By Bob Galvin
Published Wednesday, August 22, 2012
| From the October 2012 Issue of FireRescue
Most fire departments today struggle to build pre-fire plans for just a fraction of their commercial structures. So, it’s astonishing to learn that one fire department in the country not only has created preplans for all of these types of properties, but for all of its residential addresses, too.
“We’ve been preparing pre-fire plans for our residential dwellings since the 1960s,” says Joe Thuransky, Deputy Chief/Fire Prevention for the Mt. Lebanon Fire Department (MLFD) in Pittsburgh. Roughly 90 percent of Mt. Lebanon’s 6.2-mile radius is residential. Beyond that, the town has no industrial or manufacturing concerns; it has mostly malls, stores, bars and restaurants. The fire department’s preplanning database contains roughly 45,000 addresses, making it one of the largest pre-fire planning databases of any fire department in the country. Even more surprising: The department’s combination fire crew is just 17 career and 50 volunteer firefighters.
Taking It Mobile
Mt. Lebanon beefed up automation of its preplanning process over the years by adopting FIREHOUSE software to create incident reports, training records, personnel files, inspection reports and billing. However, the department took a different approach for their mobile pre-fire planning platform.
The department tested CAD Zone’s First Look Pro (FLP) pre-fire planning software and found it ideal for organizing and quickly retrieving pre-fire plan information in a mobile fire response environment.
As a result, FLP is used on all of the fire apparatus, in the MLFD’s Emergency Management Center and on its new mobile inspection notebook computers. “Every single home in Mt. Lebanon is preplanned using this software,” Thuransky says. “I have the address, city, state, zip code, zone map for the community, cross streets, two closest hydrants, where the house is located on its street, and any special needs we have on file for the occupant, such as group homes or residents with handicap issues.”
Also included in the preplanning software are all mutual aid addresses which include hydrant locations. In addition, the MLFD uses CAD Zone’s Firehouse Software Synchronizer tool, which enables FLP to pull all preplanning data and updates from Firehouse.
Easily Available GIS Data
To most fire departments, what Mt. Lebanon has accomplished might seem a hugely overwhelming task. However, Thuransky explains there was one key aspect that made his department’s preplanning easier: the GIS shape file data available from the county and city of Mt. Lebanon. Information such as address points, latitude and longitude, parcels, building “footprints,” street names, landing zones, and sanitary and storm sewer lines for Mt. Lebanon can be extracted and placed into FLP. This process is how Thuransky has information instantly available on every address in the city and for mutual aid communities.
To extract and manage the GIS shape file data, Thuransky uses ArcView, an engineering-grade mapping software program that allows the user to visualize, manage and analyze GIS data. Fortunately, Mt. Lebanon and Allegheny County each has its own GIS department, which allows them to share GIS data and build a stronger, larger pre-fire planning database. “Because the GIS data is available, this makes it a lot easier to begin mapping and preplanning,” Thuransky said. “Otherwise, you’d have to go address by address, street by street, house by house.”
Although the MLFD’s career firefighters handle preplanning, Thuransky stresses that for his combination department (17 career firefighters, 50 volunteers), it is very difficult to achieve a high level of preplanning without a strong commitment from the chief and other officers. Preplanning is a high priority at Mt. Lebanon, which is why the fire department requires every firefighter to perform inspections in apartment buildings. “Guys on shift must perform so many inspections a month,” Thuransky explains. “I give them a form and digital camera and say, ‘Here’s what I need for preplanning.’”
Preplanning for each address is exhaustive. Residential addresses are detailed with cross streets and house location in FLP’s text notes, along with the closest two fire hydrants and their gpm rates, any special information, such as special needs requests and at least one photograph of the house with a big red “H” for any handicapped residents. A house preplan also has latitude and longitude coordinates that can be found in the Mt. Lebanon township GIS department address points shape file.
Commercial addresses are similarly preplanned, but also include details about locations of Knox boxes, access and stairwells, and fire department connections, as well as information on sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems and reset codes, utilities, special hazards and building contacts. Numerous 360-degree exterior photos, as well as interior photos, are imported into preplans of commercial buildings.
“We use The CAD Zone’s Fire Zone software to create detailed floor plans and preplan drawings of these addresses,” Thuransky notes. “And we collect resident information from our nursing and assisted living facilities for immobile residents and attach this to preplans as a PDF.” Presently, Mt. Lebanon has accomplished approximately 19,000 attachments in FLP.
Syncing It Up
Beyond the MLFD’s comprehensive pre-fire planning for residential and commercial addresses, it also has linked FLP to the county 9-1-1 Tiburon dispatch software program. The dispatch software automatically populates preplans in FLP when dispatch messages come through over computers installed on Mt. Lebanon’s fire engines. The updated information is pulled directly from the FIREHOUSE program nightly over a wireless network connection to the apparatus computers. Preplan information initially is created in FIREHOUSE, after which the Synchronizer software imports the updated information into FLP.
“We monitor hydrants in and out of service and they show in FLP daily,” Thuransky says.
Preplanning Best Practices
As the activity at the MLFD demonstrates, pre-fire planning involves a commitment from the entire department. In fact, Thuransky emphasizes, once this commitment is made, pre-fire planning must be a top priority for about four to five years or it probably won’t stick.
Thuransky recommends a specific set of guidelines be enacted to formalize the pre-fire planning process. These include:
- The chief officers of a fire department must support pre-fire planning, and more importantly, support firefighters charged with developing pre-fire plans. Due to the nature of their jobs, firefighters on the preplanning team must be given flexibility for preplanning, but they must stick to the end goal and meet deadlines.
- Establish a preplanning strategy, but start small and work up to goals. Don’t try to prepare preplans for your entire response area all at once or you will fail.
- Identify and use resources available from within the department. For example, find out who has interest with photography, computers, and data entry and collection, and put these people to work with assignments. Make sure everyone involved with pre-fire planning knows how to use the software and equipment. And, have only a couple people enter data to avoid confusion and mistakes.
- Show off results of pre-fire planning at training sessions to show progress and the importance of this process.
- Give credit where it’s due for pre-fire planning. Encourage people to go the extra mile to make the overall product a huge success.
- Remember, pre-fire planning is a continuous process. You’re never “done” because once all buildings are pre-planned, the plans must be constantly updated. So, plan to inspect occupancies once a year or at least once every two years and then immediately update their pre-fire plans. Once a preplan is created for an occupancy, it’s easy to keep updating the data. Plus, extensive preplanning looks great for accreditation should your department decide to pursue it.
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