‘It saves lives’
When you’re in the business of saving lives and responding to emergencies, time is always of the essence.
With that concept in mind, the Santa Barbara City Fire Department recently deployed a new automated fire station alerting system. The new system replaces a decades-old, radio-based toned alerting system with an automated-human voice that promises to speed up the dispatch incident process and alerting of local firefighters.
Unveiled in late August and recently refined through system testing, all eight city fire stations are now equipped with the new technology.
“It’s all about response times here,” Ryan DiGuilio, fire inspector, told the News-Press during an interview Thursday afternoon. “People might think ’10 seconds per call? Big deal.’ That could be a lot for someone either having a medical emergency.”
Responding to a litany of emergencies throughout the city, any opportunity the department has to save time is worth exploring, he added.
“We’re getting more information on dispatch’s side because it frees him or her up to gain more (information), so while we’re in route they can give us better, more accurate information.”
At Station 1, at 121 W. Carrillo St., new white speakers synced up to Locution Systems line the walls in the garage and throughout the station. Each fire rig is equipped with a Mobile Data Computer – which Mr. DiGuilio likens to a “beefed-up iPad.”The MDCs provide extremely detailed information, such as the location of fire hydrants, plants, building layouts, topography and the ability to read USGS coordinates.
Each fire official also has access to a mobile application through Prime Alerts, which provides them with a description and location of the incident.
Inside the station and near the front of the garage is an LED ticker tape, which displays the time of the call, a description of the incident and what resources are needed. Once the call comes through, a digital timer begins and the clock will stop once the equipment leaves the station.
The benchmark for response is approximately five minutes from the time the phone is picked up at dispatch to the time when fire officials arrive on scene.
“We’ve met that and we’re trying to increase it even more,” Mr. DiGuilio said. “And with this system it will help.”
The main audio database developed through Colorado-based Locution Systems contains all the words needed to voice any dispatch. After the words are chosen, they are “stitched” together. More than 2,000 streets and several hundred common places in the city are included in the database.
“It sounds computer generated,” Mr. DiGuilio said. “It keeps a standard, though. Everyone will go at the same rate to get out of the station. You get the details while you’re going.”
The primary method of fire station alerting is now done through the internet with the radio broadcast following the initial fire station alert. Mr. DiGuilio said the new system has improved response times, however because the system is so new the department doesn’t have the data to back it up quite yet.
The biggest benefit, though, may be for the city’s dispatch center.
Dispatchers now have the ability to receive the 9-1-1 call, enter the call information into the Computer Aided Dispatch and with one touch, all fire stations are simultaneously alerted in less than a half-second with the automated broadcast.
“At the end of the day, our job is to get help to the people who need it, and this is one more tool that helps us accomplish that,” dispatcher Katie Houseknecht told the News-Press.
“It saves lives,” she added. “That’s the business. We want to make sure that everyone goes home to their families at night, and to make sure that the public feels that we’re there to help them. The faster response is only going to help them.”
The transition to new technology often comes with its frustrations. When the system was initially deployed, the automated voice would provide block numbers and cross streets. Some of the verbal cues would reference alleyways or lesser-known side streets – which would often result in fire officials scratching their head in confusion.
The mobile app and MDCs inside the vehicles provide GPS coordinates and the issue has since been fixed. Since those kinks have been worked out, the system has worked flawlessly, Mr. DiGuilio said.
Moving forward, the department will implement a proximity-based approach that will be able to use the GPS locators on the fire engines to determine which resource is closest for that specific call.
“A lot of the time you’re at the station or in your district… but other times you’re out training, you’re out covering a different station or in a different area of the city,” Mr. DiGuilio said. “Instead of having all that traffic on the radio… eventually it will just dispatch the closest engine.”
Locution Systems is being used by departments from 20 different states across the country, as well as some in Canada. Some of the nation’s largest fire departments – such as Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston – currently use the platform.
One of the other goals of the system is to free up radio traffic. The transition to the digital platform will allow responding units to simply push a button to indicate whether they are responding, in service, or returning from a call.
“If you listen to the radio in other cities, you hardly hear human voices,” Mr. DiGuilio said. “That will be most beneficial when you have a working incident and you have a lot of different people talking.”
As more people chime in through the emergency radio, other calls will be transferred to different channels which can create some confusion.
“Not to bash the department, but we were behind in technology,” Mr. DiGuilio said. “This is all part of a bigger picture of getting our MDCs up to snuff with the end goal of obviously serving the community at a more efficient and better rate.”
The system is funded by Measure C infrastructure tax and was one of the first projects approved by the city’s Steering Committee. The project has been in the planning stages for more than two years and was purchased for $481,000.
“It’s not cheap to come in here and do all that,” Mr. DiGuilio said. “Those funds are what got this off the ground.”
As he clocked in for work Thursday city Fire Engineer Rich Ames told the News-Press the new computer-automated voice is much easier to understand. Some dispatches relay information too quickly, which can lead to confusion.
The new emergency alert tones are also significant quieter than the previous. For calls for service that come through during overnight hours, the initial tones are more dull. The corresponding lights that shine inside the station do so at a slower pace to allow the firefighters to wake up at a normal rate. Studies have shown that firefighters who wake up several times per night can be susceptible to issues related to heart health, Mr. DiGuilio said.
“It doesn’t hurt when you do it two or three times, but when you do it 2,500 times over the course of your career it can add up,” he said.
While the new bells and whistles are great, Mr. DiGuilio said there are no plans to get rid of the old system.
“That will always be there,” he said. “If Locution goes down or they need to do maintenance, or there’s some catastrophic failure of the system, you can go back to the regular old tones with regular, human-voiced dispatching. That will always stay. You’ve got to have a backup for everything.”