Technology At Work -- Firefighters Look Into The Future -- New Computers, Camera Can Spot Hidden Dangers

The Seattle Fire Department has gone high-tech, with fast new PCs, a heat-seeking camera and a laptop computer that lets firefighters call up a diagram of a burning building even before they get there.

As recently as two years ago, the department had only 100 personal computers for its 1,000-plus people and most were the equivalent of Model T's, unable to run today's common office software.

But after the 1995 arson that killed four firefighters in the basement of the Pang warehouse in the International District, the department hired a professional information-systems manager who has since put some 100 new PCs, for about $3,000 each, in place.

The PCs are used for about 40 different applications, including word processing, creating spreadsheets, inventory management and e-mailing.

New high-speed digital telephone lines allow firefighters to communicate with each other and hook up to the Internet faster.

The department also has its own Web site, and has purchased a new thermal-imaging camera that allows firefighters to navigate through thick smoke and fire.

"I came from one of the most technologically advanced departments to one of the least," said Lenny Roberts, the new information- and communications-systems director.

Roberts, 44, has worked as a city and state information-systems director for 15 years, several of them in Seattle's high-tech Executive Services Department, which manages everything from communications systems to finances.

The Fire Department's upgrade is part of a larger push by the city to increase technology.

"The amount of technology the department has deployed in the past two years has been major," he added. "It wasn't a gradual sort of thing."

Information on the go

One program that Roberts and retired firefighter Robert Hope have created enables firefighters to call up and print out the design of buildings only seconds after a fire alarm goes off.

The program includes the layouts of some 1,600 commercial buildings, complete with information about hazardous materials inside or areas that might be dangerous for firefighters. The program, they said, was created in response to the Pang fire.

A Seattle Times investigation into the Pang fire concluded that the official in charge of the firefighting efforts didn't know the warehouse had a basement, even though top department officials knew nearly a month earlier that Martin Pang, the son of the building owners, had threatened to set a fire in the basement.

The four firefighters did not realize the fire had started below them until the floor they were on collapsed, dropping them to their deaths.

(Pang, 41, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree arson of the warehouse. Pang had fled to Brazil after the fire. He had been charged with murder and arson, but the state Supreme Court ruled recently that, under the terms of the United States' extradition treaty with Brazil, Pang could not be tried for murder.)

The laptop program, "Pre-fire 1," works like this: When a fire alarm is sounded, a firefighter goes to the laptop computer in a battalion chief's vehicle, types in the address and punches the print button. Diagrams print out in the vehicle while firefighters drive to the fire.

In the past, the diagrams were available only in hard copies in thick, three-ring binders, Roberts said.

"But if you're driving down a street at 60 miles per hour, it's hard to thumb through a book trying to find a diagram," Roberts said. "With this program, from the time they know where they're going to when they have a printed diagram is about 40 seconds. That's a lot faster than thumbing through a book."

Roberts and Hope created the program on software designed by Bellevue-based Ocean Interface Technologies. It includes a database of addresses and layouts drawn by firefighters after routine building inspections.

The cost for the software development, laptop computer and printer was about $18,000.

For now, there's just one laptop and printer for the whole department. Roberts hopes to eventually get one in every firetruck.

Paul Harvey, president of the Seattle Fire Fighters Union, believes the computers will be helpful, but said, "I'm not sure that technology will actually replace the need for the firefighters to go out and walk through the buildings they need to protect. Technology itself is not a substitute for experience and on-site inspection."

Some fire departments, such as those in San Diego and Sacramento, already use similar systems. Rather than have dispatchers relay information over the radio, firefighters can use computers en route to a fire.

"This is a way to alleviate a lot of the radio chatter and get the information that the firefighter wants without going through a third person," said Patty Maher, a program manager with the Association of Public Communications Officers, based in Daytona, Fla.

On the Web

Roberts also has created the department's Web site, which debuted about 19 months ago and now gets about 1,000 hits a month.

The site is especially valuable to insurance companies or lawyers following up on accidents because it includes a daily listing of fire and aid calls, Roberts said.

The "morning incident report" is posted every day at about 3 a.m. and includes the day's dispatch calls. It is the 10th most-popular page on the city's Public Access Network Web site, he says.

Residents also have used the site to get tips on fire safety, check the status of fire permits or arrange for safety presentations by firefighters.

"A large part of our job is to respond to public requests," Roberts said. "So the Web site saves us a lot of time."

Finding the hot spots

Another recently acquired device that firefighters say may help save lives is a camera that produces images of heat-producing objects.

A firefighter activates an on-off button, points the camera at any spot and a black-and-white image is displayed, with hotter objects showing as relatively whiter.

The camera is most often used to detect fire sources, hot spots and smoldering fires behind doors, in ducts or behind walls. It also can find the location of victims obscured by smoke or rubble, said Seattle fire Capt. James Hargett.

The department currently has only one camera, purchased at the beginning of the year for $16,000, Hargett said, adding that it played a vital role in tackling the May fire at Ray's Boathouse restaurant.

"They were looking underneath the pier and trying to find the source of fire but couldn't find it because of the heavy smoke," Hargett said. "We pointed our camera at it and located the hottest spot there. We were able to fight the fire then."

Still, driving the department into the digital age has not been easy, Roberts said.

"There's a great deal of enthusiasm amongst the minority of firefighters," he said. "The majority are probably ambivalent. They don't particularly welcome the new technology. It's change. In all organizations it's probably true and the fire department's no different.

"But I'm seeing, over months, that that kind of resistance is going away."

Janet I-Chin Tu's phone message number is 206-464-2272. Her e-mail address is: Links to the Seattle Fire Department's Web site are on The Seattle Times Today's News Web site at: