Software, Technology

Software Speeds Prefire Planning, Boosting Productivity

Issue 11 and Volume 17.

Bob Galvin

Prefire planning is essential for any fire department regardless of size; full-time or part-time; or volunteer, career, or combination. Although some departments still perform this function manually, keeping prefire plans in three-ring binders, other departments have automated the process by using tailored software that handles both inspections and preplan creation. What’s important is that these agencies are getting some kind of preplanning accomplished.

Some fire departments choose to do prefire planning sporadically or just not at all. Consider how having no preplan can jeopardize firefighting efforts once apparatus arrive at an address whether it’s an apartment, a skyscraper, or an industrial plant. Without knowledge of roof structure, key exits, locations of hydrants, and other basic structural aspects, a disaster is waiting to happen.

Armed with today’s advanced, yet easy-to-use, prefire planning software, fire departments have a chance to generate detailed prefire plans without absorbing tremendous time or resources. While software for this task proves most valuable, the first requirement for prefire planning should be a departmentwide commitment to doing it.

That’s the view of Louis LaVecchia, chief of the Milford (CT) Fire Department, and why the department has achieved a Class 1 ISO rating-the highest attainable rating. Milford fire personnel visit each structure in the community, regardless of size, and take one to several days to complete an inspection survey. “This allows a huge amount of information to be learned about a structure,” LaVecchia says. He views preplanning as a 10- to 15-year project so that eventually all firefighters get into all of the buildings. As a result, “Each year, firefighters are able to add a little more information to a building’s preplan, making it more detailed and valuable for effective fire suppression but also increasing safety for firefighters,” adds LaVecchia.

(1) A fire inspector uses the
MobileEyes Plan and Responder fire
inspection software on his tablet PC.
The software automates manual
tasks, such as looking up fire codes,
writing reports, and keying
inspection reports into a database.
(Photo courtesy of MobileEyes.)

Key Scene Information

In these tight-money times for cities, prefire planning does not require a large investment. For example, Doug Cox, division chief for the Auburn (IN) Fire Department, notes that he does not yet have mobile data computers (MDCs) in his fire apparatus because they are too expensive right now. However, notebooks are used in six lead engines even though they are not connected to the Internet or to the fire department’s dispatch center. Nevertheless, when prefire plans are completed, they are uploaded from fire station computers to all notebooks. Cox uses The CAD Zone, Inc.’s First Look Pro (FLP), preplan organizing software that instantly shows all related building information, site diagrams, photos, maps, and other documents for any address keyed in by a fire department. “Firefighters can pull this information up while on the way to an incident scene or once they get to the scene,” Cox notes. “Any important information that the members need to know I put on that first page of First Look Pro under the notes section. So when they pull up to that occupancy, they can see any really important notes.” Also, firefighters can print off a preplan for an occupancy, indicate changes on it, then upload these changes to the FLP program.

The CAD Zone also offers three other prefire planning software packages: Easy Plan, a software package that allows firefighters to quickly convert a satellite image of a building into a detailed pre-fire diagram; Fire Zone, a more advanced diagramming program for drawing building floor plans, site plans, and importing architectural drawings; and Inspector Tools, software that enables fire departments to manage fire safety building inspections, track code violations, and issue building permits.

Linking Inspections and Preplanning

The Plainfield (MI) Fire Department, which provides fire protection service to an area of 36 square miles and has 50 firefighters, has been prefire planning its occupancies for roughly 20 years. The department uses the Fire Zone software and the MobileEyes Plan and Respond fire inspection Web-based software, which runs on a tablet PC. MobileEyes includes handwriting recognition capabilities and is designed to automate manual tasks such as looking up fire codes, writing reports, and keying inspection reports into a database. The software can generate an inspection report onsite that can be handed to the building owner.

“I set up a template of all the information I want to pull when the guys are out doing inspections,” explains Plainfield Fire Department Assistant Chief Steve McKellar. “When they do their inspections and download the information, I can then sync this to the mobile computers in our fire apparatus. This information is automatically updated in the MobileEyes Responder prefire plans.” The software solution also acts like a “dashboard,” says McKellar. “It tells my inspectors when inspections are coming up, and the software ‘red-flags’ them until the inspections are accomplished. It also tells how many violations were at a certain address.” Once inspections are completed, the information gathered is instantly updated for the address in MobileEyes Responder on the apparatus’s computer.

