The Wilson, N.C., police department's SWAT team recently arrested a man suspected of building explosive devices. The man told officers he'd planted a bomb in his home that was ready to explode.

Police officers called Wilson Fire/Rescue Services, which moved quickly to protect citizens in the neighborhood. "We pulled up our GIS [geographic information system] on a terminal in one of our trucks.We pinpointed the house on the map, and it gave us an evacuation zone," said Chief Don Oliver of Wilson Fire/Rescue Services.

With citizens safe, police used a robotic device to remove the bomb from the house and disarm it in the street. Working with HP, the Wilson Fire Department -- which serves 50,000 residents in eastern North Carolina -- has become a model for using geospatial information.

On the Map

HP teamed with ESRI to provide a sophisticated solution for Wilson's "Fire Department of the Future" GIS initiative. The project uses HP businesscritical servers, high-performance workstations and networking equipment to run ESRI's advanced GIS mapping applications.

The fire department accessed the city's existing GIS system for a range of specific city data, then added specialized information such as incident reports and fire inspection records. The GIS data was loaded into computer terminals mounted in Wilson's firefighting vehicles. In addition, HP notebooks and handhelds deliver GIS maps on scene. Launched in 2000, the initiative provides new technology tools to address the firefighting needs of a changing city.

Recently, the department identified every one of the many vacant commercial structures in the city, rated its condition based on potential danger, plotted the data on a GIS map and loaded the data into fire truckmounted computer terminals.

"Now, when the fire captain crawls into his rig, he enters the address and brings up a picture of the building," said Oliver. "That tells him whether he's going to be able to make an offensive or defensive attack on the fire."

Geospatial information helps Wilson Fire/Rescue improve firefighter and citizen safety in other ways too. For example, the department moved one of its two light squad companies across town after GIS information showed the squad was stationed in the wrong place. "We found out that one engine company was responding to over 600 EMS calls a year, and one squad had only responded to 143," said Oliver.

The fire department also created a GIS map showing the location of fire hydrants with inadequate waterflow, then mixed in layers of data showing streets and water system infrastructure. The resulting map detailed systemic difficulties and helped the city correct the problem.

"We went from some hydrants that flowed less than 100 gallons a minute, to hydrants that deliver more than 500 gallons a minute," Oliver said.

Expanding Scope

Using fire analysis software, Wilson has begun applying geospatial analysis to data stored in its records management system. The insight helps identify patterns and eliminate risks that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, analysis of emergency medical calls pinpointed locations where traffic accidents occurred frequently.The information helped the fire department convince city planners to install new traffic signals and reconfigure intersections.

Oliver expects GIS maps to help the department strengthen its fire-safety education programs too. Wilson has a large population of non-English speaking migrant agricultural workers. GIS maps can show where these workers live and congregate, allowing the department to focus bilingual fire-safety programs where they will have the most impact.

Working in close partnership with HP, Wilson Fire/Rescue Services is proving that GIS technology helps provide safer communities.

"The truth is," Oliver said, "this technology has raised the level of service and safety for Wilson's citizens and our firefighters."