How big data helps firefighters do battle

Cities use mobile technology and analytics to identify fire risks and improve response times.

Firefighters around the world are discovering that big data and mobile cloud technology are some of the best weapons for battling — and even preventing — fires.

With access to geographic information systems (GIS) and social media networks, fire teams are better able to anticipate, plan and act more effectively in emergencies.

Jennifer Schottke

Esri’s Jennifer Schottke says mapping software can reduce emergency response times and get the right resources to the right place faster.

As always, their primary goal is to prevent fires in the first place.

“If managed well, prevention and mitigation can not only help communities reduce response times, but can also significantly impact the effectiveness of the responses in terms of getting the right resources to the right place in the most timely manner,” says Jennifer Schottke, a fire and emergency services specialist at mapping software company Esri.

“By reducing the number of preventable incidents and managing the response to unnecessary or inappropriate calls (i.e. repetitive false alarms), a community can much more efficiently and effectively support the rapid and full-scale response required for a large and dangerous event,” she adds.

New York’s program

The New York City Fire Department began using a data mining program in July to determine which buildings are more susceptible to fire, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The NYFD’s director of analytics said that many fires occurred in low-income neighborhoods. They developed an algorithm to identify which of the city’s 330,000 buildings are a possible hazard and should be inspected more frequently.

The fire program in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, found fire risks were most prevalent among the young, elderly and poor residents. The department wanted to find out if personalized fire prevention education could reduce the number of home fires. So they used GIS to map their targeted and non-targeted test areas.

Two years later, the results showed “areas that received educational packets delivered door-to-door experienced a 63.9 percent reduction in home fires, compared to pre-intervention rates of fire per 1,000 homes,” according to Esri’s ArcNews.

Other municipalities are reaping benefits as well. According to Schottke, the Tualatin Valley fire rescue team in Oregon is building a data system that can identify which apartment buildings have recurring problems with false alarms — and what to do about them. It also can predict trouble spots, such as areas where tax revenue is declining.

Using ‘map stories’

“The chief uses these ‘map stories’ to help the community stakeholders and public officials better understand the strategic policy decisions they are making and how they influence the department’s ability to meet community objectives for safety,” Schottke says.

Firefighters can also use GIS data and social media out in the field to help with emergencies. Schottke says GIS has even helped search-and-rescue teams find lost persons more quickly in Australia.

There are other ways big data can help firefighters in the future, Schottke adds.

  • Improving public safety. “When we can focus our prevention efforts to target interventions, we can educate the people most likely to benefit from the effort, using lifestyle data to understand why problems are occurring and get to the route of the problem,” says Schottke.
  • Getting better and more focused information, especially to first-line responders.
  • Tracking the firefighters themselves when they’re in the field. Feeding them reliable data can be “critical in making good decisions,” Schottke says.

There are still obstacles, of course. Fire programs must find the money to train their employees in using these data tools, Schottke says, even while city budgets continue to shrink across the country.

And as the Wall Street Journal points out, it’s sometimes difficult to prove how effective big data systems are for reducing response times and even the number of fires.

Chau Tu
Chau Tu is a Web producer and freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. She's worked in public radio, online and print, writing about business, music, culture and fashion.
Chau Tu
Chau Tu
Tags: Cloud Computing,Data Center,Technology
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