Google An Address To Prepare For Fire

Issue 4 and Volume 14.

Google Maps
Google Maps can be accessed from an iPhone while firefighters are out of quarters. In many locations, street views, as well as direct overhead satellite views, are available. (Fire Apparatus Photo By Raul Angulo)
Google Maps
Google Maps
Google Maps
A tire store is shown in three different views from two Internet sites, Google Maps and Fresh Logic Studios. The street view, top, is provided by Google Maps, as well as the satellite view, center, which shows the store, as well as the layout and roofs of surrounding buildings and tire storage areas. The Fresh Logic birds eye view, bottom, shows the same facility, giving a better sense of the height of the buildings and revealing that one has a bowstring truss roof.
Fresh Logic bird's eye view
The Fresh Logic bird’s eye view of this high-rise residential structure shows there is no apparatus access from the B and D sides. By zooming in, it can be determined that the road on the C side is very narrow. Most apparatus will park on a hill on the A side. It is a very challenging building.
firefighter assigned to a rapid intervention group studies a building
A firefighter assigned to a rapid intervention group studies a building in anticipation of response to an incident. (Fire Apparatus Photo By Raul Angulo)

The new generation of firefighters is younger and more computer savvy. They grew up with computers. Now they’ve moved on to Blackberries and iPhones. I figured I didn’t need all that new technology – that is until some younger members of my crew introduced me to a couple of Internet sites, Google Maps and Fresh Logic Studios. They provide some surprising information and can be very useful size-up tools for a rapid intervention team (RIT) or for an anticipated mutual aid response.


Seattle started implementing rapid intervention teams with the twoin/two-out rule. Through the years the concept evolved, and two-in/two-out became state law in Washington. It not only applies to structure fires, but also to trench rescues, confined spaces, ship fires and anywhere an incident commander (IC) deems it necessary to have a firefighter rescue team at the ready. One engine company on initial fire responses is designated the rapid intervention team.

In addition to RITs, the Seattle Fire Department now has Rapid Intervention Groups (RIGs). A RIG is one engine company and one truck company from the same firehouse (a double house) within the department. These engines and the trucks receive additional training in rapid intervention and extra equipment necessary for firefighter rescue. A RIG is dispatched to confirmed fires larger than a single-family residence or at the request of the IC. The RIG absorbs the initial RIT so the RIG now consists of two engines and a truck. With four-person staffing, this makes the RIG a crew of 12 – three officers and nine firefighters exclusively held in a ready position for firefighter rescue.

When a working fire occurs in one section of the city, the dispatchers select a RIG from another part of the city to maintain city-wide coverage and not deplete all the resources from the battalion where the fire has occurred. Since my station is centralized with fire stations surrounding us in every direction, we impact city-wide coverage the least. Therefore Fire Station 8 frequently gets selected as the RIG for fires outside our battalion.

Before the rapid intervention emphasis, if a fire occurred in another battalion in the city, most firefighters barely gave it much attention outside of natural curiosity. If the incident wasn’t escalating after the initial report and the first few minutes of radio traffic, interest quickly faded. Now, every time fire tones go out, my crews pay close attention to the address and the initial reports with an expectation that we could be going as the RIG.

All members take care of personal business and start heading for the apparatus. The drivers look at the city map and discuss the best routes of travel. The experienced officers listen to radio reports and can usually predict if a fire is escalating or will quickly be declared under control.

I started noticing the younger members of the crew were bringing up the incident with the computer-aided dispatch (CAD), where they can pull up active incidents in real time. They started writing down the address and which units responded. They were discussing the approximate location of the incident based on their knowledge of city districts. I never asked them to do this, but it was a smart thing to do. I commended their preparation efforts.

The ‘Street View’

Then they started using a computer to run addresses through Google Maps, which offers overhead satellite images. They could zoom in and out and see the roof, the exposures and all the surrounding building and streets. Then someone clicked “Street View.” Whoa. You were now looking at the A side of the building at street level as if you were standing on the sidewalk in front of the address.

