Road to success

Marriage of IT and fire in high-growth Brampton improves safety, response times
November 01, 2012
Written by
For Brampton Fire and Emergency Services, the information highway was the solution to the city’s traffic and response problems.

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A partnership between IT guru Rob Meikle (left) and Brampton Deputy Chief Matt Pegg and their respective departments has resulted in an improved incident dispatch and traffic-management system that means trucks get to incidents more quickly and crews have more details about the call. Photos by Laura King

 

According to the 2011 census, Brampton, Ont., had the second-highest growth rate among Canada’s 50 largest cities. Expansion and ever-changing traffic patterns in the sprawling metropolis of 524,000 northwest of Toronto was complicating response times as myriad factors from weather to an increase in the number of tall buildings played havoc with traffic light pre-emption signals from its fire trucks.

For Brampton Deputy Chief Matt Pegg, a get-it-done type-A personality, the task was obvious: find a way to route the truck closest to the incident to the call, no matter which of the city’s 12 stations the apparatus or squad was from, and feed crews information about the call en route so they could respond more efficiently and effectively.

The idea made sense; the problem was figuring out how to merge computer-aided dispatch, automatic vehicle location, and routing technology with enhanced traffic-signal pre-emption that was being implemented with the Brampton rapid transit system but had to be adapted to fire. Combine that with the obvious need to put critical information in the hands of responding emergency crews over a wireless mobile data unit system, and the need for a package of mobile applications for Fire and Emergency Services became apparent.

Enter Brampton IT guru Rob Meikle, a soft-spoken visionary whose language is peppered with tech-talk that would befuddle even the most computer-savvy firefighters.

The two were a good fit: Pegg, the deputy chief, needed a reliable, accurate, cost-efficient, system that city officials and firefighters at the fifth largest fire and emergency service in Ontario would support; Meikle, Brampton’s chief information officer, embraced the challenge, putting all the know-how of his IT team to use and drawing on the city’s emerging transit technology to create a routing system for fire.

Pegg’s mantra through the project? “In the world of fire, the only thing worse than not giving me a tool I need is giving me a tool I can’t rely upon.”

The result: Brampton’s integrated automatic vehicle location-based dispatch system – the first of its kind in Canada – for which the City of Brampton has won multiple awards from both IT and municipal organizations.

After some initial hesitation among crews who were used to having certain trucks from certain stations respond to calls in certain areas, the age-old system of dispatching fire trucks to calls based on pre-determined geographic regions was replaced with a state-of-the-art automatic vehicle location dispatch system. Pegg and Meikle boast that the new system is indeed reliable and accurate and response times have improved. Here’s how it works.

There are three facets to the new system:

1. Automatic vehicle location (AVL)
In both Brampton and Mississauga, both of which are dispatched by the Joint Fire Communications Centre, all fire-response vehicles are fitted with a GPS. The trucks are continuously monitored for location and availability to respond to a call. This information is tied into the upgraded CAD system so the trucks that can reach the incident first are automatically, and instantly, identified for the dispatcher. 

2. Traffic signal pre-emptions (TSP)
Fairly common in larger Canadian cities, TSP changes traffic lights out of their normal cycles so that fire trucks responding to calls can proceed on green lights. But in Brampton, where the aging signal pre-emption system was becoming increasingly unreliable, an enhanced TSP system was being implemented with the city’s rapid-transit system to maintain bus schedules. The technology predicts arrival time based on location and speed and is not affected by line-of-sight issues such as wind, rain or snow. The fire system is live on major traffic corridors in Brampton, with more intersections coming online. 

3. Mobile data units (MDU)
In Brampton, laptops in trucks are connected to the CAD system through a secure, private network. The laptops provide touch-screen access to incident location, caution notes, dispatch details, and multi-layer digital mapping that includes fire-hydrant locations, adjacent buildings, and any potential hazards. AVL is integrated into the laptops and provides live mapping information and directional data to the responding crew.

Essentially, Pegg and Meikle explained in an interview, all this technology accomplishes that simple goal: it helps firefighters reach emergencies faster, and it gives them critical information immediately so they can better plan their response before arriving at the scene.

As Meikle outlined in a submission to an IT journal whose readers can rebuild hard drives but may not know a Halligan from a hose, to understand the new system, it’s important to grasp computer-aided dispatch used by most metropolitan fire departments and the domino effect that occurs when the traditional first-responding truck is out on a call and a dispatcher has to page the next-closest station.

“The traditional dispatch system is cumbersome,” Meikle said. “Yet it continues to be the standard in fire services across the country. In an effort to change that, a whole suite of technology solutions was developed for Brampton Fire. The CAD system was upgraded to allow all the new systems to function. But the real innovation begins with how the vehicles are dispatched.”

Meikle’s team, along with partners from Community Services (under which the fire department falls) and fire, tweaked the CAD system so that in addition to AVL, an algorithm determines the response – including the numbers and types of trucks – based on pre-determined response information stored in a database.

Simply put, if, for example, a truck happens to be returning from a call or from another station – meaning its crew is already on the road – and is closer to the next call than the traditionally paged station, that truck will be assigned to respond to the emergency. There are two time savings: the call-to-departure time from the station, because the closest crew may already be mobile; and the travel time to the incident, which is reduced because the truck is already closer to the incident than the apparatus that would traditionally respond under the old dispatch system.

