Radical new designs in fire station alerting technology are helping to save lives and property. It’s an unfortunate fact that, every hour of every day, people find themselves in some form of danger. Luckily, however, in those instances, sophisticated new technology is proving itself capable of making a life-and-death difference.
I refer to innovative new designs for fire alerting systems, which are showing dramatic improvements from older, more limited functionality methods, especially in such critical areas of emergency safety as response times, situational awareness and the health and wellbeing of first responders. In these areas, new systems are literally saving lives when fires and other similar calamities threaten.
The changing role of fire stations
Before we talk about the specifics of how emergency alerting systems have evolved, I think it’s important to provide some context for that evolution.
The need for these advanced fire alerting systems was necessitated by the changing role of fire stations themselves. We all know the historical stereotype for firehouses, their use and function. In short, an alarm bell or siren blared, and firefighters scrambled to hit the fire pole. Then they donned their turnout gear before leaping onto one of the vehicles. It was controlled chaos.
Today, a fire station and its personnel have a far different role than in the past, and fire stations themselves have changed structurally and technically. Over time, by strategically altering fire stations’ designs and locales, and by increasing station equipment and technology, firefighters have become more effective in their jobs. That means they can respond more quickly to emergencies.
Today’s modern fire stations are both high-tech and high-functioning. They meet all government guidelines and regulations. And they’re also comfortable. For the emergency personnel who inhabit them they are, in a sense, a home away from home. They’re outfitted with all the comforts that better enable those on duty to rest when they are off duty. And, when they are on duty, they can hear and respond to calls quickly and effectively.
Just as important, communication networks, audio and lighting technology, and other automated improvements in these facilities are making a big difference. They have enhanced the health and comfort of the firefighters who spend a great deal of their lives in them.
Every firefighter and fire station administrator knows the mantra, ‘The earlier you get there the quicker you can save lives and property.’ Today’s emergency alerting systems are designed to do precisely that. They cut down on response time, increase situational awareness and, hopefully, reduce the incidence of injury and loss of life.
How do they work? Briefly, when an emergency incident occurs, a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system interfaces with a digital communications ‘gateway’ located at the dispatch processing centre.
The gateway receives alert data in two ways. First, it is sent directly from the system’s interactive web-based interface. Secondly, it can be sent manually, from a dispatcher via an interface with an existing CAD host.
Thus, automated dispatch processing time is drastically reduced. Most the alerting systems can deliver the dispatch to one or multiple stations in less than a second.
Meanwhile, at the fire station, the dispatch is received via a crystal-clear and read aloud via a digital ‘voice’. This allows the first responder to quickly hear and understand the information. Then they can also read the dispatch via high-contrast message signs placed strategically throughout the station. This helps emergency personnel react promptly and efficiently to every call.
Importantly, fully automated dispatching awakens only on-call units, using what’s called ‘zoned alerting’. Most sophisticated alerting products will integrate ramped tones and lighting so that non-dispatched crews on rest can remain undisturbed. This ultimately reduces cardiac stress, anxiety, optical shock and, of course, sleep deprivation.
A component of the system sends alerts throughout the fire station, using any combination of room zones. They also make use of individual lighting, messaging and volume control in each zone. Additionally, there are many configurable peripheral devices that also serve to alert first responders at the station, using visual and/or audible messages. Another important aspect of the system has to do with its audible ‘voice’. Messages are generated from an automated voice, devoid of any possible emotional pitch or tone that might unnecessarily confuse or agitate the responders.
Because automated alerting systems have been operational for a decade or more, their records of performance are readily available. What’s more, users of the systems themselves have been vocal in their praise, as well as their suggestions for fine-tuning the systems.
In the US, where adaptation of newer, more automated systems has been sweeping, the critical ‘hot buttons’ of emergency alerting and response are showing dramatic results.
With regard to response times, Bill Hawley, Fire Chief of a fire department in Texas, notes how crucial even a few seconds’ difference can be in a fire emergency:
‘Response times are very critical … In a fire, it will grow exponentially over time, so if we can shave off 30 seconds or a minute in our response, it may be the difference between just the sofa being involved in a fire, or the whole room, or possibly a large portion of the house. We are looking to save every second possible in the process …’
Chief Hawley went on to describe that, using the older alerting system, a responder on the receiving end was burdened by the system’s limitations.
‘A person who received the 911 call would be trying to do three things simultaneously,’ he said. ‘That is, talk to the caller, start alerting the fire stations and talk over the radio to the firefighters to tell them what was going on and where. At the same time, he had to also be going through flip charts, trying to give pre-arrival instructions to the bystanders on how to help [the victims] before we get there. Now, because the system is automated, as soon as key information is entered into the system by the dispatcher, it automatically sends that information to alert the firefighters in the stations and starts that process happening sooner.’
Another fire station management official, Lisset Elliot, in Miami, Florida, had this to say.
‘It would have taken [our] old system almost 27 seconds to send out alerts. The new system, however, is able to alert all stations simultaneously in one second, drastically improving response time. The new system also allows [our fire response team] to implement fewer jarring tones that are more “heart-friendly”.’
Asia Pacific applications
The United States isn’t the only country that is adapting these new systems for optimal use. They’re being identified, tested and installed in emergency response centres the world over.
Australia, for example, is embracing more sophisticated alerting systems. Following their implementation in several Australian communities, government studies are recording much quicker response times for Australian ambulance and firefighting personnel.
One such study was sweeping in its scope, examining the performance of emergency service agencies across Australia. Citing the results, Mick Gentleman, the Australian Minister for Police and Emergency Services applauded the efforts of Australian Capital Territory (ACT) paramedics and firefighters. He said: ‘The results are a credit to the professionalism of the women and men of … the wider ACT Emergency Services Agency.’ Gentleman particularly noted the ACT agency’s record for having provided the best capital city and state-wide response times for fire events.
Our efforts to drastically trim response times are functioning very well in newly designed fire stations throughout the world. Thus, technology innovators are working on a host of additional improvements in emergency summoning systems. Among them:
- Mobile altering, which enables first responders’ individual devices (such as phones) to provide up-to-the-minute details of the event.
- More sophisticated integration with CAD systems, to provide additional incident management before, during and after the call.
- Greater levels of intelligence to improve situational awareness (e.g., local traffic, natural disasters, etc.).
- A greater focus on responders’ health, wellness and safety, with an emphasis on ways to help alleviate hearing loss, heart problems and fatigue.
As always, those of us involved in the design and installation of these systems must be scrupulously vigilant of the needs of the professionals our systems serve. We must be mindful as well of the ways in which societies summon help for an increasing roster of vital emergencies.
As one of the system designers, we’re trying every day to be at the forefront of our clients’ needs.
For more information, go to stationalerting.com