(2) A typical prefire plan created in The CAD Zone, Inc.’s First
Look Pro software. The software organizes and locates
preincident plan diagrams of buildings, maps, and information
and imports digital and satellite photos of structures’ digital
(Photo courtesy of The CAD Zone.)

Aerial Photos Expand Details

The ability to import aerial photos of a structure and its surroundings into preplanning software has proven to be a huge advantage for fire departments. Such is the case for Palmer (MA) Fire/Rescue. It uses Pictometry, the software from Pictometry International Corporation, that produces high-resolution front and side views of buildings and locations on the ground. These images can be overlaid with various structure measurements to include area, distance, height, elevation, pitch, and bearing. For example, Chief Alan Roy explains that the precise locations of all fire hydrants for each of the fire department’s Tier 2 facilities (schools, hospitals, and manufacturing firms) can be placed directly on the Pictometry aerial overhead photo. “We also have a color coding for our hydrants,” Roy notes. “Red is low-pressure, yellow is high-pressure, and black and red is a private hydrant. This is important to us because high-pressure hydrants can be dangerous if not properly used by fire personnel,” he adds.

Pictometry is particularly useful for showing exterior features of larger buildings and nearby exposures. The photos can reveal some of a building’s utility features, whether it has a large ventilation system on the roof, or any equipment that could come down during a fire. And, the software can also show any major highways that are near a building.

Mapping Capabilities

Another capability prefire planning software offers is mapping. Using GPS technology, the mapping function shows fire crews how to reach their destination and displays the progress of the fire apparatus as it moves toward the incident. It displays streets, buildings, fire hydrants, and any hidden dangers.

Mapping can be particularly valuable for incidents occurring at sprawling apartment complexes. According to Battalion Chief Joe Smith of the Garland (TX) Fire Department, “You know the streets you need to go on (using the mapping feature), and this makes finding the address faster and easier in the prefire plan. A city map will get you to the address, but if your prefire planning software has mapping, it will tell you what door to enter.”

Smith notes that mapping is particularly helpful for his fire department’s paramedic ambulance, which makes numerous out-of-district runs. Instead of flipping through binders filled with paper preplans, ambulance personnel can rely on MDCs where preplan software is loaded. “On their computer screens, with the touch of one button, they can locate a specific apartment in a building that is in a complex across town they might have never been in,” Smith says.

(3) A fire official with the Rockland (IL) Fire Department
references a prefire plan on his mobile computer on the way to a
fire call. Electronic prefire planning speeds access to critical
information for a fire call address.
[Photo courtesy of the Rockland (IL) Fire Department.]

NFPA Symbols

National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) symbols are part of almost any prefire planning software program. The ability to quickly and easily spot them on a prefire plan helps with response time to incidents. This is especially important when fire departments from different districts and regions must respond to the same incident. “The ability to share data and the importance of these symbols can’t be overemphasized,” says Curt Varone, the NFPA’s director of public fire protection. Thanks to the symbols, “A fire department, not just in the geographic region but also outside of the region, can, in the event of a major disaster, come in and still utilize the data that the community that’s experiencing the disaster has already developed,” Varone adds.

Preplanning Improvement Tips

Having a detailed and updated preplan is important for any fire agency-preferably in an electronic form so it can be shared among numerous internal and external fire personnel. Yet prefire planning works best when there is department commitment to it. Some preplanning improvement guidelines follow.

If a department struggles with getting preplans accomplished or has put it off, here are some guidelines to make the process easier:
• Prioritize what structures require preplans. You might start with identifying all of your jurisdiction’s target hazards.
• Assign the task of preplanning to one or more persons and even set a goal for a certain number of preplans to be completed by a specific date.
• Since prefire planning software programs offer a wide range of helpful features, focus on those core features that will enable you to build critical preplans no matter who uses them.
• Many communities have an assessor’s office containing digitized information, blueprints on buildings, as well as digital photos. You can get this information and the photos and transfer them to your fire agency, then upload them into your prefire planning software.

BOB GALVIN is a freelance writer who writes on issues, trends, and topics related to prefire planning practices. He has had numerous articles regarding the need for prefire planning published in fire industry publications.