For firefighters and paramedics, success lies in the details. The more they know about what they'll find at an incident, the more effectively they can respond.

“Making information available as quickly as possible to the engine companies is a huge piece of the puzzle,” said Boyd Clegg, battalion chief and geographic information system (GIS) coordinator at the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD), based in San Ramon, Calif.

By the end of this summer, personnel at the SRVFPD expect to have many more details available in the field. The agency is extending the functions of a new Web-based mapping system, which merges data from its computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system and records management system (RMS), to mobile computers in emergency vehicles. Firefighters and paramedics will be able to view incident locations on on-screen maps, see their current locations relative to the incidents and retrieve up-to-date details about properties at the scene. They eventually will be able to update records about fire hydrants and other facilities from the field.

Serving an area of 155 square miles east of San Francisco, the SRVFPD provides fire and ambulance service to 140,800 residents. The area includes wild regions, hiking and rock-climbing areas, two incorporated cities, a major business park and quickly growing areas of single-family and multifamily houses. Since the early 1990s, the agency has been using a CAD system from Intergraph Corp., supported by Intergraph's GIS technology. The RMS is SunPro from BIO-key International.

With so much rapid growth, getting dispatchers and field personnel reliable information about the areas they serve isn't easy. For example, it's not always clear whether all the fire hydrants that appear on the computerized map of a new neighborhood are in service or what sort of maintenance any hydrants in the district have received — or need. That data resides in the RMS, but “we struggle a little bit with getting that correct information attached to the dot on the map representing the fire hydrant,” Clegg said.

Recently, the SRVFPD has worked with San Francisco-based Farallon Geographics to tie together Intergraph's CAD system and GIS tools and the SunPro RMS. The result is a Web-based interface that lets users in the dispatch center and local fire stations view hydrants, buildings and other facilities on a map and find and change information about them. The system uses data drawn from both the Oracle database that supports the CAD and GIS and the SQL Server database that supports the RMS.

Using a single interface, a user can enter data about maintenance performed on a hydrant without worrying about which database will receive the information.

Emergency vehicles are equipped with Panasonic Toughbook computers running Intergraph's I/Mobile application, the mobile counterpart of its I/CAD dispatching system.

“I/Mobile allows the mobile operators to receive dispatch reports, status those events and the respective units, as well as initiate and receive engine-to-engine or engine-to-dispatch text messages,” said Wayne Morgan, executive manager of interface development for Intergraph Security, Government and Infrastructure. “The integrated map in I/Mobile allows the mobile operator to view the location of all events and units for the respective agencies, create field events and issue remote queries to the CAD database and to external databases.”

As of July, the SRVFPD's field employees didn't have all those functions available because the agency had yet to implement a wireless data system. Firefighters and paramedics could view incident locations on a map stored locally in the Toughbook, but they couldn't exchange information in real time with the CAD system or the RMS, said David Lapp, vice president and senior database developer for Farallon.

That's about to change. “We're hoping to move the project into a subsequent phase that would involve wireless with the mobile units in the vehicles,” Lapp said, although he stressed that the SRVFPD had not signed off on a plan for this work.

As Farallon envisions the mobile version of the Web-based applications, first responders could access the same kind of information about incidents and infrastructure from the field that dispatchers can from their consoles.

“The other front we hope for is providing more maintenance application to the vehicles,” Lapp said.

For example, when firefighters take inventory or inspect hydrants and other facilities, “the application they would use to update the centralized system — to track information on inspections and so forth — would be available remotely, instead of having a two-step process where they capture information in the field and then come back and synchronize it or re-enter it.”

Clegg's vision for the mobile units is similar to Lapp's and includes dispatch functions and maintenance updates. In the past, the SRVFPD has used its voice radio network, a Motorola conventional system operating on VHF and UHF frequencies, for dispatching. That won't change as the agency incorporates mobile data, Clegg said. But in the future, when a dispatcher verbally instructs a unit to respond to an incident, a map of the scene will appear on the computer screen.

The addresses will be color coded, with red type indicating that a “target information plan” is available for that building. Clicking on the address will bring up the plan, providing information such as the locations of utility shutoffs.

Workers in the field will be able to report any broken hydrants encountered in the course of their work, an improvement over the current method. “We call around to the stations that the hydrant affects, making sure everybody knows that hydrant's out of service,” Clegg said.

The SRVFPD originally planned to use cellular digital packet data (CDPD) technology to transmit data to and from the in-vehicle computers. It already had installed Sierra Wireless's MP 200 CDPD modems in its vehicles when officials there learned about cellular carriers' plans to phase out CDPD.

That led to a search for another wireless technology that could do the job in the San Ramon Valley's hilly terrain.

“The CDPD coverage, when we originally tested it, was actually quite good in our district,” Clegg said, although “there's no way in an area such as ours that you can ever have 100 percent coverage.”

The agency decided to go with enhanced data rate for global evolution (EDGE) technology from Cingular Wireless. “It appears in our testing that that technology is going to be very functional in our district and will give us pretty broad-based coverage,” Clegg said. As of July, the SRVPFD was replacing the MP 200s with Sierra Wireless's MP 775 EDGE units, which incorporate global positioning system (GPS) technology. One reason the agency chose Cingular was that the carrier agreed to replace the wireless modems at no charge, he said.

When response units are on the streets rather than in their stations, location data from the GPS can — at least in theory — tell dispatchers which responders are closest to an incident so that they can assign them accordingly, Clegg said. But it's not yet known if the EDGE coverage is reliable enough throughout the district to support a “dispatch closest” strategy, he said.

First responders always will be able to use the GPS to see their own location coordinates on their screens. That could prove useful in hilly terrain with spotty cellular coverage.

“If you have an injury or something of that nature, it's much faster to call in a medical helicopter or rescue helicopter [by radio] utilizing exact lat/long coordinates” than to try to describe the location, Clegg said.

Clegg said he expected to have the new EDGE modems installed in the agency's vehicle — about 80 in all — and to start operating on the wireless network in the next two months.