Brampton IT, fire departments partner on integrated data

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – Most CIOs are probably used to pitching an IT strategy to a boardroom of senior executives. Rob Meikle hopped on a fire truck instead.

The City of Brampton’s senior IT executive led a session at the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) 2011 conference on Tuesday that showed how he and his team have formed a partnership with the local fire department to dramatically change the way emergencies are handled. This includes mobile technology in the trucks, automation in the dispatching process and electronic scheduling of staff. Getting these projects off the ground took considerable diplomacy, however.

“You’ve got to build a bridge of trust. This was a multi-year journey,” Meikle told the MISA crowd. “We did have independent organizations. Fire did their own thing. IT wasn’t invited in the meeting.”

Matt Pegg, deputy fire chief at Brampton Fire Department, was more blunt.

“Typically, I would dare say there’s not always a partnership between fire and IT, and in many circumstances, fire and IT compete. You guys scare the heck out of us, using a whole bunch of acronyms. The actionable fact is you understand a lot of my business probably better than I do.”

In the past, Pegg admitted, fire departments have sometimes heard pitches from vendors and spent millions on technology they’ve never properly deployed. Meikle and his team spent a lot of time listening and figuring out ways to speak in terms that would make sense to their fire department counterparts.

“People in these kinds of uniforms understand ‘command and control,’” Pegg said. “It’s about taking common language and applying it to an uncommon situation.”

One of the first areas of benefit from the partnership so far has been a system to deal with the fire pre-plan. When Pegg was still a firefighter working on the ground, someone would have to go into an area, make a two-minute assessment and relay information back to the crews. A single data repository will now house information from fire inspection tours, and will give firefighters heading to an incident maps and graphics that show the location of exits, sprinklers, fire alarms and any hazards.

“This can be a very stressful and demanding place to be,” said Pegg. “You’re really holding ownership for the health and safety of your crews.”

Unlike other municipalities, Brampton’s fire department is decentralized, with fire prevention bureaus in multiple locations. Fire crews tend to live in the districts where they fight fires. The downside is that it’s very difficult to store files and make them accessible to teams in 14 different places across the city. A new fire safety inspection system will change all that, Pegg said.

“It’s hard to get technical data to know the average inspection time,” he said. “This will really help with metrics.”

Perhaps the biggest transition will come via computer-aided dispatch, which will include automatic vehicle location and an algorithm to aid with dispatching. This means depending on where a fire breaks out, the algorithm will determine how many trucks will be sent, whether arial response is needed, and so on. If a fire truck from another district is heading across town for maintenance, it may be re-routed to attend to an incident nearby. Mobile data units with laptops on the trucks will use real-time mapping applications that provide access to the dispatcher’s notes with information about hazards, reducing the amount of radio traffic.

An automated staff scheduling system will also help district chiefs do away with Excel spreadsheets to identify, often twice a day, which of the 90 staff who are expected to be on duty in a given time are sick, on training or working.

“We recognized yeah, you can have integrated solutions . . . but you have to look at how you’re deploying it. There was massive change management,” Meikle said. “We worked with district chiefs to teach them how to use the mobile data units. You had to do a lot of selling.” This included “ride-ons” with front-line staff on fire trucks showcasing the potential of the IT systems being offered, he added.

Pegg said one of the big areas of focus has been developing an over-arching service level agreement so that fire staff understand what kind of support they can get from IT, and what they can’t.

“Once (the technology is) there, I expect it to work. And it needs to work all the time and operated by people who are not exactly techno-savvy,” he said. “The one thing firefighters are really good at is breaking stuff.”

Meikle said the partnership has shown that there has to be flexibility on both sides. “It’s not about what I do or what you do, but what are your core competencies. There some parts of technology that sit better in the fire department operation. You have to look at what’s the best model to deliver it.”

MISA 2011 wraps up Wednesday.

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