Fight fire with IT

To battle a blaze, firefighters must co-ordinate countless resources — everything from trucks, hoses, and safety suits to personnel, dispatch, and details on the location in distress. Synchronization is the key. All aspects of the fire safety and rescue mechanism had better work together, or else.

So, when the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services went to implement a lot of new technology, they decided to do it all at once. “It’s like flying an airplane. Everything had to be working at the same time,” says consultant Dave Mitchell, the project manager of Vancouver’s IT upgrade, which would count as the most complex project he’d ever encountered in his 32 years working with the department.

How did Mitchell and his team manage it? The solution would be a matter of combining the organization’s firefighting know-how with a fearless approach to IT.

The end of HAL

Vancouver needed new technology. Designed by a now-defunct company, its records management system was old, and it was proving difficult to maintain. It was also hard to extract information from the software, and even harder to analyze the data, such as where fires were occurring and why. And the department needed these details to help them identify trends and develop solutions to help prevent fires.

“Its time had come and gone,” says Steve Laleune, assistant chief for communications. Like Mitchell, Laleune is a Vancouver veteran with 27 years under his ladder belt.

Mitchell has an even more colourful way of remembering the previous data management platform. “We were calling it HAL, and it was getting cranky,” he says, referencing HAL 9000, the homicidal computer in the book and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But records management wasn’t the only issue. The department also needed a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to ensure that the information contained in the records management database went out with the call to action. New workstations for the fire trucks would be required as well, so the firefighters would have access to life-saving applications, including software to control tools like the jaws of life, which are used to carefully cut people out of crushed vehicles. The old workstations provided nothing more than basic information, such as a rudimentary map to help firefighters find the building. The monochromatic, three-by-five-inch screen wasn’t exactly rich with detail, and the integrated software was difficult to upgrade for new functions.

And Vancouver Fire wanted something more than the standard CAD and records-management template. “In many other departments, these are not integrated, so when the firefighters come back, they have to collect all of the call information and enter it into the records management system,” Mitchell says. “There was a significant risk that the information would not be entered correctly.”

In 2005, Vancouver Fire began planning its attack. The organization connected with North Vancouver, B.C.’s FDM Software Ltd., which specializes in records management systems for emergency services. Working with FDM, Vancouver Fire soon took a hands-on approach to customizing the platform.

While FDM’s original solution incorporated the supplier’s own knowledge of fire safety services — FDM’s software is used by 200 agencies across North America — nothing beats the end-user’s perspective, especially in such a rarefied field as firefighting.

Considering FDM’s base template, Laleune and the Vancouver crew knew they could make the software work better for their particular requirements. For instance, while the original system included countless modules covering everything from incidents and inspections to permits and training, Vancouver wanted a more streamlined system to start with.

With help from FDM, Vancouver Fire headed into the program to switch things up. The main challenge: “Mapping out how to … make it look the way we wanted,” Laleune recalls. The team whittled the interface down to just a handful of tabs leading to information about particular issues, including motor-vehicle incidents, details on trucks and ladders, firefighter skills development, medical information, and of course, fires. And the organization also rearranged the interface to support pull-down menus, simplifying the data for users.

Hosing the code

“In testing, we kept breaking it,” Laleune says. “There were certain constraints in the system we had to work around.” Hard-coding made it somewhat difficult to coax the interface into operating exactly as desired. And, in certain cases, the organization couldn’t solve the problems. Rather than waste resources trying to perfect the interface, the department took a pragmatic approach in the end, deeming those matters “a user-training issue, and we just moved on,” Laleune says. “I’d say we were in there for about a year, reworking the system,” he says, adding kudos for the supplier. “(FDM) embraced the changes we made.”

Co-ordination was a constant issue. Vancouver Fire wasn’t only updating the records management system; the department was also tackling the CAD software, and equipment inside the trucks as well. Add the fact that Vancouver had also invited other fire departments to participate in the project, laying the groundwork for a single hosted system across a larger region, encompassing areas outside of Vancouver, and you have the raw ingredients for an IT backdraft.

“There were 13 fire departments, five software vendors, a whole bunch of people,” Mitchell says. “Everyone was involved in what the system would look like.”

It would be a challenge for any project manager, but with tenacity and good humour, the team got through it. “There was not a cross word from anybody. There was a lot of laughing, a lot of it at me, I’ll bet,” Mitchell says.

User training went relatively smoothly, although Vancouver experienced the usual resistance to change. It wasn’t a matter of age or experience. “It’s really interesting,” Laleune says. “We were concerned with the senior firefighters, but they’ve embraced it.”

By November 2008, nearly three years after starting the project, Vancouver Fire’s new technology was online. “It’s a major improvement,” Mitchell says. “You no longer have to do multiple data entry. It’s a one-write system.” That means life-saving details about buildings — information about where the master electrical panel is, the location of the water shutoff and the standpipe connections — are easily accessible, and easily updated. This allows the firefighters to crunch the information, and help keep people safe. “Every time you go to a call, everything is tracked,” Mitchell says. So, for instance, if in a couple of years a firefighter falls ill, the department can mine the data to see if there were any hazardous materials involved in any of the fires the employee visited, or if the firefighter came into contact with someone with a communicable disease.

The system also helps Vancouver track skills training. Which firefighters need to take a new high-angle rescue course? Who’s in line to learn the latest spinal immobilization techniques?

Out of the frying pan for good

All of the IT systems must support that safety mandate, and now they’re doing it better than ever. The new information management system is coupled with an advanced CAD platform and robust new computers in the trucks themselves. Gone are the three-inch screens, replaced by 15-inch monitors and richer software. It’s simpler to see trends in the data that could profoundly impact citizen safety. “We can go back to specific groups and let them know, ‘Hey, we’re having a problem with power bars, baseboard heaters, or grass fires,’” Laleune says. In one case, the department realized a specific kind of baseboard heater was causing fires since there had been six calls in a short period of time. Vancouver sent the information to the Canada Standards Association (CSA). “A month later, they came back with a recall,” says Laleune. “It’s all about public safety.”

That the system incorporated the end user’s requirements made it applicable across the board, and other departments are considering how Vancouver’s platform will help them keep people safe as well. “Whistler, Sunshine Coast, Delta, New Westminster and Richmond are now on board … because it is developed from the firefighter’s point of view,” Laleune says.

What’s next? “The project isn’t over,” he says. Vancouver is considering adding new modules for deeper information access, although the organization will have its hands full very soon with the 2010 Olympics, scheduled to begin in Vancouver next February.

For Vancouver, IT success depended on bringing that firefighter’s point of view into the equation, a move that helped the organization ensure its technology supported its own way of working, where attention to detail is crucial. “It’s a hard enough job, and it’s getting harder,” Mitchell says. “Buildings are taller, material can burn hotter. Anything we can do to simplify things is a step forward.”

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