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Technology gets responders there sooner

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 1:21 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Frazer Volunteer Fire Dept. Co. 2 Chief Dave Gould shows the new computer system for emergency responses, which includes display screens in the fire engine, near the firefighter's gear, and on the cell phones of responders.

When Frazer Township Volunteer Fire Company No. 2 is dispatched, all firefighters need to do is check their smartphones to find out the location, incident information and who's responding.

Once they're on the way to the scene, they can use an iPad mounted in the truck to get directions and view a map of the area with fire hydrant locations.

“You hit a couple of buttons and it brings up where all the hydrants are, what companies are responding and what trucks go where,” said fire Chief David Gould. “We used to have these big, thick books, and you'd have to try to find the street and where they have the hydrant, whereas this is right on the screen.”

It's an invaluable tool when seconds count.

“Every minute we can save is less potential for something to happen to somebody,” said Brad Vakulick, fire company president.

Since June, Frazer No. 2 has been using Emergency Call Manager, or ECM2, software designed by two Murrysville-area firefighters.

The program integrates the computer-aided dispatch system used at the county level with smartphone and iPad apps and a desktop computer at the fire station.

The dispatch call is sent via text message to members, which Vakulick said often arrives about five minutes before the county dispatch center sends out the call to their pagers.

The message contains information the county 911 call taker types into the system.

Frazer and Penn Hills in Allegheny County and about 100 fire departments in Westmoreland County, including Arnold and Murrysville, are using the system. Fire departments in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, New Jersey and New York also use ECM2.

Arnold fire Chief J.C. Tedorski said Arnold's two departments use the ECM2 iPhone app so members who choose to can get dispatch information sent to their phones.

“It's not our sole means of notification, but what it does give us is more information than we would normally get from just a voice announcement over our traditional pager,” he said. “The additional information in those updates is very valuable information for us.”

White Valley Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Bohink and Assistant Chief Steve Henninger developed the system and run ECM2.

“We were looking for a way to bring technology into our field,” Henninger said. “What started it all is that we used to carry alpha numeric pagers, which was expensive to maintain — and a lot of our firefighters didn't use them, anyway.

“But what they did always have on them, no matter what, was a cellphone.”

The system costs Frazer $2,500 a year. The fire department paid about $6,000 for three iPads, which are mounted in the fire engine, brush truck and the tower truck.

A 40-inch television screen, donated by the Sears Grand store at the Pittsburgh Mills mall, is mounted on a wall in the fire station so everyone can see the call information and who is responding.

Frazer firefighters said they opted for the system because it helps them do their jobs more efficiently, particularly in their mutual aid communities with which they're not as familiar.

Frazer averages about 200 calls annually. The department responds in Springdale, Springdale Township, Indiana Township, Cheswick, East Deer, West Deer, Tarentum and Arnold.

“You can't remember every street,” Gould said.

The system is also practical.

“There had been a few times prior to us having this that we'd have a truck rolling out of here with three people on it and then we have two people coming in the driveway,” said Jack Linderman, the department's engineer. “Now we're able to see that this person is coming, what their estimated time of arrival is and we can wait.”

Knowing who is responding helps them pick the crews better because some members excel in truck work and others in engine work, Vakulick said.

Linderman noted that the Allegheny Valley fire and EMS dispatch scanner feed has crashed at least three times over the past few months and emergency responders weren't able to use it.

“Our radios wouldn't work, and we had to switch over to North Fire 2, which includes several other major areas,” he said. “Our ECM2 app was still working and allowing us to dispatch through that.”

Henninger said ECM2 hopes to continue to simplify firehouse operations.

The company is upgrading the system to automatically input fire call information into the standard form that fire departments use to report to the National Fire Incident Reporting System.

The report includes the date, time and location of the fire as well as who responded.

All the fire department would need to do is write a short narrative about the incident, Henninger said.

“All fire departments have to report their fires to the state in order to be eligible for state grant money,” he said. “One thing I learned is that there are lot of fire departments that don't even report because it is so time consuming.”

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4702 or jweigand@tribweb.com.

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