A roadmap to smarter (and safer) firefighting

Wed, 2015-06-24 06:00 -- Doug Peeples

It's easy to imagine the difficulties firefighters face when confronted with a fire in a structure they may know next to nothing about. Lives can be lost, injuries suffered and property losses can be staggering. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) believe loss of life and property can be reduced substantially, and they outline how in their Research Roadmap for Smart Fire Fighting.

NIST and the FPRF say what firefighters need most to reduce loss of lives and property is information delivered in real time. The roadmap outlines how that information can be made available through a variety of interconnected technologies, specifically communication, computing, sensor and networking technologies.

Working together, those technologies are referred to as cyberphysical systems (CPS). You probably already use a CPS in one form or another if you have a smart home with programmable thermostats or appliances that can be turned on and off with a cell phone.

The roadmap's role
"The ultimate aim of the roadmap is to enable real-time delivery of useful information before, during and after a fire incident or other emergency – to get actionable intelligence to the first responders who need it, when they need it," said Anthony Hamins, head of NIST’s Fire Research Division.

"Among the many possible CPS applications, smart firefighting should rank among the most compelling. It can help protect and improve the safety and effectiveness of the nation's 1.1 million firefighters and, as a result, greatly reduce the national fire problem," said Casey Grant, FPRF executive director.

Fire departments in some cities are already using CPS. Two examples cited in the roadmap:

  • Frisco, Texas firefighters consult a system that shows maps, fire hydrant locations, hazardous materials lists, site information and more when they are dispatched.
  • New York City's FireCast, referred to as a "data-driven predictive risk engine," pulls information from several places such as building permits and electrical outage reports to produce daily updated fire risk profiles for the 330,000 buildings in the city's fire inspection database. Armed with that information, they are able to give inspections a priority ranking and pinpoint where violations are increasing.

While the report identifies ways to take advantage of CPS applications and which ones will require advances in current technology, it also identifies obstacles that need to be considered as well:

  • Reliable connectivity and performance of devices in environments that can be hostile
  • Interoperability between diverse databases, equipment, software, organizations and networks
  • Effectively managing information to avoid information overload, which could hamper timely decision-making

Get the Smart Cities Readiness Guide (free, one-time registration required) to learn more about how smart cities empower first responders with information and communications technologies to create smart public safety and greatly improve outcomes.


Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.