By Greg Bogosian
The Lititz Fire Company No. 1 in Pennsylvania has been a volunteer fire department since 1894. Covering a 10.2-square-mile area which encompasses everything from a major manufacturing facility to single-family homes, the 43-member department responds to 500 calls for fire (non-EMS) service every year, with an average of six members per response in 2011, according to Chief Ron Oettel. Their single fire station houses a 100-foot tower ladder, a pumper, and a walkaround rescue truck.
Five years ago, the department was struggling with issues common to many departments that are either all or partly volunteer-based: how to keep track of member availability, how to manage information regarding who was responding to any given incident as it occurred, how to let members know about training events, and how to get information out to members about operational needs. Chief among those, however, was the response information management.
Their system for response availability at the time was, like many, an in-house hybrid, using a whiteboard combined with emails and a bulletin board. Each member was responsible for maintaining their own availability, and there was no way to know who was actually coming to the station at the time of an incident until they actually showed up.
Chief Oettel says that it wasn't optimal for many reasons, especially during weekday working hours. "Some of our guys do shift work, and you didn't know that these guys were going to be around at a certain hour of every day, even if they'd marked their availability for the whole week," he said. "If they're out doing an errand, or they're not going to be available one day or time period, they'd have had to make their way to the station to mark that down."
About five years ago, Lititz Fire Company started using IamResponding.com, a Web-based platform for managing everything to do with volunteer or on-call emergency response agencies.
IamResponding.com is used by emergency responders to immediately inform their chiefs, team leaders, other members of their department or team, and dispatchers if, when and where they are responding to emergency incidents. IamResponding.com is used by thousands of fire departments, EMS agencies, specialty response teams, and other emergency response entities across North America.
Daniel Seidberg, co-developer of the system and President of the company that provides the IamResponding service, explained that "the IamResponding system was developed to address the communication gap that existed after the tones went off, and to simply and effectively close that gap with timely, critical information." It manages not only response coordination, but also member availability, training and event scheduling, mass-notification, and more.
How it works
The system itself is simple to use, but powerful: After receiving a dispatch notification through any existing dispatch system, emergency responders simply speed-dial a pre-assigned toll-free number on their phone.
They are immediately connected to an automated telephone system (hosted by IamResponding.com) for a call that lasts only seconds. Most responders simply press one button on their phone and then either drop the phone or hang up; Seidberg said that the system is programmed to automatically disconnect the call after a few seconds to eliminate any safety risk of driving while on the phone. As soon as the call is completed, their name, qualifications and response status immediately appear on any internet-enabled device, including monitors at their station.
Chief Oettel also uses the calendar and mass notification systems built into the system to manage his training and other notifications. "Attendance is more consistent because (members) get notifications of upcoming events, by email and by text message."
"We don't have guys saying they didn't come because they didn't know what or when it was as much. The calendar and scheduling systems allow for a much better picture of day-to-day availability, as well, because members can simply log on from wherever they are and make changes to their status."
Chief Oettel immediately noticed a change for the positive in response management after implementing the system. "When we have an incident, I know immediately by looking at the computer in my car exactly who I have coming — that means that I know right away whether I need to page out again, or if I need to call the county dispatch center for mutual aid."
"It's especially important for firefighters who can drive the apparatus, because I need to know if I have one coming. They just call in on their speed dial, hit one key, and that's it… it shows up on the screen."
"I know how far away they are because we have a policy that you don't notify by the system until you think you're about 3 minutes out from the station." He estimates that knowing immediately represents on its own a 3-4 minute reduction in time spent coordinating personnel and determining the need for mutual aid on a given call.
About 120,000 emergency responders are using the IamResponding.com system every day nationwide, as part of everything from 12-member volunteer departments, to combination volunteer/on-call departments, fully staffed city departments doing recalls, FEMA and other regional response teams, and more.
"The IamResponding.com system tells you everything you need to know immediately: who's coming, what that person's qualifications are, where they are responding to, and when they'll be there," Seidberg said.
Just like Chief Oettel of the Lititz Fire Company, "many IamResponding.com subscribers have regularly reported significantly reduced emergency response times," Seidberg said.
"The days of waiting to see if a full crew is responding to an emergency are gone. Departments and their dispatchers now know immediately if a full crew is en route to the station or scene, or if others are still needed. This saves critical time in responding to emergencies. Getting full crews out more quickly also makes for both a safer and more effective response, which is just as critical as the time being saved."