Fired Up About Laptops

The Georgetown Fire Department in South Carolina has pertinent and updated information right at its fingertips.

by / July 31, 1999
W hen the alarm sounds in the Georgetown, S.C., Fire Department,the firefighters pull up their boots and boot up their laptop. They race toward the lead truck, and before they reach the street, the laptop is glowing on the dashboard.

The computer gives firefighters critical information such as
a building's construction, contact information and the location of utility lines and the nearest hydrant. It's quite a departure from the big, bulky books located in most fire trucks.
But firefighters going just three blocks to a fire can't
flip through the book fast enough. With the laptop, Photo by Bill Johnson

firefighters in Georgetown can arrive on the scene and recognize all of the hazards involved thanks to the regularly updated information.

By Georgetown

The city of nearly 10,000 is located between Myrtle Beach and Charleston, so there is generally lots of traffic on the local roads. In addition, Georgetown encompasses a full-size steel mill and three large paper mills, adding an additional 2,000 to 3,000 people to its daytime population.

The fire department of 30 includes three duty shifts of eight firefighters per 24-hour shift. The firefighters are housed in the two stations along with seven pieces of major equipment including four pumpers and a hazardous-materials unit, not to mention the boat used for patrol of Winyah Bay, which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. One station is located in Georgetown while the other is in Maryville, which features many nursing homes and is part of incorporated Georgetown.

When the firefighters are not busy battling fires they are conducting routine inspections of the more than 800 businesses within the city limits and placing the data into the computer. They also participate in training exercises.

Laptop of the Heap

The training now includes being sharp on the laptops, which are used instead of books to give firefighters needed information about the situation they are en route to encounter. The department mounted laptops in the lead engine in each of its two stations and in the chief's vehicle as a backup. According to an item published nearly a year ago in Uptown, a publication of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, the system has been credited with saving three sites, but the department said that number has since increased.

Fire department personnel combined the Firehouse Software it used for a variety of functions such as tracking calls, hydrants' performance and equipment with home- architectural software Assistant Chief Bill Johnson found in town. Since firefighters make inspections of buildings and have to design the results, there is little extra effort needed to place the drawings into the computer.

"We had this installed on our desktops and we asked the next logical question: 'How do we get this desktop to the fire scene?'" Johnson said.

The following budget year a laptop was budgeted for and placed on a fire engine. A helpful factor, Johnson said, was the person in charge of purchasing computers for the city used to be a volunteer firefighter years ago. "He helped us out because he thought this was a great program."

But the program has exceeded many people's expectations.

"It has just been a tremendous asset," Johnson said. "Now instead of trying to remember an address or looking through an index to find an address, we simply punch in the first letter or the first name of a building and the entire file comes up. Not only do we have what kind of material it's built out of and a picture or a 3-D rendering of it, but it tells how much water we're going to need, if it's fully involved, the contact information, the last time it was inspected and who inspected it."

And while firefighters are cleaning up after a fire or are heading back to the station, Capt. Lorenza Cobb, who uses the laptop while going to a call, can use the laptop to begin his report on the incident. "It's very quick and efficient," Cobb said.

Minimal Cost

The laptops are also efficient from a cost standpoint, Johnson said. A decade ago department personnel envisioned mobile data terminals, basically dumb terminals, connected by radios to a main computer. For just the hardware, those units were going to cost about $20,000 per truck. In contrast, the laptops cost about $2,500 per truck, not including the software purchase and annual maintenance. But since firefighters use the software for other functions and perform many of the routine maintenance tasks the software requires, overall costs including expenses for updating the information -- such as when a business changes hands or a building becomes vacant -- are minimal.

In addition, the laptops run GIS software to track hazardous materials, and other software. The computers can then plot areas of the city likely to be affected by a chemical leak.

Johnson and Cobb can't understand why other departments wouldn't follow Georgetown's lead and implement laptops.

"I suppose it would be like standing at the foot of Mt. Everest and saying, 'Gee this has got to be a tremendous job,'" Johnson said. "And don't get me wrong, it was a tremendous job to get it started. But we took it a step at a time. And when you're halfway up the mountain, it doesn't look as tall as it is."

Johnson said he has been contacted by other fire departments regarding this concept, but he doesn't know if the inquirers have followed suit. Georgetown was the first in South Carolina to use this model.

"We were fortunate to have a chief who encouraged us to seek new technology as well as a City Council that encouraged us to seek new technology," Johnson said. "The secret is to have the system constantly maintained so the information is accurate. It doesn't allow the fire truck to get there any faster, but it makes our people more knowledgeable about the situation before we get to the fire."


Web Presence
The Georgetown Fire Department, in addition to fighting fires, ensures that the city has a presence on the Internet. The Web site includes information on department administration, fire operations, support operations, disaster preparedness, fire prevention and recent press releases.