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Who is responding?

Ian McVicar knows the frustration of waiting at a fire scene with no idea who else is responding or when the trucks will show up – if the trucks will show up.

July 2, 2014
By Laura King


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Ian McVicar knows the frustration of waiting at a fire scene with no idea who else is responding or when the trucks will show up – if the trucks will show up.

arrival time  
The Canadian-designed FireQ-RVS system is GPS based and allows firefighters to use their phones to indicate their arrival time at the hall or the call.


 

McVicar is a volunteer captain with the Coxheath Fire Department on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. He lives two minutes from the hall – closer than any other member – so on weekdays, he’s the duty officer and goes directly to the scene when there’s a call.

Until recently, that meant McVicar had no way to determine which of the department’s 24 other volunteers were responding to the hall or heading to the address in their own vehicles.

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“I know that fear and horror, where there’s nobody coming and there’s no one to help, and that’s foolish,” said McVicar, who is ex-military and likes things to be in order. “When I’m leaving for a fire scene I know I’m coming, but nobody else does.”

McVicar is a partner in a software company called Breton Smartek (www.bretonsmartek.com). With the help of a team of developers, McVicar has created a program and app that tell the duty officer – and everyone else who needs to know – which firefighters are responding, how long it will take them to get to the hall, and the level to which they are trained. What’s more, the system allows the duty officer to tell responders to stand down for a simple alarm call, tracks responses so chiefs can chart attendance and calculate time toward the volunteer firefighter tax credit, inventories all department equipment, and creates incident reports after firefighters clear the scene.

“In the last seven or eight years, every new person who walks into this department has a smart phone, and they spend tons of time in front of it,” said McVicar. “So I said, let’s connect the dots; we can build something so they can communicate with us – because our pagers are only one way – without getting into $1,200 radios; they’re basically carrying computers on their hips.”

The system – called FireQ-RVS – requires an internet connection and takes advantage of GPS technologies, which is standard on smart phones. Apps have been developed for Blackberry, iPhone, Android and Windows phones.

FireQ-RVS stands for response verification system. Q is a play on the word queue – or list – of firefighters who are responding. There are similar response systems based on text messaging and email, such as I Am Responding (www.iamresponding.com) and Active 911 (www.active911.com) – both are American – that are used by Canadian departments and work well. Features include hydrant locations and management and web-based scheduling; some systems offer free trials. McVicar says the advanced GPS and mapping technologies set FireQ apart. FireQ also has some additional categories for department and personnel management that are designed to improve communication and help fire chiefs and training officers save time and alleviate frustration.

“One of the things we’re really weak on in the fire department is administration,” McVicar said, “so we built in an inventory-control system, a way to manage training, certificates, and member data. One of the big things now is that you have to have 200 hours to qualify for the federal tax credit; somebody has to track all that time and the chief has to sign off on that.

“This system tracks everything you do – the calls you attend, the training – and creates a profile. We had a manual call log and we’d go through it and you’d have to look for your name and build a chart. The administrative burden was becoming too much.”

More than 30 departments in Canada and the United States are using FireQ. Four departments besides Coxheath in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality have signed on. In New Bruswick, the Grand Falls and Oromocto departments are clients. The Township of Tyendinaga in Ontario uses FireQ, as does the Chauvin Fire Department in Alberta and Williams Lake in British Columbia.

Oromocto Fire Chief Jody Price said his department has found three key efficiencies with FireQ: knowing who is responding to a call and the ETA helps firefighters who have already arrived at the station determine whether to hold a responding unit to wait for more personnel or dispatch it immediately; having duty officers receive text messages when members are responding helps the incident commander determine whether there is a need to call for mutual aid; and the “texting members” feature has simplified day-to-day communication.

In addition, Price said, the fact that FireQ is Canadian makes it easy communicate with the company to receive support and offer feedback.

“We initiated a trial run of the application with the volunteer component of our department,” Price said. “We were so impressed that we have ordered a second system for our career station.”

