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One Fire Department’s Journey to Sharing Mission-Critical Data

Ever since Henderson, Nev., aspired to be a smart city, the fire department has examined how technology could advance its mission. Easily shareable drone footage is one of the outcomes.

by / September 23, 2020
A City of Henderson Fire Station Shutterstock/Kit Leong

The Henderson Fire Department (HFD) in Nevada had a problem: it needed a better way to relay information to first responders at 11 fire stations across three different shifts.  

“It’s not information you can just send in an email or over a phone call,” HFD Deputy Chief Scott Viver said. “This is complex video and audio and pictures and after-action reports of emergencies that we had run, lessons that we had learned, new dangers and hazards that were in the area and new tactics and strategies that you needed to employ.”

In the past, HFD would attempt to share such information with two approaches. First, it would schedule training at a central point over several days. Second, it would send a group of incident commanders to each station over multiple days. 

“It was a real challenge,” Viver said. “There’s information that the fire chief may receive at 8 o’clock in the morning that needs to be in every single responder’s hands at 8:05 … we just weren’t able to do it.”

The situation changed after the city of Henderson began embarking on a plan to become a smart city. HFD eventually met with the city and vendors and identified technology that could help firemen do their jobs. 

As a result, HFD started using Cisco Webex software and smart board hardware around summer 2019. This choice was made because of the software’s compatibility with iPads and other mobile devices and because of the smart board’s usability. Viver jokes that the technology is “fireman proof.”

“A battalion chief is now able to talk with all of his fire stations with the push of two buttons [on the smart board] and share detailed information… Every time a battalion chief uses this, it saves approximately 40 hours of work time,” Viver said. 

“It’s easy to set up meetings,” said Alyssa Rodriguez, Henderson IT director. “It’s easy to share information. It’s easy to display the graphs.”

The tech has benefited individual firefighters as well. In 2019, HFD responded to more than 34,000 calls. HFD’s busiest station will run about 6,000 of those calls, which can translate to 20 to 25 calls during a 24-hour period. In other words, units need to stay in their district for optimum response time. 

“There’s not a lot of time to do other things, and so the ability to stay in station and be able to get a real-world update right in the comfort of your fire station is important,” Viver said. 

HFD has also seen improvements in its emergency response. Viver recounted a rescue operation where the improved communication proved to be life-saving. A flash flood had occurred in Henderson, and a person had been washed into a large storm culvert with multiple divisions downstream. The person was hanging on a stationary object in the water for dear life. 

The battalion chief on scene needed to know something: where does the storm drain go downstream?

“A lot of the storm drain is underground, and so as he’s streaming the video to us of where he’s at … we were able to pull up resources [in the command post] that he doesn’t have, such as our utility grid system and our water system, and we were able to share with him a map … that shows the storm drain,” Viver recalled. “To make a long story short, we needed to position our rescuers so that if that person was to get swept downstream, they went to the right instead of to the left. If they went to the left, they were going to be underground for four miles and would have drowned. If they went to the right, they would have been in an area where we would have been able to rescue them.”

“We’re seeing exactly what those field personnel are seeing,” Rodriguez said. “So we can make very rapid decisions.”

HFD also stumbled upon a benefit that they didn’t know existed when they purchased the technology package. HFD has a drone program, and the department had been struggling to find a way to share the drone’s live video feed without spending a lot of money and weighing responders down with more equipment. 

“[B]ecause the drone is piloted via an iPad, we’re able to easily screen capture and use Webex Teams to live stream that footage in real time to not only our mobile commanders on scene but to any other area that has a Webex board, such as our [emergency operations center],” Viver said. 

The biggest benefit of being able to share drone video is giving everyone a 360-degree aerial view of a scene. This capability is especially important when it comes to viewing a roof, which can be one of the most dangerous places for a responder if the roof caves in due to a fire. Viver remembered a recent house fire where the response would have been trickier without the shared video feed. 

“This was a house that had asphalt shingles, and the fire hadn’t broken through the roof yet, but we could see the discoloration of the roof in real time so that we didn’t have to put people on the roof, and we were able to give a good description to the firefighters on the ground — exactly where the fire’s located in the roof, where you’re safe to go on the roof, and how the fire was progressing,” Viver said. 

“Normally that information would just live with the drone pilot,” Viver added, “and unless we [had] put someone stationed with the drone pilot that could radio this information, we wouldn’t be able to have it real time.”

HFD is in the middle of conducting a return-on-investment study to learn how many actual dollars have been saved thanks to the tech solution it chose to implement. Viver said early results indicate that there has been a decrease in response times. The completed study will show whether this change is potentially due to other factors. 

“I think we will see some savings,” Rodriguez said.

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Jed Pressgrove Staff Writer

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.

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