As a 21 year old being in the fire service my understanding of the industry is much different than someone with a few years under their belt. This is not a bad thing, while someone may bring years of experience, I bring a fresh young mind eager to learn, execute, and endure. My name is Colin O’Brien, I’m currently a call firefighter for the Petersham Fire Department of 4 years and the Phillipston Fire Department for just under 3 years. In the fall I will start my senior year of college studying Environmental Engineering at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY. I will be giving you my perspective of the fire services through the eyes of a young jake, the ways in which technology can assist rural fire fighting, and how I have continued to contribute to my department while being 350 miles away.
Technology in the fire service, what does that mean? We have motorized apparatus, state of the art bunker gear, and SCBA’s equipped with a handful of digital features. Technology in the fire services allows us to fight fire, protect life and property, and serve our community on a daily basis differently than we did 20, 10, and even 5 years ago. It means having the tools available to use, physical and virtual, which keep first responders and the community they serve safer than they ever have before.
Many cutting edge technologies take longer to arrive to rural fire departments that have limited resources, less personnel, and frequently much smaller budgets than their urban counterparts. While budgets may be proportionally similar, many rural departments cannot justify implementing a Computer Aided Dispatch system (CAD) while larger departments with higher call volumes can. This technology could be implemented in rural areas but frequently is not feasible or the best way to spend money for public safety. To take technologies to a physical application, think of your average equipment and apparatus. In most rural departments based on usage it takes a piece of equipment such as an SCBA to be damaged or not meet NFPA standards before it is replaced. Apparatus is typically used until it no longer performs at a satisfactory standard. While this same standard exists with larger departments, the increased use allows for equipment to be replaced more frequently, so inherently by the nature of the departments technology takes longer to arrive in rural departments. If there is no extra money outside of the annual budget and federal grants, how do we bring technology to the rural departments quicker? We use their most valuable resource, their personnel.
In my engineering studies this spring semester I took a course called Geographical Information System (GIS), which “integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information.” Essentially GIS allows for you to incorporate many different types of data with geography to produce various things such as a map. As part of my coursework I was required to create and present a project for the end of the semester. While at school I miss a lot of calls, many of which I would much rather go to and serve my community instead of being in class. What better way to contribute to my department then incorporate it with my coursework.
I decided that I was going to make a map of all dry hydrants in Phillipston and get a general understanding of the fire protection we have for our community. Through many hours of recording GPS data with a device at every dry hydrant and many more hours manipulating and retrieving data to produce a map I was satisfied with, I had finally made a map of all 43 dry hydrants in the Town of Phillipston. This map features the distance a parcel is from the nearest hydrant, the location of all hydrants, all roads and bodies of water, aerial images, and parcel outlines. Other features of the GIS software allowed me to estimate the time it would take for a truck to make it from the fire station to the hydrant and display that in a table, or be displayed when you click on a hydrant. I found out that the map could be coordinated with our IAmResponding phone app in the map section as well. I also developed different versions of the map, one that displayed a dot in the center of each parcel that was color coded and represented the distance range the parcel was from the nearest hydrant. The possibilities were truly endless, and below is one of my many versions of this dry hydrant map.
The map classifies the roads by color based on the distance in meters they lie from the nearest hydrant. This project helped me identify a few things about the fire protection in the Town of Phillipston. Most importantly, 97% of the parcels in town are within 2,000’ from the nearest hydrant the same length of hose that is on Engine 3, our hose reel truck. The outskirts of town have the least amount of fire protection while the center of town has the highest area of adequate fire protection. To take this even higher, GIS technology could be used to identify areas that would be optimal to build new dry hydrants.
This came at no cost to the Town of Phillipston and earned me an A in the course. These maps will be printed and put in every apparatus with a larger copy in the firehouse and can even be saved on mobile devices to view and be used on scene. They could also be incorporated with dispatch to identify us the nearest hydrant to the scene and approximately what the distance to lay in would be, as I said, the possibilities are endless.
I discovered a lot about myself on this project. I realized I do have a lot to contribute to my departments, even when I’m not there. I also realized how lacking great technology like this is in the rural fire services. Officers, do not be afraid to ask your personnel what they can do to help you. Never be afraid to let your personnel know of issues that you need assistance with or even ask how they think they could help the department! Just because it has always been done that way does not mean it is necessarily still the best or only way.
Stay safe and stay smart.
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Colin O’Brien has been serving the towns of Petersham and Phillipston, MA for four years as a call firefighter and first responder. He is currently a Junior studying Environmental Engineering and minoring in Environmental Health Science at Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY. Colin is also a recipient of the MCVFA SAFER Scholarship program. He looks forward to returning to Massachusetts to continue actively serving his community for many more years to come. Colin is a manager, admin, contributor, and weather disaster coordinator here at FIREGROUND360°.