Then, the mobile data units’ laptops use the real-time mapping and give the crews to access the the dispatcher’s notes and information about hazards, which reduces the amount of radio traffic; this also allows responding captains to plan their strategies and understand known hazards before they arrive on scene.

Further, an automated staff scheduling system has eliminated the old Excel spreadsheets used by district chiefs to track personnel. In Brampton’s case, district chiefs can now instantly see which of their almost 90 staff who are expected to be on duty at a given time are sick, at training or working. (Brampton Fire has about 430 full-time staff servicing 270 square kilometres.)

For some, the technology has been daunting.

“We recognized yeah, you can have integrated solutions . . . but you have to look at how you’re deploying it,” Meikle told IT World Canada magazine for its story about the project.

Meikle recalled being the not-so-welcome speaker at a Brampton district chiefs meeting to explain the new technology, but chuckles about it now that the walking-on-eggshells period has lapsed.

To develop and implement this fundamental change, IT and Community Services staff rode along on trucks to better understand the needs of responding captains and district chiefs, and to grasp the potential benefits of faster responses and improved fire-ground safety, a result of the enhanced information available to crews en route to calls.

Pegg says a key part of the project has been helping firefighters understand the level of technical support available from the IT department.

“Once (the technology is) there, I expect it to work,” he says. “It needs to work all the time, and it’s being operated by a number of people who may not be overly comfortable using the new technology. The one thing I know from personal experience is that if there is a weakness with a tool or system, firefighters will find it. The demands placed on these tools and solutions are often extreme.”

Meikle agrees that it wasn’t exactly a marriage made in the truck bay with a honeymoon in the IT room. In fact, making the project work was a bit of an exercise in diplomacy.

“You’ve got to build a bridge of trust,” Meikle explained to the Municipal Information Systems Association at its annual conference in May. “This was a multi-year journey.”

Pegg sees the project as the start of a lengthy relationship between fire and IT.

“Technology is the solution but the real message is about finding innovative solutions by being able to force yourself out of your comfort zone,” he said in the interview.
Previously, as with other departments, Brampton bought pre-packaged technology that looked impressive at trade shows but rarely discussed the purchases with the IT department, only to find out later that the new equipment wasn’t necessarily the best fit.

This time, with co-operation between fire and IT, the routing system is meeting Brampton’s financial and operational expectations. And, in an era of growing municipalities with higher demands and, therefore, limited fire budget growth, combining technology with improved response times and fire-ground safety resonates with politicians and city staff.
 
With stories out of Toronto and Calgary about response times failing to meet NFPA standards, Pegg notes that Brampton’s investment in traffic management and the re-purposing of the existing traffic light pre-emption technology has resulted in a cost-efficient solution that will better enable Brampton to meet the ever-increasing demands and challenges of big-city emergency response.

According to Meikle, the elimination of the current and aging traffic pre-emption system has reduced maintenance cost of between $5,000 and $10,000 a year; the move to GPS-based technology has reduced the amount of equipment necessary at intersections, and that reduces operating costs. As TSP comes online at more intersections, operating costs will be reduced further.

Brampton_Truck
 
   
The city has spent about $376,000 on automated vehicle location-based dispatch, traffic signal pre-emption and mobile data units plus about $447,000 in TSP-related infrastructure in conjunction with transit partners. 

In addition, the industry standard for call-processing time between receiving a 911 call and a vehicle being dispatched is 60 seconds. In 2011, after the implementation of AVL-based dispatch, Brampton Fire’s average call processing time was 28 seconds. Brampton Fire and Emergency Services responded to 17,607 emergency calls in 2011, or an average of about 48 calls a day.

Also, Pegg says, since the implementation of AVL-based dispatch and TSP, travel time to calls for the busiest truck in the Brampton Fire fleet has dropped 9.48 per cent. What’s more, the response time for one centrally stationed squad is down 24 per cent.

“We are extremely pleased with these results,” says Brampton Fire Chief Andy MacDonald.

“This clearly demonstrates that the investment in this technology is directly translating into enhanced customer service within the City of Brampton.”

Even more significantly, say Pegg and Meikle, customer service – or response times – and firefighter safety have improved with the introduction of the new system.

“Staff are simultaneously and concurrently reducing response times and ensuring resources are put on scene of the emergency and at the same time this is increasing the level of safety of the firefighters when they are going at the scene and they are loaded with as much data and critical information as possible,” Meikle said in the IT journal submission.

“In the past they would not have access to any data other than what was provided over the radio by the communications operator.

In other words, Brampton has challenged the tired 200-years-of-tradition-unimpeded-by-progress motto and despite early resistance, Meikle says, has proven that the patience required for IT and fire to learn each other’s specialties has paid dividends.

“Brampton Fire is the first in Ontario to empower its staff to leverage complex technology and challenge the status quo of the fire and emergency industry by  integrating CAD and AVL information, intelligence, data, best practices and tactical procedures, and package them for front-line crews in one comprehensive suite of tools.”

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