Every second counts in an emergency. No one knows that better than the Central County Fire Department (CCFD), an elite California firefighting force that handles 4,500 distress calls annually. The 64-member team serves an area just south of San Francisco, and it’s the only fire department in the nation whose members have battled blazes on the scene of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
The CCFD responds at maximum speed with help from iPad, iPhone, and an assortment of apps. “iOS devices have helped on all levels,” says Fire Chief Mark Ladas. “Training, emergency medical services, fire prevention, public education, the mechanic shop, special operations — there’s not an aspect that hasn’t improved.”
Not long ago, the CCFD relied on information from a variety of sources: maps, floor plans, manuals, cameras, radios, pagers, GPS locators. Fighting fires involved ripping pages out of binders and shoving them into pockets before we went into a building, and talking on the radio to our dispatcher,” says John Kammeyer, Division Chief of Emergency Medical Services. “iPad and iPhone take those processes and put them into one device.”
The department wanted an app to integrate key information when the team responds to a call, so they developed a custom app they call CAD, short for Computer Aided Dispatch. In the past, firefighters on the front line heard only the dispatcher’s voice on a radio, while the battalion chief received a more detailed digital feed on a laptop. Now the CAD app fills in the picture for everyone. It displays every word spoken and every keystroke typed during 911 calls, including sensitive information that can’t be transmitted via radio, such as building security codes, so the entire team has immediate access to essential information.
“Prior to developing CAD, we had to work through a PC, which didn’t always give us the most effective connection because it wasn’t constructed for mobile,” says Captain Jake Pelk. “So we developed the iOS app with our own dispatch center, which gives us a huge opportunity to have real-time data at the frontline.”
Developing the app in-house turned out to be surprisingly easy. “It was very efficient, mainly because of the SDK,” Pelk says. “We were able take an amazing amount of complicated data and bring it down to our mobile workforce.”
In addition to CAD, the firefighters rely on apps from the App Store such as Find My Friends. “It lets us see the location of other engine companies in real time, which gives us options we never had before,” Pelk says. “We can say, ‘Hey, we’re closer to this call,’" allocating resources for maximum efficiency and saving time that could mean the difference between life and death.
Other apps from the App Store, like WISER (Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders) replace paper reference manuals for handling hazardous materials and managing medical conditions. The Tablet Command app is an indispensable tool that helps coordinate efforts at a fire scene by logging the captain's orders and maintaining check lists of assigned tasks. It also simplifies filing incident reports. “We can go back at the end and look at the time stamps,” Pelk explains. “Better factual information, more realistic time frames, enhancement of our overall operation.”
Jake Pelk, Captain, Central County Fire Department
The iSight camera built into iPad and iPhone has proven especially valuable in training. CCFD uses the Vimeo app to record training sessions in 1080p HD video and distribute them efficiently. “We have engines in different parts of our community, and we can’t bring them together at one location because we want to make sure those areas are being served,” Division Chief Kammeyer says. “This allows us to distribute training information remotely so they can watch it from their station.”
The trainers use an app called SimsUshare to mock up fires at nearby sites, giving trainees a clearer sense of the real-world challenges they might face. “It lets us take a picture and add simulated fire, smoke, gases, and explosions,” Captain Pelk explains. “We can actually get into the mind of the student with augmented reality.”
Jake Pelk, Captain, Central County Fire Department
Apps from the App Store are critical at a fire scene, but they're also useful at the station. The team uses GoodReader as a window on its documents and Dropbox to sync the latest versions. “On a call, that can be crucial because things like hydrant locations can change,” Pelk says. Even the mechanics are going paperless: They accept trouble reports in Evernote and use iPad for inventory and billing.
Many of these documents contain sensitive information from victim names to confidential certifications, so keeping them secure is top priority. “The iPad does a great job of keeping all our data secure,” Pelk notes. “Beyond that, we use AirWatch mobile device management, which lets us do a remote wipe if we lose a device.”
John Kammeyer, Division Chief of Emergency Medical Services,
Central County Fire Department
iPad, iPhone, and apps give the CCFD the information it needs to keep emergencies from deteriorating into catastrophes. “Often we have to be reactive,” Pelk says. “This technology gives us a chance to be proactive.” And that means a more effective — and more cost-effective — firefighting force. “The technology has made Central County Fire Department better all the way around,” Chief Ladas points out. “It allows us to balance both fiscally and operationally how we do our job and become more efficient at what we do.”
Fighting fire with technology is a new twist on an age-old profession, yet it fits seamlessly into the team’s longstanding dedication to public service. “It makes me proud to know that we’re adhering to the traditions,” Kammeyer concludes, “but we’re also forging new ones. iOS has significantly changed how rapidly we can access the information that helps us make decisions that save lives. For us, that’s success.”
- CAD (Computer Aided Dispatch) displays all known information about incidents in progress.
- Find My Friends tracks the location of fire engines.
- GoodReader provides access to the latest versions of documents stored in the cloud.
- SimsUshare lets trainers add simulated smoke and fire to photos for more realistic training scenarios.
- Tablet Command tracks the location of fire engines, logs the captain’s orders, and provides checklists of tasks to be completed.
- Vimeo lets the department produce training videos and distribute them immediately to all stations.
- WISER (Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders) is an interactive guide to handling hazardous materials.