Rural fire departments have found a way to improve their emergency response time by using GPS technology. By having the GPS coordinates of fire hydrants and other crucial tools, volunteer firefighters are able to shave minutes off their emergency response time.
Missouri’s acting state fire marshal Greg Carrell said firefighters in rural areas deal with the same type of challenges as firefighters is metropolitan areas.
“You cover a very large area, an area that changes frequently and so it’s very difficult to know every location in your jurisdiction and know exactly where it’s located, even based on a street address,” Carrell said.
He added that in cases of natural disaster, such as the tornado in Joplin, landmarks and street signs may be gone and the use of GPS becomes crucial in order to save lives.
Frank Wildeman, natural resources engineer with the University of Missouri Extension, worked with a Boy Scout troop in Fredericktown, Mo. to create a fire hydrant map. The project, using GPS units and computer mapping, located about 300 fire hydrants.
“The ability to be able to put in a coordinate, and know that you are responding to an area where a fire hydrant is without having to guess whether it’s at the corner of a certain street or halfway down the block is one of the great uses for GPS,” Carrell said.
By having all the fire hydrants GPS located, emergency responders can find them more easily and this information allows them to leave the firehouse with the right equipment they need to go to work.
“With that information loaded on to a computer map, they could tell which fire hydrants were located close to the fire call, how much hose it would take to get there, they also had information on what type of fire hydrant it was and what kind of hose connector it would take to hook up to it,” Frank Wildeman said.
The fire hydrant map helps volunteer firefighters in Fredericktown and emergency personnel in nearby communities whenever they are deployed to bring additional help.
The GPS helps reduce the response time because the firefighters receive the information on their pagers and on their smartphones. Volunteer firemen can save time getting to the site and the fire truck can leave the fire house a little bit quicker.
“Just a couple of minutes make a big difference on a big fire,” Wildeman said.
Property owners benefit from the improved response time because their insurance rates decrease.
“By having the GPS locations of fire hydrants and being able to use GPS to deploy themselves and get on site several minutes quicker, it improves their fire insurance rating in the community and the homeowners end up paying a lot less for their homeowner insurance,” Wildeman explained.
Search and rescue techniques using GPS units have also been developed. It allows rescuers to deploy themselves to a particular location where they can plan the direction of travel they use during their search activity.
“We can actually, on the GPS units, record where they have traveled so that we can make sure that we actually did search the area that we planned to search,” Wildeman said.
Most current cellphones have a GPS chip that transmit the location of a person when they call 911.
“The firefighters are able to take that location from the call for help and plan their approach to that location and plan how they are going to search for that person once they get closer to the location,” Wildeman said.
Without that, the rescuers have to do a much broader search. As an example, Wildeman said the Cherokee Pass Volunteer Fire Department now use only 25 percent of the time they used to take for search and rescue interventions. While it used to take them four times longer to find someone, the fact that the GPS signals are sent directly to the emergency dispatch allow them to find a lost person much faster.
Fire departments in Madison County are looking at using, in addition to pagers, text messages to alert their volunteers that they have an event to report to. The text will give them the event’s location and allow them to send a signal back to the firehouse to let them know how far away they are from the event and how long it will take them to respond to that call. This helps firefighters quickly arrive at the scene.