You could see whether the structure was older construction or modern. You could see if it was a single-family residence, an apartment building, or a commercial structure. You could see how many stories there were. You could see business signs with names. You could see fire department connections and where the nearest hydrant was. You could see how wide the streets were and whether access would be a problem. Incredible technology.

At first I thought it was unnecessary to pull up these maps, but when I saw how detailed and clear the pictures were, the benefits were obvious. We could easily gather important size-up information at a glance. And if we’re out of quarters, my younger firefighters can pull the images up on their iPhones.

Google Maps is a free Internet imagery service. Depending on your location, you can view basic or custom maps of your city and neighborhood. You can click and drag the maps to view adjacent areas, just like turning the pages of an atlas.

The satellite overhead images allow you to look straight down at a building, showing its roof and shape, as well as any structures on the roof, such as heating and ventilation units and skylights. But it is difficult to tell how tall a building is.

The street view overcomes that limitation. With the click of a button, you can see how many stories there are, valuable information for knowing what size ladders might be needed. If the building has a sign, it can indicate what kind of hazards to expect.

Fresh Logic Studios

By zooming in on the street view, you can see the types of doors on the structure. You can tell if they are they glass, metal or roll-up. These are huge clues for forcible entry teams. You can see the location of the standpipe and sprinkler connections, the entrance to underground garages, the width of an alley between the address and the exposure buildings.

Another excellent Web site is Fresh Logic Studios – Atlas. It is similar to Google Maps with overhead satellite images, but it has an additional feature called “Bird’s Eye,” giving aerial views from oblique angles. With it, you can tell how tall a building is, as well as see features on the roof and surrounding structures. The photographs are taken at 45-degree angles by cameras mounted on planes. The quality is said to be better than satellite images because there is less atmospheric distortion.

Fresh Logic has a navigation box that allows you to zoom in and out, and it has a button that lets you rotate the image. You can look north, south, east and west. The 45-degree aerial angle allows you to see the A, B, C and D sides of the building with a click of the mouse. In real life, you’d need a helicopter.

If an incident involves an industrial complex, you can identify likely hazardous material storage areas. You can see barrels, shipping containers, trucks, forklifts and the loading dock. It’s not real-time photography, but it can give a good sense of a facility.

The bird’s eye view also allows you to see if you’re dealing with a flat roof, a gabled roof, a hip roof or even a bowstring trussed roof. The classic arch is prominent from this angle. There’s also a measuring stick for estimating distances and the size of buildings.

The Louisiana State Police hired Fresh Logic Studios during Hurricane Katrina to plot the location and movement of state police units throughout New Orleans in real time.

Customizing Images

The images can be customized to show map or satellite locations of hazardous material sites within your city, vacant or dangerous buildings or the locations of previous arson fires detect possible patterns.

One feature Fresh Logic does not have at this time is a street view.

Many of you may already be familiar with these Web sites. Perhaps your interest was to get directions or check out real estate. I encourage you to revisit them with the mindset of pre-fire planning and strategy and tactics.

Perhaps you’re a battalion chief listening to a company checking out an automatic fire alarm. If it’s in your district, Google the address and get a visual image before you’re dispatched.

If you’re frequently dispatched for mutual aid to a neighboring community, type in the address and get a visual display to start your preparatory strategy. If you hear an incident escalating toward a multiple alarm, pull up the address and study the building construction features before you’re dispatched. Take some of the guess work out of size-up.

Many of our current pre-incident maps are hand-drawn or computer-drawn floor plans. They provide valuable interior and perimeter information, but having a photograph of the building with the ability to see all four sides plus the roof is icing on the cake.

Computer technology is evolving rapidly, and we need to look for creative ways to apply it to the fire service so we can operate more efficiently and effectively and with a better margin of safety.

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Angulo, a veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and captain of Ladder Company 6, has more than 30 years in the fire service. He is on the Board of Directors for the Fellowship of Christian Firefighters. He lectures on fire service leadership, company officer development and fireground strategy and accountability throughout the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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