FireQ is subscription based; it’s $59.99 a month for a year, or $720, with unlimited text messaging – per department. The system includes email, text messaging and internet calling, and can replace land lines, removing an operating-budget item.

“Basically, when I get a page now at home,” McVicar says, “I don’t have to do anything other than touch one button: Responding. The smart phone calculates my GPS location; it knows where the fire hall is so it can route out a map and calculate my estimated time of arrival and distance to the hall, and display it on the smart phones of members and on the FireQ system. So, for every one of my members who is coming, I see his or her qualifications, their name, the
distance they are right at this moment from the fire hall, and their ETA.

“Once it does that, as the live call is happening, the duty officer – he’s the guy that does the size-up and calls for more help if he needs it – he knows who’s coming and how far they are from the hall. So this is real-time information happening, because we can’t afford radios for 25 guys.”

The responding feature has two options: responding to the hall; or responding to the scene.

FireQ-RVS  
FireQ-RVS was the brainchild of Ian McVicar, a partner in software firm Breton Smartek and a volunteer firefighter with the Coxheath Fire Department. Besides responses, the system tracks attendance, training, equipment, certifications and hours toward the firefighter tax credit. Photo by Laura King


 

The responders queue is created as members signal their intent to respond.  The queue, which is visible using the FireQ phone app as well as the FireQ system in the hall, shows who is responding and other details: as responding members get closer to the hall, colour coding on the screen changes so the duty officer knows at a glance when he or she can roll the trucks; yellow means the member is less than one minute out, red means he or she has arrived at the hall; names of members still in white are further away. The system also acts as a form of accountability – who responded, who went where, and who came back to the hall – which is valuable in bad weather to make sure all responding members arrive safely at their destinations.

Duty officers can also opt to receive a text messages from each responder.  For the duty officer, the program acts as a planning tool for the call – once he knows who’s coming and the levels of training, he can determine who will do what on scene.

McVicar says the system does not interfere with 911 dispatch.

“In fact,” he says, “we have developed a 911 console tool for departments that are using this system. We’re finding that there is total chaos across the country, that there’s no consistency to 911. It’s a patchwork of delivery systems run by a municipality or a private contractor.” 

In the last several months, Breton Smartek has developed a system through which FireQ-RVS can provide departments with the ability to receive text messages from their dispatch center’s CAD systems and re-transmit those messages to every member of the department. 

In addition, McVicar says, FireQ helps members determine if a call warrants leaving work. 

“You can look at the responders queue, and while you’re sitting at your office wondering, ‘Should I ask to go, should I not,’ you can get this information right at your fingertips. So I’m at my desk, the call has come in, I know that firefighters 1, 2 and 3 are responding, so I’ve only got three guys moving on this call, so now you can make a better, more-informed decision.”

On the smart-phone screen, FireQ is segmented into tabs – the home screen, the responders queue, an availability tab, and a messages tab that allows firefighters to talk to each other.

McVicar says the use of GPS is the biggest bonus for departments. He tells a story about a motor-vehicle collision that a cell-phone user called into dispatch; the caller said the MVC was somewhere between exits 4 and 6 – an 18 kilometre stretch of Trans-Canada Highway. 

“It was the dark of night, 2 a.m., it was blowing a gale, it was raining, it was nasty, and there was no indication whether it was eastbound or westbound.

“We drove along the side of the road at 20 kilometres an hour with the search lights on, and somebody hanging out the window, looking. The other truck went way to the other end to come back to do the same thing on the other side.

“How do you describe where you are to a member who’s now trying to get to the trucks?”

Based on GPS mapping, the first member to arrive at a scene – whether it’s the duty officer or a firefighter – taps the on-scene button on the FireQ home screen. A GPS reading is taken, along with a snapshot of the location, and a message is sent to FireQ, which sends each member the exact location of the call in relation to the fire hall.

“So now we have a map, and each member who is in the responders queue gets a text message with a link to the scene,” McVicar said.

