London

GPS is (finally) coming to the London Fire Department

For years, many motorists have relied on GPS (Global Positioning System) to help them navigate unknown neighbourhoods or trips to another city. So you might be surprised to learn that drivers with the London Fire Department don’t have that luxury.

The new system will integrate GPS with a computerized dispatch system

A new advanced GPS system being developed for the London Fire Department will allow for tracking of vehicles to improve the deployment of resources and response times. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

For years, many motorists have relied on GPS (Global Positioning System) to help them navigate unknown neighbourhoods or trips to another city. So you might be surprised to learn that drivers with the London Fire Department don't have that luxury. They're still using printed paper maps to find their way to a fire or a rescue, though not for too much longer.

The department's deputy chief of operations, Richard Hayes, says they're developing a sophisticated GPS system that will be field tested as early as 2021.

Hayes says putting GPS into fire engines and other department vehicles is much more involved than using the technology in a typical car.

They're now working on the introduction of a system that integrates GPS with the fire department's dispatch system.

"The computer-aided dispatch system would push the information to the vehicle that is required to respond to a given event. As the crews then get into [the trucks], the map is already loaded and the details are there," said Hayes.

Like other GPS systems, it will be tied into mapping software that would show traffic restrictions, such a trains passing through a crossing or a slowdown due to construction and would recommend the quickest route.

A customized system

But Hayes says the fire department needs additional information that is specific to their tasks.

"We need to know where is the closest hydrant? And what is the flow of that hydrant? So depending on the size of the fire, what does that give us for flow?"

The department also wants to build in pre-planning information developed by crews who visit specific areas regularly to determine their needs should a fire break out in a particular neighbourhood.

"How do we need to set up our trucks? Where's the nearest water supply? How do we tie into this building, and so on."

All of this information would be available to the incident commander at the scene of a fire through the push of a button with the new technology.

Hayes says it takes time to build such an integrated system. They've been working on it with the equipment vendor for about a year and a half.

"We're on the cusp," he said.

The new integrated GPS system will allow an incident commander to access critical information about a specific fire scene with the tap of a screen. (Submitted by London Fire Department)

Tracking all vehicles

Another layer to the system will also allow the London Fire Department to track the location of all of its vehicles for efficient deployment of its resources.

A similar system has been in use by the Hamilton Fire Department since earlier this year.

"Well, it makes a huge difference for us because what's happening now is by sending the closest unit, we actually are seeing a reduction in our response times."

The Kitchener Fire Department also has an automatic vehicle locator that is part of its computer-aided dispatch system. A spokesperson for the department said it's been in place for almost two years now and they're pleased with how it's working.

But for all the benefits that these new high-tech systems offer, Hayes says the London Fire Department isn't giving up on the hard-copy maps that are currently used to guide crews to the scene of fire.

He says London's firefighters are experts at knowing their response zones and how to navigate the city's streets by studying maps and getting around the city.

"Any of these [high-tech] tools could fail at any time. And so having that basis of information is critical, and we will never move away from that."

The president of the London Professional Firefighters Association, Jason Timlick, says he's pleased to hear that the department is committed to developing the advanced technology.

"It will be another tool in the toolbox that firefighters can use and utilize to help better serve the taxpayers of London."

Hayes couldn't say how much the new system will cost because the tendering process preceded his time with the department. But he says the new system will tie together all the essential elements of the operation, including mechanical staff, fire prevention staff, firefighting and training.

"It's everything that we do as a service. It [will be] fully connected."

About the Author

Gary Ennett

Morning News Editor

Gary Ennett is a veteran editor and reporter. He’s been with CBC since the opening of the London bureau in 1998. His email address is gary.ennett@cbc.ca

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