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New Digital Tool Will Help Houston Firefighters Battle Building Blazes

Fire departments in the five-county area have developed a digital database of high-risk structures — those critical to the nation's daily operations, high-rises and some large commercial buildings.

Firefighters in the Houston region soon will have more information about certain buildings before they arrive to contain the blazes that threaten them.

Using a federal anti-terrorism grant, fire departments in the five-county area have developed a digital database of high-risk structures — those critical to the nation's daily operations, high-rises and some large commercial buildings. The database, accessible by tablet computer while en route to a scene, will replace binders full of papers tucked in the back of engines or command vehicles. Fire officials admit the binders often were not used, or at least not right away, because they were difficult to reach as an engine raced to a scene or as crews geared up for the fire.

"Those had really good information, but you only had time to access them about an hour into an incident," said Richard Mann, assistant chief for Houston Fire Department. "(The new database) will tell you what you need to know in the first two minutes at the scene.'"

Although the initiative to create the digital system started before last May's deadly Southwest Inn fire that killed four HFD firefighters, the effort mirrors internal department recommendations to improve the quality of planning before a fire even starts.

"Now, we'll be able to know in advance what hazards may be there for firefighters," said Alvin White, interim president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association. "It also will allow the fire command on the outside of the building to have information that could keep the crew inside from making crucial mistakes."

First of its Kind

The digital system, which officials say is the first of its kind in Texas, includes data and photos relevant to firefighting decisions. For instance, it includes the location and water flow rates of hydrants, details on construction types that influence how fast a fire spreads, and building floor plans linked to photos of key areas, such as entrances or gas line shut off valves.

"Hopefully we might be able to guide our people inside a smoky building a little bit more," said HFD District Chief Jeff Cook, who helped lead development.

It also will be the first time fire departments throughout the region will share building information and respond using the same system, said Darren Hess, assistant fire marshal for Montgomery County.

The Houston Fire Department will roll out the new system in the next few weeks. Crews in Fort Bend, Montgomery, Galveston and Brazoria counties are expected to follow suit next year.

Versions of the program, a custom variation of a security software and analytics application created by Virginia-based Haystax Technologies, Inc., have been used to coordinate dozens of police agencies providing security at events like the Super Bowl and Republican National Convention. It also has been deployed by regional anti-terrorism and police networks in major cities throughout the United States, often funded by the Department of Homeland Security's Urban Area Security Initiative grants.

The portion of Houston's program used by emergency responders to evaluate threats in real-time and respond to catastrophic events will be isolated from the new fire system, Cook said.

'Select What Works'

The database is expected to launch with about 2,000 HFD entries that were converted from the paper copies. The information for those locations will be updated and expanded over the course of the first year before additional structures are added.

Some fire departments have used digital-based and regional response systems for years, said Kenneth Willette, spokesman for the National Fire Protection Association, but he hesitated to suggest that the Houston region was behind its peers.

"The most important thing is that the system be used," he said. "The local department has to select what works for them."

Regardless of format, Willette said gathering key information about high-risk buildings and committing to using it when called to an incident could undercut the leading cause of deaths among firefighters: "lack of situational awareness."

"Are there hazardous chemicals? Are there folks who might have difficulty evacuating the building? Is there a form of truss construction that could undermine building stability?" Willette asked. "All of those elements inform tactical decisions that could influence how long firefighters stay in a building."

HFD reported, for example, that it didn't have a pre-incident plan for the Southwest Inn. Firefighters that day, as they often do, entered the building knowing only what could be seen from the outside and what 911 callers told dispatch.

'Dangerous Job'

Pre-planning information likely would not have prevented the roof collapse that killed firefighters Matthew Renaud, Robert Bebee, Robert Garner and Anne Sullivan, officials have said.

"Honestly, I'd like to think if I was still the captain on Engine 51, I would do something different because I know the outcome, but I would've done the exact same thing they did,'" Cook said, gesturing that the realization is uncomfortable and difficult to accept.

Pre-fire planning reduces the "unknowns" that could contribute to fire injuries or deaths, but it cannot prevent them all, the 25-year veteran said. He noted the firefighters who responded May 31, 2013 did not know the fire had been burning for hours before anyone called 911.

"It's a dangerous job," Cook said. "We can do everything in our power to make it safer, but we can never make it safe."

©2014 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by MCT Information Services.