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Summer 2006

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GIS, GPS, and AVL Technologies at the Hartford, Connecticut, Fire Department

Fighting Fires in the 21st Century

By Ewe-Leng Lim, P.E., Chief Knowledge Officer, Institute of Information Technology, Inc.

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Web browser showing real-time movement of vehicles on a map of the city of Hartford. Users can select a vehicle in the tabular view below the map to locate and center the vehicle on the map display.
Back in 1639, the early settlers of Connecticut adopted the first document in history to establish a government by the consent of the people. That states's capital is the city of Hartford, Connecticut, with a population of more than 121,000, and the city's fire department is one of the oldest fire departments in the United States, being officially established in 1864. Today, the Hartford Fire Department (HFD) is one of 42 fire departments with a Class 1 ranking out of 33,000 fire departments in the nation, and it is adopting GIS, GPS, and automatic vehicle location (AVL) technology to help firefighters.

A few years ago, HFD's first implementation of computer mapping technology used a simple GPS and AVL system to track the department's fire apparatus (vehicles) in real time. Although the system initially adopted was adequate in displaying where the vehicles were in real time, it lacked the ability to show other layers of interest to HFD, such as the locations of fire hydrants, water pipelines, building footprints, parcels, and aerial photos. More important, HFD wanted to make all that information available to the firefighters in the field where they could point to a hydrant on a digital map and quickly see information about the diameter of the connected pipeline to determine which hydrant to best use to fight a fire. In the past, the firefighters used huge foldout paper maps and schematic pipelines with hydrant sizes and locations that each fire vehicle carried around in a big three-ring binder. What was missing was the GIS component to the GPS/AVL application.

With this deficiency in mind, deputy chief Eugene Cieri and Carolyn Shumate from the city of Hartford's Metro Hartford Information Services Division attended one of a series of mobile GIS seminars organized by Esri's regional office in Danvers, Massachusetts. The Institute of Information Technology, Inc. (IIT), an Esri Business Partner, was one of the presenters at that seminar where it showcased its eRouteTracker—a combination of GIS, GPS, and AVL technologies that IIT had developed for the Newton Police Department, city of Newton, Massachusetts. This solution presented the missing GIS component that would meet the needs of HFD.

A fire truck from the Hartford Fire Department.
In early 2004, with the joint support and approval of chief of fire Charles Teale; chief of police Patrick Harnett; and the city's deputy finance director, Lydia Rosario, IIT started a pilot program of an integrated GIS, GPS, and AVL solution for both the HFD and the Hartford Police Department. The pilot, which took full advantage of ArcIMS and MapObjects components, was very successful in quickly demonstrating the possibilities of GIS to provide more than just background information for a vehicle tracking application.

Teale, along with deputy chief Daniel Nolan who heads the fire training academy, came up with the concept of a Community Safety Information (CSI) system that would enable the department to gather voluntary information from the general public to help HFD be better prepared before getting to the scene.

"There'll be a constant reminder to the general public to contact us with the information they want us to know, so that we will know what we're dealing with," says Teale. "Included in the CSI program is the capture of building images from all sides of the building. The goal is to have firefighters get to scenes faster, be better informed ahead of time, and make the public safer."

During an actual scene of a fire captured by the local news, Nolan says, "With this system, we were able to identify the hydrants outside of the addresses, the water mains, the sizes of the water mains, and information inside the house—how many children, their ages, if they have any ailments, or if there is anyone with a disability." Teale further emphasized that HFD is taking a proactive approach to show that it cares for the safety of the public.

HFD applied for and received GIS-related grant funding for homeland security-related projects, which has helped the department further enhance the application. Part of the grant was applied to obtaining newer equipment, including laptops, wireless modems, cellular services, and a thermal printer that provides outputs on waterproof paper for use in the field to print information on chemical hazards, etc. Feedback from the field is continually being incorporated into new releases of the application.

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A customized tool allows the user to point to and click a building footprint on the map to bring up any Community Safety Information collected, including any images of the building taken from different sides or even scanned blueprints of building layouts.
The basic solution from IIT uses ArcIMS as the Web-based mapping service on top of some AVL server components developed in Java programming language (J2EE) to receive, parse, store, and display vehicle locations in real time on a Web browser client user interface. This Web-based browser client is available to all personnel with the proper login/authentication within the city's intranet. In addition, a rich mobile software client was developed in C# programming language using MapObjects to provide the mobile data computers (MDCs) installed in each fire apparatus with a real-time in-vehicle navigation system along with the GIS layers displayed. The MDC AVL clients communicate with the AVL server in real time to retrieve and display additional information, such as computer-aided dispatch incident locations and hazardous zones, generated by authorized users with the proper security authentications.

Aerial photos overlaid with other GIS layers provided the fire commanders with information previously not available, such as the layout of buildings relative to images of parking lots, fenced access, building quadrangles, etc., to better determine the best staging area or alternate access to a specific building structure. In addition, the software provides routing capabilities to show the quickest route to get to the scene of a fire.

The MDC client has role-based security, which means, for example, a supervisor user will be able to see all vehicles in real time while regular users may only see their own vehicles. "This is a good example of how we can combine different cutting-edge technologies, such as J2EE and .NET, into one seamless application while leveraging an organization's existing infrastructure," explains Sergiy Savchenko, IIT's technical lead on this project.

The MDC AVL clients are deployed on rugged touch screen Panasonic Toughbook laptops to meet the harsh environments associated with firefighting equipment. The touch screen and simple user interface make it easy for firefighters to navigate the mapping environment and obtain the information they need literally at their fingertips.

"I could see there was a vacant parking lot back there, and that in itself was advantageous to report to the incoming company to utilize the back to stop the progression of the fire on the rear side of the building," says deputy chief Carlos Huertas, describing a recent incident where he used the application to direct response to a firefighting scene.

More Information

For more information, contact deputy chief Eugene Cieri, Hartford Fire Department, City of Hartford, Connecticut (e-mail:, Web:, or Ewe-Leng Lim, PE, chief knowledge officer, Institute of Information Technology, Inc. (e-mail:, Web:

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