Electronic Pre-Planning for first responders


Taking Situational Awareness Data from Page to Screen

CarolinaFireJournal - Dennis Amodio
Dennis Amodio
08/01/2012 -

I’ve been in the fire service for over 35 years. I can say with confidence that pre-planning is essential, but not because of my years of fire service experience. What 35 years of experience yields is a long view of where pre-plans have been, a clear picture of where they are now and a good idea of where they’re going. Or where they could go. Or where they should go. That said, I’ve seen my fair share of approaches to pre-planning over the years. There are many different ways to pre-plan, and many different forms pre-plans can take. But it wasn’t until recently that I had the chance to work with a different, more dynamic, more interactive way to pre-plan: electronically.

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I’ve seen electronic pre-plans from time to time since the early 1990s, but had my first experience working with electronic pre-plans about a year ago. Seeing all that information on a screen, being able to really visualize the building, know where I was going, see standard signs and symbols and access the most up-to-date information, was extremely powerful, and left an extremely lasting impression on me.

Redundancy is Good

Technological advancements are the norm in all areas of our lives as firefighters, and pre-plans are not immune. The reality is that more and more fire departments are taking pre-planning from the page to the screen. Digitizing the way information is documented and updated and advancing the process for plan design and sharing is the foundation upon which electronic pre-planning is built. But what comes after that foundation of digitization and advancement can be different things to different departments — for better or worse — based upon their needs.

These days pre-plans can be found in just about any format: printed on paper and cataloged in binders, PDFs stored on computers or department networks, paper blueprints, hand-drawn floor plans, CAD files. The list goes on, but what’s important is the evolution: Before companies began popularizing CAD as a tool for first responders in the early 1990s, floor plans and blueprints of buildings were always kept on paper, and building information forms were kept in a binder. As technology has advanced, spread, and come down in price over the last 20 years, departments started experimenting with alternatives to the on-paper method by integrating PDFs, utilizing CAD tools, and more. Fire service technology has advanced, but we’ve still got those binders. We can keep those binders — the binders aren’t a problem. Forgoing taking advantage of pre-planning advancements in favor of the binders is the problem. There’s nothing wrong with having pre-plans printed, bound, and stored as a backup. Redundancy, in this case, is good. But our until now tried-and-true way of doing things shouldn’t get in the way of the next evolution of pre-planning: combining the blueprints and building information sheets into one dynamic, visual tool.

How convenient would it be to have the ability to look at a blueprint, be able to locate an asset, and immediately see detailed information about that asset — without having to reference the binder or a separate PDF? This is the next evolution of pre-planning, and these tools are out there, now. These programs can be as detailed or basic or specialized as needed, too; a lot of these software programs can be tailored to meet the specific needs of a particular building, while still remaining simple to use and firefighter friendly.

Response Benefits

The response benefits of electronic pre-plans are numerous. Electronic pre-plans are more efficient and dependable than paper pre-plans for many reasons. While paper pre-plans can be useful and important, they’re most often textual, not graphic or visual. Information provided via visual application can enable a first responder to orient him or herself around the building more quickly, and have a clearer picture of what they are walking (or running) into — something that paper can’t offer.

Departments using electronic pre-plans can also rely on the fact that they don’t have to worry about leaving that binder of pre-plans behind. Electronic plans can be brought up through Mobile Data Transfer and accessed immediately in a rig, on tablet PCs, on smartphones, and can be accessed by both the dispatcher and the commanding officer while responding to a call. Even without a computer in the rig (or a smartphone in your pocket), the dispatcher’s knowledge of that information can guide first responders to a safe and successful rescue. Having that information present at all times, especially when it is needed most, is crucial.

The benefits electronic pre-plans have for response isn’t limited to the first responder. Electronic pre-plans being put in the hands of non-first responders — facility managers and school superintendents, for example — allows critical information to be even more widely accessible when it is needed most. While paper copies of this information are already available, rummaging through paperwork and binders in times of emergency isn’t the best option. Building officials would be able to view documents like emergency management plans, material safety data sheets, and standard operating procedures within seconds. Most importantly, electronic pre-plans can benefit building officials by providing a greater sense of situational awareness and emergency preparedness. An electronic pre-plan delivers the tools necessary to mitigate the confusion and chaos that often exists in times of emergency situations before first responders even arrive at an incident.

Training Benefits

We should be training our future firefighters with electronic pre-plans and paper-based pre-plans in tandem. Until there are widely accepted standards for electronic pre-plans, this could prove difficult, but making sure firefighters have at least some facility with new pre-planning technologies is important regardless of the changes that might be on the horizon. Having a dynamic, interactive record of critical information will challenge future firefighters to view situational awareness holistically, rather than with a bits-and-pieces approach, the ideal outcome being they gain the best possible sense of situational awareness.

For ongoing training, having a dynamic, interactive record of critical information during training can help create more immersive, detailed training scenarios. These plans could be shared and updated with information from a wide range of sources, covering all kinds of specialized situations, and have the potential to become a great tabletop training exercise. Students aren’t the only ones to benefit, for example, chief officers, line officers and dispatchers can all take advantage of training with electronic pre-plans.

A Call for Standardization

Right now, there are no real standards that exist for electronic pre-planning. This may be a symptom of a few things: availability and adoption of electronic pre-planning tools; regional differences, requirements and preferences; different software providers in the marketplace; etc. But the key to widespread adoption of electronic pre-planning is standardization, and it is essential to incorporate what is already being utilized in the fire service in order for plans like these to work most effectively. The specifics of the standards system utilized are not as important as the act of establishing and maintaining those standards.

However, some standards are too important to overlook. All electronic pre-plans should use NFPA standards and symbols, at least. And when plans identify a building’s critical assets electronically, there should be corresponding signage supplied (or at the very least suggested) to those buildings to provide additional information about those assets.

Along with standardization, it is in fire services’ best interest to get the facilities being pre-planned involved in the process. Building officials must be behind planning electronically in order to help create the best possible scenario for first responders. Again, signage is something that should not be overlooked, as it is just as important as an electronic pre-plan. With signs clearly identifying a building’s critical assets, first responders can make their best decisions.

Moving from Page to Screen

There are two ways to move your pre-plans beyond the binder: do it yourself, or contract out the work.

More and more fire departments are making the crossover to electronic pre-plans by doing the work themselves and following the basic steps involved: digitizing floor plans (or creating them from scratch), stripping floor plans to the bare essentials, adding in iconography, adding digital copies of your bound pre-plans, and linking other media. Every piece of information that can be added to the plans will heighten the end users’ situational awareness, like pictures of critical assets within and surrounding that building, all key and secondary entrances, material safety data sheets, standard operating procedures, emergency action plans and contact names and numbers. With this information neatly packed into a digital layout, it is easily organized and accessed.

A department that is interested in using electronic pre-plans can take on the process of doing it themselves if they have the correct tools (and know how to use them) and enough man hours available. Having the right software to help create the right visual pre-plan for your needs is critical. There are a few products to choose from in this area, all with their own pros and cons.

For departments without the time or tools, there are companies that offer both the electronic pre-plans as a product and the pre-plan assembly as a service. But no matter the road taken to get from page to screen, it’s a worthwhile endeavor that is sure to yield improved safety, response times, and situational awareness for firefighters at every experience level.

Dennis Amodio is a retired firefighter with the City of New York Fire Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1 (Special Operations). Amodio has extensive experience with engine and truck work, collapse rescue and high rise operations. He worked the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center rescue operations. Amodio works to train fire departments nationally and internationally in effective firefighting and rescue techniques. Currently, he is the Safety Division Director of GEOcommand, Inc. at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage, NY.
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