Speeding Up Critical Information Capture with Digital Pen Technology

 (1) Conditions can change quickly during the course of a fire, requiring effective ways to gather, digest, and share information.
(1) Conditions can change quickly during the course of a fire, requiring effective ways to gather, digest, and share information. (Photos courtesy of Capturx.)
 (2) Anoto® digital pens and Capturx® software help speed data collection and analysis, providing faster access to important data and lower operational costs.
(2) Anoto® digital pens and Capturx® software help speed data collection and analysis, providing faster access to important data and lower operational costs.

The Joplin, Missouri, tornado occurred on May 22, 2011, destroying 4,000 buildings and killing more than 160 people. The resulting damage caused a number of environmental hazards including asbestos releases, chemical spills, and orphaned tanks. A mandated rapid hazards assessment identified immediate safety issues and longer-term remediation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called Tetra Tech's Region 7 Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team (START) to assess the damage. The START team is a key partner of the EPA in a range of projects across the Midwest.

Typically, analysts worked through the night at the emergency operations center to enter hazards into the EPA's SCRIBE online database, updating maps and triage issues for immediate attention. To speed up the process, Tetra Tech started using Capturx® software and Anoto® digital pens to instantly digitize data as it was written on paper field inspection forms. With digital data access, teams can avoid the delays, costs, and risks of manual data entry, scanning, or missing documents.

Four teams of inspectors were deployed with digital pens in Joplin to survey approximately 80 facilities. They filled out more than 100 facility assessment forms, noting conditions and locations with the digital pen. When the digital pen was connected to a PC at the command center, all the data was automatically integrated into Excel, accessible in both the original handwriting and as converted data using advanced character recognition.

Since Capturx instantly digitizes and integrates the handwritten data into its data systems, Tetra Tech was able to cut the time-consuming data entry time by more than 87 percent. Now analysis, triage, and planning can begin as soon as the teams come in from the field and dock the digital pens. Responders can react faster and other stakeholders can be kept better informed about fast-changing conditions by simply logging into the SCRIBE database for the most current updates.

Fire Service Application

This technology is suitable for many situations including those in other areas of emergency services, such as the fire service. Any firefighter will tell you that protecting life and property requires quick response and tools at the ready. Unpredictable environments and terrain make it essential that firefighters' tools be easy to transport, simple to use, and able to make their job a little less difficult. Technology must be reliable, intuitive, and fully usable in any of the variable situations and environments in which they may find themselves.

The work of firefighting doesn't just happen at the scene of a fire. Fire personnel perform prefire surveys to determine areas that are defensible or vulnerable and also to locate areas of interest, such as hazardous locations, water sources, archeological spots, and safety zones. Prefire surveys involve collecting geographic data that will be critical to protect citizens, property, and firefighters during the course of battling fires. After the flames are suppressed, the teams also conduct post-fire surveys to inspect and assess damage and the safety impact of fires on structures, roadways, and all manners of important sites.

Information is the critical component to successfully fight and stay ahead of all types of fires, particularly wildfires. Conditions can change quickly during the course of an incident-requiring effective ways to gather, digest, and share information. Data collection occurs in many ways and is collected by numerous personnel. Data about conditions need to flow easily from the field to the incident command post, where central resources can be managed and accessed, decisions can be made, and updated plans and conditions can be shared back with field teams. The data need to be timely, easy to understand, and accessible to all the stakeholders.

Environments and collection methods for field data surveys can and do rapidly change during a fire. One survey might be done from a helicopter to map the current fire lines. Another survey might take place on the ground in unfamiliar back country. And yet another survey might be done from an apparatus cab in an urban setting.

These varying conditions and situations demand that data collection techniques be flexible enough to be used in all scenarios by anyone tasked to gather information. Digital pen and paper technology provides a solution. Since most fire and safety officials still rely on manual data collection with pen and paper, this solution provides an easy transition.

Digital pen and paper technology automates information on the front lines in a way that is simple and reliable and requires minimal training. Changing conditions are immediately captured and countless hours of manually digitizing data are saved, which means field observers can collect more accurate and up-to-the-minute intelligence in the field. As a result, firefighters and other safety officials can better determine the best course of action that should be taken-almost immediately.

BILL SPIKING has more than 12 years of geospatial experience. He lives and works in Kansas City, Missouri, as a GIS professional for Tetra Tech EM Inc., where he uses, trains, and deploys technologies to response teams. Tetra Tech provides an integrated services approach to consulting, engineering, and construction for innovative and cost-effective solutions to complex world problems. In prior years, Spiking worked as an environmental scientist for Terracon, doing environmental site assessments and investigations. Spiking received his bachelor of science in geography from Northwest Missouri State University.

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