Mon Valley fire departments embrace technology

071114-dravosburgBy Jennifer R. Vertullo – McKeesport Daily News /

Fire departments across the Mon Valley are logging on to digital dispatching systems that embrace technology to aid in the efficiency of their response.

With Allegheny County’s Active 911 system and various compatible independent programs, volunteer companies and paid departments are able to respond and call for mutual aid at the touch of a button — a move some have taken in recent months to align their units with what’s available in other regions.

“We’ve been struggling to keep up with technology and acquire what’s been available on the market for a number of years due to budgetary and financial constraints,” McKeesport Fire Department Deputy Chief Chuck Margliotti said. “We’ve been behind the curve for awhile, and we are starting to catch up on a number of fronts.”

In McKeesport, paid city crews are operating on the county’s computer-aided dispatch system to initiate on-duty response and upgrade to an all-call activation.

“We have access to information we never had before while on a call or on scene,” McKeesport Fire Department Deputy Chief Ed Harmon said. “It gives us abilities we didn’t have before.”

The system includes text-format updates on calls and provides a link to facts about the structure. There are options for adding notes about hazardous chemicals or conditions inside a business, or repeat problems at a residence.

“It’s been out in the field for a long time, but it’s new to us,” Margliotti said. “It’s increased our capabilities. There’s no guesswork. We can track how many guys we have in different locations and what equipment we have on scene.”

In Elizabeth Township, all of the volunteer companies are tied to the computer-aided dispatch — or CAD — system, and firefighters from across the municipality receive the same information in real time.

“We’re getting information directly from the dispatch center into the computer,” said Pete Hough, deputy chief of Elizabeth Township Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 in Buena Vista. “We’re able to get more information about the call. We can see cross streets to find the location quicker and pull up complete directions with a map.”

With several companies responding to the same scene anywhere within the 22 square miles of the township, volunteers are thankful for a system that allows them an efficient use of time, especially in travel.

The systems have options to map fire hydrants using GPS technology — something Hough said will be a daunting task in Elizabeth Township because there’s so much land to cover.

“It will require a lot of input,” Hough said.

Dravosburg firefighters, dealing with a more compact housing stock in just one square mile, finished their hydrant-mapping project in recent weeks.

Dravosburg Volunteer Fire Department No. 1 members toured the borough, using GPS tracking to send signals from every hydrant using department iPads.

“I don’t leave my house without my phone. Nobody does anymore,” Dravosburg Chief Wayne Cosgrove said. “If I have an apparatus coming in from McKeesport, Port Vue, Glassport or West Mifflin, I can say, ‘I have a hydrant at this corner,’ and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s there because we plotted them.”

There’s talk of Dravosburg using the ECM² program to map hydrants in communities where they provide mutual aid in order to have a more thorough database. McKeesport’s are part of the CAD system, because records were submitted by the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County’s water service.

“If we help develop a database, anybody else who comes on will have access to it,” Cosgrove said.

Dravosburg began researching the county CAD system and comparing it to supplemental programs over the past year. Going with ECM² because it supported the volunteer department’s financial and dispatching needs, Cosgrove said it’s a good fit.

“Even though our town’s not very big, there’s a geographical separation with the train tracks,” he said. “As an officer, I’m able to see who’s responding and where they’re coming from. That information is also displayed on our computer in the radio room.”

Responding firefighters log on using a mobile app before reporting to a call. It eliminates the uncertainty that many volunteer departments experience when responding, because department officers know who they are waiting for and what qualifications they have, Cosgrove explained.

“Most of our officers are at work during the day,” Dravosburg firefighter Brandon Pataky said. “We used to have to look at everyone who was responding and try to figure out who was the highest ranking person with the most knowledge who could be in charge.”

The ECM² program spells out everything and shows firefighters what to expect in otherwise unpredictable scenarios.

Once they are heading to the scene, firefighters have access to the county’s CAD data and additional notes they’ve made during previous incidents or inspections.

“We know everything from the fact that we’ve been to a certain house twice and they have a really mean dog, or that someone inside is bedridden in a hospital bed,” Cosgrove said.

With such details at their fingertips, firefighters can move efficiently and effectively to overcome most on-scene challenges. Rather than trying to communicate with an officer who is preoccupied by listening to a radio, firefighters have facts that are available visually.

“There’s that saying that information is power,” Margliotti said. “Information is also safety when it comes to firefighting. The more information you have, the more safely you are able to do this job.”

Using Firehouse Software that has been employed across the nation, McKeesport’s department now is tracking its calls for in-house records as well as state and federal reporting, including the National Fire Incident Reporting System.

With a flawless reporting system, departments have better access to grants and loans available throughout the fire service.

“We’ve always done this before, but it was always a Neanderthal-type operation — just pencil and paper,” Harmon said. “We’re able to put a wealth of information in this system down to who’s living there, how old they are, how many rooms are in the house or the construction type of the house or where the closest hydrant is. We can track everything without going back into folders upon folders of records.”

McKeesport officials explained that the city’s fire records now are stored on a digital cloud that can be accessed at any time from anywhere with an authorized device. Simplified access to records means quicker access and more knowledge, he added.

The statistics also help to shape firefighting trends.

“It helps guide safety across the country, not just in a local community, but nationwide,” Margliotti said. “That kind of information is what they rely on to see how codes need to be tweaked, fine-tuned or in some way adjusted.”

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