Fanning the FLAME

Unique software helps fire departments plan their future.

by / July 31, 1999

Fire Department brass in Sugar Land, Texas, had a problem. Developers were turning vacant land into subdivisions, and Fire Chief Diane Breedlove realized that Sugar Land needed some new fire stations. The question was, where should they be built?

One developer was in the final stages of planning the lots in a proposed subdivision and needed to know what plot of land the fire department desired for a fire station. Another developer had purchased land and wanted to make sure homes in the subdivision could be reached by the fire department.

Sugar Land did the sensible thing -- it hired a consultant to help solve the immediate dilemma. Using the Fire Station Location and Mapping Environment (FLAME) program, the consultant showed Breedlove the best placement for the city's fire stations. FLAME is a geo-based planning tool that calculates and displays street-network data and fire-resource data.

"FLAME models the travel of emergency vehicles over the street network of a particular county," said John Bode, president of BRG Precision Products, Inc., which developed the software. "FLAME can develop the travel path information for all vehicles responding from any location to any street block in a geographic area of any size."

Location, Location, Location

Sugar Land is 20 miles southwest of Houston and its population of 60,000 is expected to grow to 175,000 within the next 15 years. "Ours is a significantly fast-growing city, and as our city grew we had certain ideas of where our new fire stations should go," Breedlove said. "FLAME helped us confirm that our ideas were correct and helped us present that information to city management."

FLAME produces a variety of reports, such as fire station response districts, fire station response overlaps, dispatch analyses and resource stress testing. The map image files can be exported to a favorite word processor or graphics program to be printed and then used for presentations.

This is what attracted Breedlove to FLAME. "It's very difficult to plot out response-time data manually and then run 'what-if' scenarios," Breedlove said. "The scenarios help determine what difference it would make in service time if you built a new fire station in location A, instead of location B a few blocks away. With FLAME, it's simple to see what would happen and then explain the results to city management with the maps FLAME produces."
Timing Is Everything

Perhaps the most crucial reports for fire protection officials are response and travel times. "Response time is the total amount of time that it takes for fire apparatus to reach the incident scene from the station after they have been notified of the emergency," said Bob Barr, who worked for the National Fire Protection Agency for 15 years and now consults for government agencies delivering fire protection services. "Travel time is the amount of time that it takes for a piece of fire apparatus to travel from the fire station to the incident scene or demand zone."

There are no national standards for response times of fire protection services, leaving local governments with the responsibility of creating their own standards. "Communities have to decide how they want to deliver services and how much time they want to deliver those services in," Barr said. "The most common time requirement I've seen is a three-minute travel time."

Fire departments use FLAME to estimate service-delivery times from various fire stations. If a fire department has six stations and officials want to see how long it will take personnel and equipment from those stations to reach a particular site, they simply input the relevant data, the stations' location and what equipment will respond, and run the report.

Each fire station's travel time and best possible route of response is displayed in a different color and overlaid on the street map, allowing officials to see instantly which station can respond the quickest, the next quickest, and so on.

The street data FLAME uses comes a cooperative effort between the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the U.S. Geological Survey. The result of this effort was the Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing (TIGER) system database. TIGER is an extremely accurate depiction of the geography of the country and its possessions.

Mapping the Future

FLAME allows users to edit this street- map data to reflect future growth in their coverage areas. "The mapping ability of FLAME was very helpful to us because it allowed us to plot out future fire station locations in relation to future development," said John Corbly, fire chief for Champaign, Ill. Unlike Sugar Land's, Champaign's fire department bought a copy of the FLAME software and now uses it extensively to plan for its future while locating fire stations in such a way that travel-time goals are met.

"Our travel-time goal is to arrive at every home in the city within 4 1/2 minutes, 90 percent of the time. This equates to a 6 1/2-minute response time," Corbly said. "FLAME showed us that to be able to meet our travel-time goals, we had to move to six stations. "We were able to go to the council and show them the streets that we couldn't get to under the response-time goals they set. Using the maps generated by FLAME, we then showed the council how we could fix that. It was a lot of guesswork in the past. The big difference between the past and the present is that cities are growing considerably faster."