Author(s): Kathleen Almand. Published on January 6, 2014.

Research - January / February 2014

IS TODAY'S EMERGENCY FIRST RESPONDER drowning in data? The built environment is increasingly a sensor-rich sea that can provide firefighters with vast amounts of potentially useful data, from detailed building plans and people movement to real-time fire growth. A look at the NFPA product catalog reveals an overwhelming array of new and evolving information-management technology "solutions" for the fire service and other first responders.

The firefighter of tomorrow will be sensor- and tool-enhanced to make the best use of these streams of information. For now, though, what do we do with this deluge of data? How do we manage all of this information so that useful data can be seamlessly integrated into firefighter job performance before, during, and after a fire event?

The Fire Protection Research Foundation has been asked by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop a research roadmap to answer this question. The project is part of a larger NIST initiative to harness what it calls "cyber physical systems" to advance societal goals. In plain terms, a cyber physical system is one where networked systems interact with the real world. In the world of emergency response, such a system encompasses several aspects of technology and the data created by it. For our Research Foundation project, we have divided this world into three sectors: data gathering, data processing, and data use, which can also be described as decision making.

A look at data gathering illustrates how firefighting already benefits from this sector, and how further implementation of smart systems will aid firefighters even more in the future. Sensors and data recorders already play an important role in all aspects of firefighter safety and job performance, starting with onboard gear and personal protective equipment. The Foundation recently completed a study on the interoperability issues surrounding this gear, a key issue for smart systems. (For more on the study, visit "Interoperability of Emergency Responder Electronic Equipment,")

Not only are firefighters now able to receive real-time information on their immediate surroundings, but they are themselves sensors of current conditions, providing valuable information to other responders. Data gathering also takes place in all other stages of the firefighting environment, from mobile apparatus and robotic delivery systems to building monitoring and control systems, all the way to infrastructure and community data systems — all of which can inform firefighting and actively respond to emergency conditions to assist it.

Our project will identify a number of knowledge gaps that impact the use of this valuable data. These gaps can affect the technologies that gather data, the knowledge base and algorithms that most effectively process data and convert it into meaningful knowledge and beneficial decision-making tools, the methods of effectively communicating the information to those who need it, and more. The new NFPA Technical Committee on Data Exchange for the Fire Service is at the forefront of understanding this information and in applying it to the standards it is developing.

Cyber physical system research is at the top of the agendas for many organizations involved in preparing society for the next generation of firefighting technology. NIST recognizes the potential for these systems to increase fire safety and the safety of emergency responders, and I’m glad that NFPA, through the Foundation, will bring the voice of the emergency responder community to this important research effort.

Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.