Fighting fire with data

Massachusetts bought six vans equipped with interactive pen displays, conferencing software, onboard weather stations and GPS. Incident commanders will be able to send and receive video, text and images wirelessly at the scene.

'Smart' vans get better information to firefighters

On Dec. 2, 1999, an abandoned warehouse in Worcester, Mass., caught fire. Six firefighters died trying to put out the blaze.

Not long after, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law requiring landlords of vacant property to provide the fire department with an accurate layout to help identify dangerous areas.

'That's a great tool, but how do you make it available and make it functional?' asked chief Ken Willette of the Concord fire department.

Now, as a result of a $1.6 million grant from Massachusetts' Executive Office of Public Safety and the Homeland Security Department, the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts has equipped six Sprinter vans.

The $267,000 vans are each equipped with a Sympodium ID250 interactive pen display, Bridgit conferencing software and a Smart Board for flat-panel displays, all from Smart Technologies Inc. of Calgary, Alberta.

The new technology will enable fire departments to share images, text and video at the scene and before an incident. For example, an incident commander could pop a CD containing a warehouse floor plan into a notebook PC in the van. Using the Sympodium pen and Smart Board, he could mark the location of firefighters at the scene. Firefighters could then transmit any image on the Sympodium display screen back to a server over wireless Internet, Willette said.

The incident commander, stationed in the van, could find secondary escape routes, Willette said. 'Or if we have a collapse, God forbid, we could use the technology to plan how to go into the building before it happened and see how to rescue whoever might be trapped.'

Such information can now be 'drawn on, saved, exported and shared,' Willette said. 'And that becomes very powerful.'

The field communication vehicles also come equipped with a radio switch that can unite dissimilar radio frequencies onto a single frequency, a weather station and Global Positioning System, a 30-foot hydraulically operated lighting tower and a generator.

Six Massachusetts communities'Pittsfield, Holyoke, Worcester, Taunton, Lowell and Waltham'host the vans.

A service provided by the state police also offers another possible application for the mobile equipment, Willette said. The Massachusetts State Police Air Wing Section can use a microwave downlink system to beam video images from helicopters down to the vans.

This bird's-eye view could help in many scenarios, Willette said. For example, it could prove invaluable in fighting a large mill fire, in an underwater recovery effort or in the search for a missing child.

'It's a great tool for an incident commander,' Willette said. The units were used recently during the Boston Marathon and would be useful in any high-profile public event, he said.

The program is in the training phase now and should be deployed in less than four months, Willette said. About 355 Massachusetts fire departments and 18,000 firefighters will eventually be able to access the units.

The biggest challenge has been the training and coming up with an operational plan, Willette said. Although the federal government has made 'quite a bit' of money available for the field communication units, it's been harder finding money for training, staffing and ongoing support, he said.

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