software allows users to write descriptions of a building’s contents and architecture, potential dangers can be identified.

“It allows us to preplan our response area and then share this information with our mutual aid fire departments so that they have preplans at their fingertips,” Blystone says.

Fire Corps as a Staffing Solution
Carrigan suggests another potential solution for resource-strapped VFDs: Fire Corps, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and sponsored by the NVFC. Fire Corps operates in many communities, and comprises local citizens who can help with fire and emergency services of any fire department.

“[Fire Corps personnel], many of whom are ex-firefighters, can come in, be part of a fire department, and can do a lot of administrative tasks and community service work that allows active firefighters to concentrate on the suppression and training efforts,” Carrigan says. “And there’s no reason [they] cannot be trained to do preplans.”

By tapping into the resources of a Fire Corps chapter, VFDs might be able to turn a corner with their struggle to accomplish prefire planning.

Carrigan, who also is fire chief of the Stayton (Ore.) Fire District and a 10-year former volunteer firefighter, is all for it, noting that preplans for smaller departments in rural areas is particularly critical. “We (volunteer fire units and others within a region) rely heavily on each other, and sharing the preplans is critical,” Carrigan says. “If you could send a current preplan electronically to an incoming engine and have its crew put it right on mobile computers, the incident commander could indicate right on the plan where he wants firefighters to stage. That would be ideal!”

Mapping Adds Benefits
Many electronic preplanning systems can also interface with dispatch and mapping programs to give responders a great deal of information during the call. The LVD’s system offers a mapping feature that shows fire crews how to reach their destination, and displays the progress of the fire engine as it moves toward the incident. “The mapping feature is a great timesaver in finding call locations, water sources, and hidden dangers,” Blystone says.

The Hershey (Penn.) Volunteer Fire Company has 87 volunteer firefighters who work out of one station that answers about 800 fire calls a year. With hundreds of structures along with the gargantuan Hershey Chocolate Factory buildings to preplan, the fire department turned to On-Scene Xplorer, a mapping and pre-incident planning software program from Iron Compass.

Mapping is the prime feature in the program. Its maps display streets, buildings, fire hydrants, among other key data. The software’s GPS capability locates the closest fire hydrant even at night or in poor weather. “It helps identify locations, the fire hazard exposures, and how to get into buildings,” Assistant Fire Chief Rodney Sonderman says. “And the ability to source hazardous materials also is crucial.”

Although so far only about half of the community’s structures have been preplanned, Sonderman points out that his department is creating preplans for at least 60 buildings a year. Before automating preplans, only one or two preplans were being generated.

Preparing for What-If?
There’s no question electronic preplans can make firefighters more effective and safer at the scene, but there are training benefits as well. Using the preplanning software, “We play ‘what-if’ scenarios with actual information,” Sonderman says. “They play out in real life, and this helps our command staff think about where they want to stage operations.”

With volunteer firefighters making up the majority of line-of-duty deaths each year, anything that helps volunteer crews be more prepared and safer on-scene is worth a close look. Thanks to funding and staffing resources, as well as sophisticated programs, electronic preplans are doing just that for many VFDs.

Bob Galvin is an Oregon City, Ore.-based freelance writer. He consistently covers issues, trends and technologies tied to prefire planning and fire safety.

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

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