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New Era in Firefighting Leverages the Internet of Things

Many emergency services are taking steps to implement cyber-physical systems technology on a broad scale.

Although Americans have become accustomed to the concept of “smart” technology in everything from their cellphones to their homes, some of the nation’s most vital emergency services remain relatively dumb. The good news is that improvements are being made, and many emergency services are taking steps to implement cyber-physical systems technology on a broad scale. These systems will have a tremendously positive impact on fire departments across the nation.

While a legion of robots armed with hoses may have been how one imagined the fire department of the future in the 1950s, such a vision now seems comically outdated. Robotics will certainly play a role in smart firefighting, particularly when it comes to using drones, but the development of cybephysical systems (also known as the Internet of Things) may prove to be the most effective means of increasing situational awareness while in the fire ground. “Clearly we are in a new era,” said Casey Grant, executive director of the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire Protection Research Foundation. “[Cyber-physical systems] are proliferating.

“Pretty much everything that we can gather can aid in an event,” Grant said. For emergency responders of all stripes, not just firefighters, all the data is valuable. However, data collection is only a third of the solution. Grant said there is a triad to successful cyber-physical systems: data collection, data processing and data delivery. One of the major problems afflicting many emergency services is that data are being collected via traditional inspections and improved sensor technology, but not processed or distributed effectively.

The ultimate goal of the smart fire department is to integrate this wellspring of data into firefighting. According to a report co-authored by Grant, it will “revolutionize firefighting by collecting data globally, processing the information centrally and distributing the results locally.”

The report, issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, says all of the most promising smart firefighting technologies fall into one of three categories: environmental, operational and personal. The first grouping includes smart building and robotic sensor technologies. The second concerns the technologies that will allow for departments to work more cohesively and to make better decisions, and the third relates to smart firefighters.

A Smarter Approach

While some shortcomings will always exist with collection and processing data, many technological obstacles can be easily overcome given the advances in data processing. This is particularly the case when it comes to using data that has already been collected by agencies.

Though the report may not directly reference any project by name, it is clear that New York City’s FireCast 2.0 system has raised the bar when it comes to data collection and processing. Referred to as “the poster child for risk-based inspection” by Grant, FireCast 2.0 is not a completely unique system; it merely combines the data that has already been collected by several city agencies into a new, more inclusive matrix. Prior to the implementation of FireCast 2.0, for example, there were several city agencies collecting data for their own purposes. One agency knew the number of occupants in a building, another knew the materials used to build the structure and so on. FireCast 2.0 took the data from these formerly independent agencies, consolidated the information and then processed it using various algorithms. This centralized system now allows firefighters the ability to access a detailed analysis of each of the city’s 330,000 structures. FireCast 3.0, still in development, will include an even larger number of New York City agencies and risk variables in its assessment of the city’s hundreds of thousands of buildings.

Not all data can be ascertained by inspections or interagency communication. Some will have to be collected while a fire event is taking place, but prior to engagement. The most promising technologies during this temporal phase are remote control devices and drones. Both will provide companies with video updates in real time. Unfortunately, for now, drone technology is still relegated to the outdoors. When asked if we will begin to see drones with greater maneuverability that can be used indoors within the next five to 10 years, Grant provided an unequivocal, “Yes.”

Taken in conjunction, these two developing technologies will allow for far greater situational awareness prior to and during fire events.

A Smarter Company

One of the biggest problems that companies face is a lack of clear communications on the fire ground. All of the data collection in the world becomes almost meaningless should a firefighter be unable to communicate with his or her incident commander. Improvements to communications systems are vital.

Of particular importance are wearable, wireless, robust environmental sensors that can be integrated into existing personal protective equipment. This will allow the incident commander to generate objectives with greater efficiency, to allocate resources and assets with greater precision, and to manage with greater efficacy. As better communications systems lead to better decision-making, such improvements will undoubtedly save lives.

Other improvements noted in the report include better “qualifications of alarm priority,” developing “new algorithms for uncertainty,” and making certain that all personnel entering the fire ground have the ability to safely perform all of their duties. Taken together, these developments will allow for the greatest utilization of resources by incident commanders, as well as a significant decrease in the number of unknowns, which are some of the most insidious obstacles to prudent decision-making.

A Smarter Firefighter

While one may initially think of augmented reality when considering smart firefighters, using technologies like Google Glass to aid firefighters is far less practical and cost effective than developing training exercises that can be designed using data collected in the aftermath of fire events. As the report states, “Enhanced situational awareness could improve the ability of the fire service … to understand the structural fire environment.” It continues, saying, “Greater understanding would enable these personnel to use a wide range of sensor data to increase [firefighter] effectiveness and safety.”

The report says, “The primary goal of data processing for smart firefighting should be producing actionable intelligence before, during and after an incident.” While using past incidents to learn how to combat future events may not be the only means of producing actionable intelligence after an incident, it is one of the most effective.

Of the many themes that emerged from the workshop, the report concluded that there are four that will be the most important to the development of smart firefighting technologies:

  • use of sensors on the fire ground to assist in situational awareness and personnel location;
  • increased collection and utilization of data before the incident to aid in effective use of personnel and equipment;
  • enhance interoperability between data systems; and
  • develop intelligent systems to assist with decision-making.
While advances in smart firefighting may not be as rapid as advances in consumer electronics, they will certainly begin to find more advocates as such technologies are pioneered. As Grant said, “There are two types of people: those who get it, and those who don’t but will.”

Jay Fox is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. His work has appeared in FutureStructure, Salon and Aethlon. He is also the author of The Walls, a novel.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management