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Hazard Data Helps Boston Firefighters Make Informed Decisions in the Field

The Building Intelligence System is a web app that integrates seven city data sources to provide a streamlined view of individual buildings in Boston, which helps improve firefighter safety.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

When firefighters respond to an emergency call about a building, they have a very short window of time to assess the situation and plan a response. Although governments collect a wide variety of information about each building in a city, most firefighters don’t have access to this data, leading to unnecessary exposure to hazards and an inability to make data-informed decisions about fighting fires. Boston’s Citywide Analytics Team took on the challenge of this information gap last year. The result: the Building Intelligence System, a web app that integrates seven city data sources to provide a streamlined view of individual buildings in Boston. Firefighters and dispatchers can now easily view permitting, inspection, code violation, and hazard data, allowing them to make better decisions and improve firefighter safety.

Members of the Citywide Analytics Team, led by data visualization analyst Loosine Vartani, started spending time with dispatchers in the Boston Fire Department (BFD) last year to understand their operational challenges and identify ways that data could be leveraged as a tool for the BFD. They worked together to define the business need for a new hazard data tool.  Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s Chief Information Officer, noted that two keys to the project’s success were partnership with the department – to ensure the team was solving a core operational problem in a useful way – and the citywide vantage point that enabled the team to integrate data across departments. He described Building Intelligence as an example of a “glue layer” that “sits across multiple departmental IT systems and allows them to be linked together.”

The tool was built in-house in about six months using Google Maps and the ArcGIS REST API. Because it uses the ubiquitous Google Maps, the interface requires little training for users to understand it. Building Intelligence integrates seven sources of data – permits, inspectional violations, assessing building characteristics, building plans, hydrant and firebox locations, and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) data, which includes asbestos, biohazards, and other information collected by BFD. In the process of integrating this data, the team discovered data quality issues with some sources that lacked Street Address Management (SAM) identifiers, a system developed by the city’s GIS team to ensure uniform address data throughout the city. They were able to correct this while preparing the data sources for Building Intelligence, leading to an increase in data quality and uniformity across departments.

The beta desktop version of Building Intelligence launched earlier this year. When someone calls 911 about a fire, dispatchers enter the address into the web app, which generates a map of hydrant and fire box locations with a side panel showing hazard information like building date, land use type, and floors. The dispatcher relays the relevant information to firefighters by radio, but future phases will make this tool directly accessible to firefighters in the field on tablet and mobile devices by the end of 2016.

Firefighters in Boston can now respond to emergencies with far more information, helping them to effectively and safely battle fires in the city. In the future, the Citywide Analytics Team hopes to expand the tool to other departments that need full access to building-level information for front-line employees, including building inspectors and police officers. The successful development and implementation of Building Intelligence also demonstrates the value of engaging departments in data projects to ensure that the resulting tools will be used throughout the enterprise and change core daily operations.