A local fire department ups its GIS game

A local fire department ups its GIS game

Although various departments across Virginia's Henrico County have worked with geospatial information systems provider Esri on real estate and tax revenue projects, it took an accreditation review to make officials at the fire department take GIS seriously.

“When we went through our last accreditation in 2012, we did an analysis of our data,” Mike Cox, assistant chief of operations for the Henrico County Division of Fire, told GCN. As the fire department analyzed factors such as population density, evaluation of demand, location and call types it received, it dawned on Cox and his colleagues that they weren't using county resources in the best way.

“We were deploying our resources based on call type and general occupancy type,” Cox said. “The problem with that is we were sending the same amount of resources to a 4,000 square-foot 7-Eleven as we would to a 400,000 square-foot manufacturing facility. Obviously there are different levels of risk, and they should receive different levels of response or resources.”

The fire department the realized that because of Esri's previous work with the county, there were data layers available that provided information on every building in the county -- including square footage, occupancy type, height and number of units at each address. Additionally, every address is geo-pinned in Esri's ArcGIS platform.

“It was a little bit of an aha moment for us to realize we already had the data there and we on the public safety side weren’t using it, Cox said. “Once we identified what the information was, it was a relatively simple fix to access those GIS layers and that data through our emergency communications center. It took about two months to work out.”

The county uses Esri’s standard GIS platform along with iNet’s computer-aided dispatch application for its call center, which supports other agencies in addition to the fire department.  The system also incorporates Esri’s damage assessment tool, to help determine the status of a building after an incident, and Esri’s pre-planning platform.

“We use some of Esri’s available public safety templates to upgrade our pre-planning capabilities for our day-to-day operations,” Cox said. “We use those tools to target our high-risk facilities then draw up a plan that we keep online on the map and in hard copy, so we have them in the truck when going to a facility.”

Henrico County’s fire department turned on the system Jan. 1. Every time a call comes in, the address provided pulls up all the relevant GIS layers. The system gives the department detailed information on the building in question, the closest water supply and other relevant data.  The result, essentially, is a thorough risk assessment so fire fighters know what they’re walking into and how to deploy the best resources for that particular emergency.

It didn’t take long before the system proved its worth.  

“Within the first few days, we had a pretty significant apartment complex fire that previously would’ve forced us to call additional resources, but because we did the risk analysis up front, we had the right information,” Cox said. “We knew it was four-story building, with 24 apartments in it and it was wood framed. We were able to send enough fire trucks up front that they handled it when the first alarm sounded.”

The new system has also been used for events at the Richmond Speedway, which is located in the county and hosts two NASCAR races per year. 

“The raceway is over 1,000 acres, Cox said, but it registers as one address to 911 and the fire department dispatch system. “So when you put 120,000 people on those 1,000 acres, if someone dials 911 from the raceway, no matter where they are, that’s the address.”

Now, when a large event is scheduled at the raceway, emergency services will visit a few days before and geo-pin landmarks throughout the area, then set up an independent web-based dispatch center to direct resources already at the raceway. The county also receives help from outside agencies for events and uses GPS units to track them and send the closest unit to respond to an emergency.

Chris McIntosh, Esri’s director of public industry solutions, believes the partnership between the county and Esri has stood the test of time.

“We’ve worked with them for a long time on mapping buildings and infrastructure and also operationally to help support two NASCAR events per year at Richmond Speedway, McIntosh said. “So it’s been a combination of working with them to do some baseline data gathering and then putting together some applications specific to operation of special events.”

Cox was also optimistic.  “These tools provide us with a much better capability," he said, "because we know exactly what unit we’re going to need. ... That helps us save lives, and that’s what this business is about.”

About the Author

Derek Major is a former reporter for GCN.

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