Technology Meets FDNY Accountability

Issue 11 and Volume 6.

After losing its magnetic command board in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, the FDNY was challenged with finding a new and improved way to track firefighters on scene and keep them safe. Today, the department is creating its own state-of-the-art technologies that not only meet that goal, but serve as an example for other departments.

The Story of EFAS
The idea for the latest technology came about after the Deutsche Bank Building Fire of 2007 in which two firefighters perished despite sending mayday calls. “There’s no way to hold an effective roll call while you’re fighting a fire,” says Robert T. Keys, battalion chief, FDNY Research and Development (R&D) Unit. “It took two or three hours to determine who those guys were.”    

With that scenario in mind, Lt. Thomas Woska and seven or eight other members of the R&D Unit sketched out the idea for what became the Electronic Fireground Accountability System, or EFAS. Pronounced EE-fas, the system allows for real-time recognition of who’s sending a mayday call and where they can be found. It also allows the incident commander to perform a rapid roll call on scene.

Woska says that the concept for EFAS took two years to become reality. Based on their sketches, his group built and tested a suitcase-model prototype. Once this “proof of concept” proved EFAS would work, outside developers helped create the final working system.

Arlene Hoffman, program director at FDNY’s Project Management Office and project manager for EFAS, explains that because the system works in conjunction with the FDNY’s radio system and Mobile Data Terminal (MDT) system, “there were a lot of pieces of the puzzle to put together to make sure everything worked together.” The interface with the MDT, vehicle-based computers that communicate dispatch, building schematics, etc., was particularly delicate because it could not endanger existing, highly critical MDT systems. “This was the first outside program to co-exist with that,” Keys says. “It was a big security issue.”

The FDNY did a test run of EFAS in early 2011. “We piloted it in various companies, battalions and divisions throughout all five boroughs,” Hoffman says. “We tested it with different wireless carriers.” After 30 days, the system proved successful and her department started rolling it out citywide. “The field seems to be really happy with it,” Hoffman adds.

BC Keys is also happy with the system, and his belief in its reliability is apparent. “I guarantee that this will save a life sooner or later,” he says.

How It Works
EFAS matches data from firefighters’ radios with the FDNY’s Electronic Riding List (ERL), a list entered each day by company officers, identifying who has which radio and their assigned position. Because each radio has a unique internal code, the EFAS system links that code to the ERL. When a mayday call comes in, the MDT screen shows the caller’s name, engine number and assigned position at the incident. The incident commander can then contact other members of the company who know where that person is supposed to be based on their assignment.

“Identifying the trapped member—that’s the first purpose,” Keys explains. “The second is an automated, electronic roll call.” This is used for a rapid accounting of all firefighters during an incident. All are asked to key their radio two or three times so that the EFAS can automatically count them. “This is crucial for a ‘life hazard’ decision—when you need to know whether anyone is still inside the building,” Keys says. “Any fire chief who sees this will want it.”

Accountability: The Big Picture
EFAS is just one part of the FDNY’s larger Fireground Accountability Program. “The ultimate goal of the program is to ensure that each firefighter returns from every assignment unharmed,” Hoffman says. “To do this, we [are working on] various technology, ranging from the ERL to our core project of RFID.” Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is a means of tracking individual firefighters on scene via tags sewn onto an article of gear. According to Hoffman, the FDNY has just completed the proof-of-concept stage for this project.

Another accountability component: electronic command boards (ECBs), which will be used on scene as portable, handheld devices. “The ECB will display deployment, and will account for personnel in real-time, allowing the incident commander to work the fire with the unit while receiving EFAS updates and accessing information from the CAD system,” Hoffman explains. The ECBs will also be used to exchange information among chiefs on the scene and with the FDNY operations center.

What’s to Come?
The ECB is currently in the pre-pilot stage, undergoing user testing. “We’re really pleased with EFAS, and we want ECB to have the same success rate,” Hoffman says.

The Fireground Accountability Program is on the path to meeting its goal, with many plans in place to ensure its success. EFAS is undergoing a “new build” that will make it more robust, and R&D wants to tie it into the CAD system. Recently, portable EFAS units became available. Unlike the MDTs, incident commanders can carry these computers on scene, where they can receive radio signals in a subway or on the upper floors of a high-rise.

As Hoffman puts it, “It’s about keeping our members safe. And our members keep the city safe.”

In the September 2011 issue of FireRescue, “In Tough Times, a Large Order,” p. 30, we erroneously listed Kurt Henke as the former Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District chief. Chief Henke is the current chief; Chief William Sponable (ret.) is the former chief.  sincerely regret the error.