Better information exchange with new technology

CarolinaFireJournal - Phil Kouwe
Phil Kouwe
04/21/2013 -

Every now and then, the world of technology is rocked by what is known as “disruptive change.” It’s the development of some new device or system that is so radically different than what came before it that it truly transforms the way people do things. Take, for instance, the personal computer or the internet; both are examples of disruptive change that altered the lives of each and every one of us. Today, tablet mobile operating systems and cloud data storage are having similar effects.


New information sharing solutions are now becoming available for use by responders on their way to emergency incidents. Based on cloud data storage and mobile tablet computers, some systems offer a radical and comparatively inexpensive solution for putting live response data in the hands of emergency responders. After receiving basic incident information from a dispatch center by one of several optional methods, the system kicks off a robust and elaborate process of information exchange and sharing with tablet computers in the field.

So what makes such a system so different? Face it, the laptop computer was great, but most of these devices are still based on legacy operating systems that are now decades old and were never designed to be mobile in the first place. Their frustrating and clumsy user interface has always felt out of place outside the desktop environment. They were designed to store information locally in the device’s hard drive and, at best, use a third party device to connect to the internet.

Today’s tablet computers are the first truly complete overhaul of mobile technology; devices that were designed from the ground up to be completely mobile. Because of this, many technology developers believe tablets offer the perfect mobile solutions for the fire service. They can be carried in hand or even in a turnout pocket, passed around the cab of a responding engine, or moved from one command post to another. Their touchscreen user interfaces are elegant, simple and intuitive. Designed with broadband connectivity as a native part of their operating system, the tablets stay constantly connected with virtually no effort by the user.

Along with the development of tablet computers, cloud-based storage offers another major departure from traditional information systems design and is perfect for fire department applications. Rather than store information locally on the machine, data is stored in a centrally located server farm and exchanged with the device by way of the internet as the software calls for it. Cloud-based storage opens a new realm of possibility by permitting a specific user’s data to be mixed with publicly available data and data from other user sources. It also eliminates most, if not all, of the local maintenance and management of data and system servers. A powerful server farm can handle storage, management, retrieval and sharing of data for hundreds or even thousands of fire departments. And because the cloud servers are not operated by any single agency dispatch center, it sees no jurisdictional boundaries, politics, or even county and state lines.

A new approach that was conceived and developed right here in the Carolinas, takes a completely new direction to managing response information using both of these advances in mobile technology. Oddly enough, the concept is based on the same system architecture that online gamers use when they play shared live action games from different points across the globe. These gamers share a common playing environment, can “see” each other, experience visual events like explosions or the appearance of aliens, and interact with each other in real time on a “live” screen. In similar fashion, tablet computers using this system that are engaged on a common emergency response share a live common screen environment.

Based on an area map, the responding tablets can see the incident location, view hydrant and water point information, follow the locations of other responding units on the map, and drop command and control “waypoints” and messages to fellow responders. The map, complete with all the data and information points, can be viewed in street or satellite view and uses the familiar pinch-zoom interface that is becoming ubiquitous to users of mobile technology. A simple tap on any map feature instantly brings up the details for that feature point, such as hydrant flow capabilities or water main sizes.

In addition to the mapping features, pre-incident planning information is managed. A pre-plan survey runs right on the tablet device and allows integrated photo capture, with the gathered information automatically and immediately synchronizing to the cloud servers. Using the cloud-based server system allows these preplans to become immediately available to all tablets on the system within moments. The server automatically pushes the correct pre-plan to the devices based on the incident information received from the dispatch center. Users can simply finger scroll through the preplan information and view stored occupancy photos or drawings while on their way to the call.

This type system is designed to be an alternative to expensive mobile data computer systems (MDTs and MDCs) that are becoming increasingly either outdated or financially out of reach for many smaller agencies. Such systems can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and their legacy hardware and software requires intense local management and maintenance. For a large metropolitan department or a regional shared communications center, that expense may be justified.

With cloud-based mobile system architecture, however, this was an opportunity to provide a capable and nearly-equivalent solution that shares the system foundation costs across hundreds of user agencies with a single operating system in a common and secure server farm that requires no local maintenance.

One of the greatest advantages of the cloud-server approach is interoperability. Since dozens, and ultimately hundreds, of different agencies will be sharing the same information servers, the system’s data architecture was designed to permit sharing of this data between agencies. Different departments in a region can agree to share their data, allowing responders from multiple agencies to see one another’s hydrants, pre-plans, hazard information, photos and even each other’s units on the map screens when engaged on a common incident response. Since the system operates independently from the dispatch center or computer-aided dispatch computers, the sharing is not inhibited by jurisdiction, county, or even state lines. Agencies using different dispatch centers can still share and interact with each other and their response data, an approach that is intended to support and enhance regional or state-wide mutual aid box alarm systems (MABAS).

Centralized, cloud-based storage and management of response information is the next logical approach for the fire service. While this system currently operates on commercial, cellular broadband service, a transition to a national public safety broadband network would be simple in the future, as plans for FirstNet come to fruition. With the scalability of the tiered data storage architecture of a cloud-based system, a future in which firefighters from different agencies, counties or even states can share critical response data and live, real-time visual information in the palm of their hand is becoming a reality today.

Chief Phil Kouwe (ret.) has over 22 years of full-time fire and emergency services experience, with fourteen of those spent as a chief officer. He is a nationally-recognized speaker and author and has served as a Senior Project Manager with Emergency Services Consulting International since 2000. He is now President/CEO of Hangar 14 Solutions, LLC.
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