Laptops help speed Calif. firefighters' response
A new Computer Aided Dispatch system in the command center helps dispatchers track all of the county's fire apparatus in real time
By Allison McKinnon
The Press Enterprise
RIVERSIDE COUNTY, Calif. — This fire season, Riverside County firefighters will no longer have to rely on Thomas Guide map books or directions scribbled on index cards to get them to a fast -moving fire.
They will have a new Computer Aided Dispatch system in the command center where dispatchers can track all of the county's fire engines in real time, making sure to send the closest engine, versus one that may be coming from a county fire station miles away.
"It has helped us tremendously," he said. "It does so much more, so much quicker," said Battalion Chief Todd Williams of the Perris Emergency Command Center.
Riverside County is the first fire department in the nation to use the new technology, but other counties in California, such as San Bernardino, are gradually outfitting vehicles with a similar tracking system.
The 205 laptops Riverside currently has in service cost between $3,500 and $4,500 each and were made possible through grants and city contracts, Williams said.
Four years ago, a call would come into the command center and dispatchers would spend precious minutes juggling radio calls to direct responding firefighters and calming the caller on the line.
"We wrote down directions on index cards and pulled geographic and medical information from seven binders on board each engine," he said. "Now it's all been digitalized into one device."
With the new Mobile Dispatch Computer, a Panasonic "toughbook" laptop, call details are wirelessly transferred to the device at the engine drivers' fingertips.
"This allows our team to get in and go. With one click, they have the ability to pull up a 3D map and turn by turn driving directions," Williams said.
"Radio traffic is virtually gone, and the bottom line response time is decreased by 45 seconds to one minute."
Along with providing faster response times, the mobile computers can give firefighters weather patterns using satellite data, and display fire hydrants and power lines. Each building's gas lines are visible as well, so firefighters can cut off the fires' fuel source right away in some cases. They can also use the computer'spen tool to draw a precise outline of the size of a fire, its direction and size, Williams said.
"Before, you never knew any of this," he said, noting that the command center will now be equipped with the technology to track an engine's progress.
"It's about firefighter safety as well, so knowing the engines' speed and exact location will save lives," he said.
Firefighter Kelley DeGifford said he often operates the computer while riding in the passenger seat of the engine during a call, and said its map system does provide the fastest and most accurate route to an emergency.
"For the most part it's pretty good, and it gives us a birds' eye view before we ever leave," he said.
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