Firefighters Can Save Their Own Lives with Data

April 24, 2017 11:20 am PST | Open Data

The National Fire Protection Association reports that in 2015, more than 27,000 firefighters were exposed to hazardous materials such as chemicals or asbestos. In fact, exposure to hazardous materials is the second most common cause of injury for firefighters at a fireground. Some amount of on-the-job injuries may be unavoidable, but often, firefighters’ injuries are preventable with access to more information before arriving at a fire.

First Due Size-Up (FDSU), a Socrata partner, has developed an automated system designed to take public data on properties, such as building inspection data or structural information, and make it available to firefighters before they arrive to the scene. First Due Size-Up’s mission is simple: harness and deploy the power of data to help end the thousands of first responder and civilian injuries and fatalities that are caused each year by a lack of critical up-front information.

“This data problem is a big challenge for all fire departments….emergency response personnel simply do not get the critical data they need before arriving on scene.” —Andreas Huber, CEO of First Due Size-Up

Firefighters usually only get the location of the structure and the type of emergency. Other vital public information — like if there are solar panels on the roof or if lightweight construction exists that could make the building more prone to collapse, for example — isn’t typically provided. And, even worse, there is very little data for residential structures, where the majority of injuries occur. In addition to putting firefighters at risk, this shortage of information also makes it more difficult for first responders to save residents’ lives.

“This data problem is a big challenge for all fire departments, whether small volunteer or big metropolitan city departments,” says Andreas Huber, CEO of First Due Size-Up. “Emergency response personnel simply do not get the critical data they need before arriving on scene. They know that the right data in a simple-to-understand format on the way to the incident means increased safety upon arrival and better incident outcomes.”

The Story Behind the Idea

Huber and his team first recognized this problem six years ago, when they were working with fire marshals on fire prevention and code enforcement issues. “We shifted our attention towards a new mission,” Huber recounts, “when firefighters entered a residential home engulfed in flames without knowing the first floor was about to collapse due to a truss system failing. One of the firefighters fell through to the basement. We realized then that this accident could have been prevented had more data been available while crews were en route. The injury was unacceptable from our point of view.”

The dangers of too little up-front data have since been magnified for the leaders of First Due Size-Up. In the state of Washington, for instance, there are a number of residential structures that have been converted to adult family homes as aged care facilities. The challenge for local fire departments is that they would have no way of knowing this building is actually home to many elderly people requiring a much different response strategy including more ambulances and personnel. “When seconds can be the difference between life and death, our customers are now armed with the intelligence they need to execute the right strategy the moment the call goes out from dispatch,” explains Rami El-choufani, Chief Operating Officer at First Due Size-Up.

Solving Data and Cost Issues

Data quality has been a major issue for fire departments, too. In many municipalities, for example, available building data must be manually collected, often by on-site physical inspection. In addition to being time consuming, expensive to gather, and incomplete, this information isn’t always updated. And, even if it’s relevant and usable, it’s frequently hard to find, which makes it difficult for firefighters to consume and digest it in the short period of transit time they have between the firehouse and the scene.

Finally, there’s the problem of municipal agencies operating in silos with no means to effectively share data. When city hall and the fire department are working in separate systems resources are often squandered. There are a number of anecdotal reports, for example, where chiefs have sent crews into vacant, dilapidated homes that pose no life hazard. If the chief on scene knew the building had been condemned and it was unsafe to send crews in, with no threat to life inside, the strategy would be to fight the fire from the exterior. “It is just unacceptable for our men and women in the field to be at risk of major injury when data that would help them make safer decisions was out there and existed in another agency at the municipality,” says Huber.

First Due Size-Up has tried to address all these issues. Their name is derived from fire department parlance — first due is the senior officer first on scene responsible for sizing up the situation at the site of a fire. FDSU’s automated cloud solution connects to online and offline data sources, and then aggregates and transforms this information quickly so that it’s available to firefighters in an easy-to-consume format, anytime, on any device — integrated with their dispatch system and personalized to their operation.

“People are staying safer and living longer because of data.” —Rami El-Choufani, COO of First Due Size-Up 

“Our system constantly updates data for all types of structures,” says Huber, “so first responders can simply glance at the mobile computer screen on the way to a fire and easily absorb all the information they need at speed. They no longer have to walk into a building blind and unaware. They can now know exactly what they’re getting into.”

Open data systems like Socrata are integral to First Due Size-Up’s success. Governments using Socrata usually offer many essential public datasets that contain potentially life-saving information, such as property assessments, property codes, building permits, building violations, building materials, building inspections, building condemnations, and solar-panel permits, just to name a few.

“It’s amazing synergy,” explains El-Choufani. “Socrata makes an abundance of public and civic data sets available, open, relatable and accessible, and we take that data and mine, translate, contextualize, and integrate it for fire departments. This is absolutely mission-critical stuff. People are staying safer and living longer because of data.”

Hear from First Due Size-Up

Curious to know more about First Due Size-Up’s product and how it can be used? Watch their presentation at Socrata Connect and the Q & A period that followed.

Want Data Working for You?

Here at Socrata we have knowledgeable team members who would love to talk with you about your goals – from public safety to education – and how data can help you achieve them more quickly. Please contact us to schedule a meeting.