Jun 30, 2011 Ami Olson Uncategorized
Most of the time, what goes on behind the scenes of emergency services — fire, police and ambulance — doesn’t draw much attention from the public.
As William Bleyle, commissioner of the Onondaga County Deptartment of Emergency Communications, puts it: “The only time you really think about the phone is when it’s not working.”
Knowing that someone will show up to your emergency is much more important than understanding how they will get there.
But for the public’s peace of mind, a new initiative by the Camillus Fire Department will take one more variable out of the equation of responding to structure fires.
Scott Binns, chief of the Camillus Fire Department, said in mid-June his department switched over to using the county 911 center’s Computer-Aided Dispatch system for all structure fire alarms, making the department the first to rely on the CAD system to determine mutual aid.
“You had to use your best judgement and figure out who was closest,” Binns said. “Now, all this stuff will be done without us seeing any other departments’ names at all.”
The CAD system itself is nothing new.
As Bleyle described it, when 911 calls come into the center, call takers send the incident information into CAD, a system of computers housed in its own room at the county 911 center.
That information is relayed to fire, police and ambulance dispatchers, back to the call taker, and out to emergency response agencies. CAD communicates with emergency vehicles and can detect where each vehicle is using global positioning data.
And that’s the feature of CAD that the Camillus department is using to go fully automatic in its structure-fire response plan.
Previously, each fire department was responsible for supplying 911 with a mutual aid list, directives for which neighboring departments should be helping the primary department.
That system worked, for the most part, because department chiefs are most up-to-date on what equipment their department has in its inventory, and which neighboring departments are quickest and most able to respond.
But that system also had its drawbacks. Most critically, there is little oversight to ensure each department’s mutual aid lists are established as logically as they ought to be.
In rare but extremely serious instances, politics and conflicts between neighboring departments could be reflected in their mutual aid response systems.
“I don’t think anybody can tell you that doesn’t happen,” said Carl Loerzel, deputy commissioner of the Department of Emergency Communications. Loerzel has 30 years in volunteer fire service and moved into the deputy commissioner position a year ago.
Loerzel said most departments in the county use CAD to automatically select mutual aid responders for second and third alarms, when an incident requires a second and third call for backup.
But Camillus is the first department to use CAD to determine which other departments should be dispatched to help on the first alarm, as soon as the call for a structure fire comes in to the CFD fire district.
“I think that’s great,” Loerzel said. “If I’m the public, I don’t care who’s putting out my fire.”
So why has only one of the 57 volunteer fire departments in the county taken advantage of the CAD system for all alarms?
Loerzel said he couldn’t speak on behalf of any fire chiefs, but suspected staffing issues for volunteer districts could be to blame.
Volunteer departments have faced increasing shortages of available firefighters in recent years, compounded by shrinking population and unemployment.
Rural departments are often faced with only a handful, if any, volunteers available during the workday. The closest department could also be one without sufficient staffing to respond to a mutual aid call.
Loerzel said risk factors, like being short-staffed during certain times, can be built into a department’s response plan in CAD, but that can be tedious if the changes are frequent or irregular.
Ultimately, the decision to fully automate response plans with CAD will be up to department chiefs, he said.
“I don’t think anybody would tell fire chiefs what they should be doing,” Loerzel said. “Yes, it’s there, and it can be used and great if you can — but you have to evaluate each situation.”
For Binns and the CFD, though, putting mutual aid in the hands of CAD was the best option.
“Now, there won’t be any debate in the public’s mind,” Binns said. “I’m hoping it catches on. This just takes all the liability right out of my hands, right out of the village’s hands. There’s no more picking and choosing — what people would call ‘playing politics.’”
Ami Olson is the editor of The Eagle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 434-8889 ext.335.