In the days of the all-volunteer fire brigade, the concept of computer-aided dispatching (CAD) was centuries from transforming the process of firefighting dispatch. For that matter, the idea of dispatching, in general, lacked nearly any semblance of its current role in public safety. Often, a whistle, siren, or church bell was used to signal volunteers of a fire.
Taking a little liberty with the title, the people in charge of initiating the alert were essentially the first dispatchers. Unfortunately, in those days, firefighting teams lacked the pinpoint precision feature in CAD to let them know the location of the fire. Instead, the questionably effective process of looking for smoke was the best way to direct the volunteers at the time.
In the 20th century, emergency medical services (EMS) began to form into a profession and was soon linked to the fire service in many jurisdictions. Of course, some areas maintain an EMS and ambulance dispatch service separate from their fire department. Regardless of their parent organizations, firefighters and EMS professionals often find themselves on the same emergency scenes. While their specific tasks are different, they share the same goal, to save lives. This article will demonstrate the benefits of CAD both for the unique jobs fire and EMS personnel have as well as for their combined efforts in the multifaceted public safety world.
CAD in the Daily Operation of Fire Command
Managing assignments for fire and EMS personnel is often a joint effort between agency supervisors (fire command) and dispatchers. The use of a modern CAD system puts up-to-the-minute information about personnel status at the decision-makers’ fingertips. Whether on a computer in the dispatch center, a laptop in a battalion chief’s vehicle, or any mobile device used by fire command, availability and location of each on-duty unit is always conveniently accessible.
Specialty equipment takes on a unique role in the fire service. Fire command officers rely on CAD to know the location, status, and personnel complement of each piece of apparatus available to them. There is no longer a need to tie up valuable radio airtime with inquiries about various firefighting units. Further, the concerns associated with the antiquated use of a legal pad, dry erase board, or other equipment management technique fraught with weather exposure and preservation issues, are largely alleviated with a state-of-the-art CAD system. Instead, an incident commander can quickly obtain the status and location of ladder trucks, tankers, heavy rescue trucks, and other vehicles, thereby vastly improving scene management.
Many jurisdictions use a technique in which fire or EMS personnel will leave their station and move to a central location to help maintain coverage of the city or county when another station’s trucks answer a call for service. Sometimes referred to as a stand-by or move-up, these actions, while well-intentioned, can be problematic for response management if not properly tracked by dispatchers or command officers. Again, CAD alleviates the old record-keeping system, often consisting of simply writing the engine company or ambulance squad status on paper. This was problematic if the various response decision-makers, dispatchers, battalion chiefs, etc., did not have the same information and kept it updated. The CAD system allows all interested parties, including other field personnel, to know the latest status of any unit within the particular jurisdiction.
CAD for the Incident Commander
As mentioned above, the use of CAD has transformed not only the day-to-day operations of the fire service but also major scene management. Many firefighter supervisors will remember a command post being little more than a legal pad, a folding map, and perhaps a hazardous material handbook. It is easy to see how this method of operation could cause vital information to be overlooked or not properly incorporated into scene management.
With modern CAD software, effective incident command can begin before the first vehicle arrives on the scene. Supervisors can quickly evaluate the response protocols, routes, hydrant locations, and staging areas, all based on the real-time accuracy and GPS location features in the CAD system. When integrated with an agency’s records management system (RMS), the benefits of CAD and mobile technology are expanded further. Incident commanders can access historical data, floorplans, blueprints, hazardous material listings, or other information relevant to a particular fire scene.
The Incident Command System (ICS) is designed to grow based on the size of the event. The benefits of CAD can be especially prevalent during ICS activations that involve multiple stations, agencies, and jurisdictions. The vital information exchange between the staging area manager and the incident commander is both expedited and better organized through the shared CAD system than older, less efficient scene management techniques.
The use of CAD during an expanding multi agency incident is particularly advantageous when combined with the AgencyLink system. Through AgencyLink, incident commands and dispatch personnel can easily add mutual aid agencies to the event, assign them tasks, conduct radio-free communications, and maintain a permanent record of all activity for later use. With the AgencyLink feature, an organization can permit its CAD system to be shared with controlled permissions and for a chosen duration. As such, incident management involving multiple public safety agencies can rely on one CAD system for the entire event.
Regardless of the method in which an agency uses a state-of-the-art CAD system, it can be counted on to manage everything from routine activities to catastrophic events. CAD’s ability to maintain a permanent, accurate record of each activity or happening during an incident expands its advantages into a learning tool long after the event is over. CAD records can benefit organizations for years after an incident from detailed after-action reports to training curriculum development to individual and unit evaluations. Combined with this historical data, CADs ability to provide timely information before, during, and after an incident has transformed how firefighters and EMS personnel can better serve their communities.