Clickability tracking pixel

Louisville, Ky., Pilots Fire Safety Tech in Vacant Properties

During the next six months, city officials will monitor how well the devices hold a charge, how they perform while lying idle in a vacant property, the possibility of theft, and false alarms.

by / November 1, 2016

At any given time, 6,000 to 7,000 properties in the city of Louisville, Ky., are reported as vacant. And Louisville is not alone in this issue. In addition to the standard ebb and flow of vacant rental properties and vacation homes, the spike in foreclosures following the recession has compounded the problem. Often, such properties have no power, and without a resident to call for city services, these properties can pose a threat to public safety.

According to the Louisville Fire Department, city officials discovered that of the 459 fires that occurred in the city’s District 1 between 2012 and 2015, 125 involved a vacant property. The data also showed that 26 of the 59 fires that involved two or more structures were initiated in vacant properties and then spread to 38 other properties. Of those 38 properties, 24 of the buildings had people living in them.

So in November 2015, the city collaborated with a hackerpsace in the city called LVL1 to generate ideas that would combat this issue. They asked two questions:

  • How can the city know if an empty structure without electricity is on fire?
  • Wireless smoke detection systems require electricity and expensive telemetry. Can an ultra-low-cost, battery-operated smoke detector be created?

Three judges — a fire department major, a representative from city metro and someone from fire protection services — evaluated the four submitted entries.

The winning entry, built three local techies, was a device that listens for the alarm sound of a smoke detector that sends a signal via 3G to the appropriate city department when it hears the alarm.

And when produced in a large quantity, this solution costs less than $50 per structure and lasts more than a year, said Ed Blayney, innovation project manager for Louisville Metro Government. And the labor to install the technology involves mounting two screws and ensuring that there is a working smoke detector in the house.

“The guys who built this stuff have great technical skills,” he said. “This wasn’t something where they were making lots of money. This is really the result of them being community minded. We don’t have those kinds of skills in our government right now. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

The city began working with the team of hackers in February and launched the pilot program the last week in October. The program cost about $20,000 from the city’s Civic Innovation Fund, and the Vacant and Public Property Administration identified nine publicly owned homes in which to launch the pilot. During the next six months, city officials will monitor how well the devices hold a charge, how they perform while lying idle in a vacant property, the possibility of theft, and false alarms.

“If we expand the program, we need to develop better metrics,” Blayney said. “The technology needs to prove itself first. If we’re improving the response time, which you’d imagine would start happening, you’d have fewer fires that would spread. This will improve the safety and quality and the neighborhoods.”

After the pilot, city officials will have to have a larger conversation about including the technology inside private vacant homes.

“Nobody in our government has said that can never happen,” Blayney said, “but we’d have to do a thorough review. We would have to change ordinances to make sure it’s OK to put them in there.”

Since the basis for the technology is a microphone and cellular modem, Blayney said its application could serve other areas in the future. 

“Right now we’re just focusing on the fire side of it,” he said. “This can have a broad impact for people living in our community and people living next to vacant properties.

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

Jessica Renee Napier Contributing Writer

Jessica Renee Napier is a California-based writer who began her journalism career in public broadcasting. She teaches yoga, enjoys traveling and likes to stay up on all things tech.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs