e-DTF can cut emergency response times: study

Globe and Mail Update Toronto - Thursday, May 24


Automating part of the monitoring and dispatch process can help fire crews get to the scene of an emergency quicker, potentially saving lives and reducing property damage, according to a new study.

"We consistently found that the use of electronic dispatch shortened the time required to process a fire signal," Cyril Hare of fore engineering consulting firm Leber Rubes Inc., the study's director, said. The focus of the study was Open Access, an electronic "direct to the fire department" (e-DTF) notification system developed by St. Catherines, Ont.-based Fire Monitoring Technologies International Inc.

An Open Access pilot project is running in several Ontario cities, and the study was done over the winter in Mississauga. The city's fire department and Leber Rubes conducted the tests, while the Insurers' Advisory Organization [IAO] audited the study. Open Access is designed for large apartment complexes and institutional buildings that are required by the fire code to have alarms that are watched around the clock by outside monitoring companies. It works with the computer system these monitoring companies already use, and a small fee is added to a building's monthly monitoring fee to pay for the service.

Norman Cheesman, spokesman for Fire Monitoring Technologies International, said the system is not offered to individual homeowners at the moment. "The future of this technology is definitely in the residential market," he said, "but that is still a few years off".

When an alarm comes in to a monitoring company, it is usually displayed on a computer screen in a control centre and someone picks up the phone and relays the report to the 911 system or fire department. This can waste precious time while the call is made, and according to fire officials, sometimes the wrong fire station gets alerted or addresses are read over the phone incorrectly, slowing things down even more.

With e-DTF, the fire alert and address are forwarded electronically to the fire department's computer dispatch system at the instant the signal reaches the monitoring station. "Time savings result from eliminating certain manual steps when the call details are being processed by the monitoring station and the fire department," Mr. Hare stated. Open Access can also be set up so that it calls up things such as building blueprints that are stored in the fire department's database, so that firefighters can familiarize themselves with the layout on their way to the scene.

The test sites for the study were selected at random and about 20 per cent of the alarms were monitored using e-DTF. The rest were processed by operators at monitoring stations and in the fire department. The study found that an e-DTF system such as Open Access shaved one minute and 43 seconds off the average fire department response time. About one-quarter of the sites studied saved an average of more than two minutes. This may not seem like much time, but Kevin Duffy, the assistant deputy for Mississauga's Fire and Emergency Services department, said the first few minutes of a fire are when firefighters have the best chance of containing it, helping them minimize damage, injuries and loss of life. This is why most cities in North America specify that fire crews must be placed so that no area is more than four minutes from a station. "Fires grow exponentially, and that four minutes of travel time is based on the idea of being able to get to a fire and contain it at a small level rather than allowing it to develop to an open blaze," Mr. Duffy said.

His department has been running an Open Access pilot project since March 1998. Although there is cost involved with running the system, as well as some administrative duties that are added to the fire department's operations, "the system works very well and there absolutely is a payback," Mr. Duffy said. He added that in some cases, the system has helped his department cut almost two minutes from the time it takes to get a fire truck rolling to an emergency. "To eliminate 90 seconds [from our response time] in the field would effectively mean doubling the number of stations and doubling our operating costs - it would cost millions and millions of dollars a year. So the payback [of Open Access] is terrific."

Open Access is being used in Ontario on a limited basis by several hundred buildings in Mississauga, Ottawa and Windsor, and Mr. Cheesman said a system should be running soon in Oshawa. By law, most public buildings, apartments and institutions are already required to have professionally monitored fire alarms. As a result of the study, members of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs are pushing for changes to the national and provincial fire codes that would require these buildings to adopt e-DTF technology.