Another issue that FireQ mitigates is time spent responding to false alarms. 

During the summer, the Coxheath department – which is part of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality Fire and Emergency Services – gets numerous calls for fire alarms being set off due to humidity.

“When we roll to them – they’re all out here in suburbia and everyone works in the city – so I will normally end up at somebody’s house and when I arrive, the minute I pull in, I know there’s no fire. It’s a quiet, locked house and you know it’s an alarm and you know it’s going to be moisture, and I’ve got guys behind me getting ready to leave work and get their clothes on to go tend to this call.

“I can’t call dispatch and say stand them all down – it’s a live call and we’re on it until it’s done.”

The alarm company will send a keyholder, which generally takes between 20 and 30 minutes. The option, McVicar says, is to break down the door, confirm the false alarm, and put security on the door until the homeowner arrives.

“But I can’t do that,” McVicar says. “I live out here too. But I’m not going to make 25 guys wait, or worse, the trucks roll all the way out here and I send them back to the hall.”

Instead, McVicar taps the Stand Down button on his phone, which sends a message to responding members.

“We are better managing the resources we have,” he says.

“This is about filling in the gaps and better communication. FireQ, for example, provides the framework for removing non-emergency communication from being sent over emergency channels.  These are day-to-day issues that every one of us as a volunteer has.”

For each call, the system can create an incident report based on a template that each department can customize.

The chief – or a designate – controls the system through a password and can insert information when new members join the department. All members can send text messages to a single member or all members either from the FireQ app or the FireQ system – for example, the training officer can send a reminder that there’s training at 7 p.m., and members can reply.

To use the system, departments simply enter information about their members –name, cell number, when they joined, qualifications, email addresses, which companies are they in, what type of phones they use. The system sends members a message with a link to the app to be installed on a smart phone.

In the membership profile, the system can track equipment assigned to each volunteer, attendance at training, and certifications with expiry dates – first aid and CPR, for example. This allows departments to schedule recertification classes and ensure that all members are up to date.

The response log helps the department track member activity.

“I can go in and search for a specific year,” says McVicar. “Sooner or later departments are going to get audited and Revenue Canada is going to come in and say hey, you just signed off that 24 guys worked 200 hours for this tax credit: Where’s your proof? This gives the chief the ability at his fingertips to go in any time and look at the response log.”

The incident reports and response logs are also helpful when insurance companies or lawyers come calling.

“We never get a phone call the next day to say, What happened, what were the conditions, what did you see? It’s always someone from an insurance company calling about six months later . . . Now we can go in and find every call we were on and even print or email the insurance company a PDF. The chief can be sitting at home doing this.”

And, in Nova Scotia, where the Office of Fire Marshal is back on track after some restructuring, the system allows departments to easily track types of incidents and other data that will be collected.

For fire departments, where equipment gets moved around, distributed and re-distributed, lost, broken and replaced, the system is a godsend; it tracks warranties and expiry dates and which items have been distributed to which members or which trucks.

McVicar, for example, is responsible for truck No. 9 and can go into the system and see every piece of gear on that truck. A recent check showed two missing adapters for connecting forestry hose.

“Probably the last time we used them we left them or forgot them. I didn’t notice because you don’t need them every day. But at 2 a.m. when it’s blowing, dark and cold and you need them, you’re up the creek without them. We took the inventory list, we did a complete check of the truck, we found they were missing, couldn’t find them, and re-ordered them for the truck. Before, I would have missed that until we needed them.”

The system includes links to how-to videos and even overrides – if the power goes out at the fire hall, information is stored on the server and will upload once power is restored.

“I come from a budget-challenged department,” McVicar said. “I know what it’s like to do the impossible with nothing; our budget is peanuts.

“Being a firefighter, I want to build a better mousetrap.  I wanted firefighters to have the most accurate information possible when responding to an emergency.  This is what we’ve envisioned so far.”

As more departments come on stream, McVicar says the system will develop to meet more needs.

“What else can we do? How far can we push this?”


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