Dublin Fire Brigade’s John Lynch: ‘The right data could save lives’

9 Jun 2017

John Lynch, senior systems manager at Dublin City Council for the Fire Brigade and emergency services. Image: Oracle

In the latest in our CIO series, Dublin City Council’s senior systems officer in charge of the Fire Brigade, John Lynch, outlines the importance of real-time data.

There are no more critical elements of Ireland’s infrastructure than the emergency services. Their life-saving work touches each and every citizen across the length and breadth of the country, so it’s absolutely vital that they work with cutting-edge technologies to ensure that they are continually improving and optimising their responses to incidents.

In particular, Dublin Fire Brigade’s integrated fire, rescue and emergency medical service is one where having as much information and support is critical.

‘In our business we have to know the facts; if it is working or not working, or that the changes that we have put in place are actually fixing things. Because at the end of the day, lives are depending on this’

Future Human

With huge swathes of data available today, emergencies services have the opportunity to better understand the locations, people and times that are most likely to be associated with an incident. Dublin Fire Brigade is leveraging this data to de-risk areas and populations. By implementing a comprehensive business intelligence strategy, the brigade is able to better respond to emergencies through evidence-based decision-making, temporal geo-spatial predictions, optimised operational models and increased efficiencies.

Dublin City Council’s senior systems officer in charge of Dublin Fire Brigade’s integrated fire, rescue and emergency medical service, John Lynch, reveals how data analysis and pattern detection can be used to save lives.

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When did Dublin Fire Brigade’s integrated fire, rescue and emergency medical service embark on the latest chapter of its data journey?

We acquired Oracle Business Intelligence (BI) in 2012 as part of the establishment of our command and control centre plan. The command and control centres by their definition are high security and the problem we faced was we didn’t really have much performance data.

The chief at the time really wanted to ramp up what he knew was going on in terms of activity. I picked Oracle BI after seeing a demonstration of the technology in a payroll context.

How does the system work?

What we do is we take extracts out of our command and control system. It begins with the 999 number that you ring when you are having an emergency. It covers fire brigade and ambulance services for Dublin. An operator will manage your call, triage your problem and then start mobilising appliances (slang for fire brigade tenders and ambulances). The outer organisations are the stations where the appliances are and they will start responding and moving in response to whatever is going on.

What we do is we measure every single aspect of that. Our business is measured in seconds and we have key performance indicators that govern all aspects of what we do.

Everything is atomised down to how long it takes to answer a phone call – that could be three seconds – then how long does it take to acquire an address and then how long to figure out what is the exact complaint. We have an expert system which gives us a structured talk through in order to triage you around what is wrong.

That gives criticality, which we use to work out where to prioritise and send ambulances, for example.

In the fire end of things, we ask questions like where is the smoke coming from, how many people are present in the property and that leads to an automated predetermined attendance (PDA), depending on whether it is a high-rise or individual skip or garden fire, that will trigger the appropriate and nearest appliances to go.

We monitor all of this activity in the command and control centre and that feeds out to people hopping on trucks and getting to the location.

What kind of data do you measure once an incident has begun?

We measure how long it takes to get on the truck, get out the door; how long on the scene; how long it take to get to hospital and more. It looks at all the decision points of the various stages of a typical emergency call.

Because of the nature of the command and control system being a closed system, the network domain wasn’t even visible to us here at Dublin City Council. So we had to get our product to connect into that. We have the standard extract transform load (ETL) from that which feeds the database here. We connect with that and come up with questions to ask the system.

When it comes to acquiring the technology, who makes the decisions?

I’m on loan from the City Council. I’m a member of staff of the information systems (IS) department and the way the system works is the IS department then deploys different managers to different aspects of the council, such as planning and the Fire Brigade.

When it came to acquiring technology, the Fire Brigade were the leaders in acquiring this because there are lots of different products out there. Nobody was up to the standard in terms of sophistication at the time and we tried it here in the brigade.

We made a lot of progress with the technology, to such an extent now that Oracle BI has been implemented throughout the rest of the council, including rates, housing and CRM systems.

How do you measure performance?

It’s all about measuring performance. It is a 360-degree loop. One of the things you will learn about Business Intelligence is that unless you are doing something that leads to an action or decision, there is no point in doing it. That is the key.

We look at fire officers’ individual performance in call handling and can identify if anyone is struggling in dealing with things or may be behind the average in terms of management of calls. We can highlight and identify that really quickly and intervene at that level.

One of the important things about these systems is they are what drives change.

When we find something that is not working well, we can bring about a change. And you can track that through the system.

How do you gather the data in real time?

This is a single site server set up where we do a data extraction via SQL in a daily dump of standard ASCII text. It is not on-scene. This is all performance data.

The data that goes out in terms of time and attendance at a scene is collected via UHF and VHF radio systems in the cabs of the fire tenders. That translates into digital signals and the command and control system turns that into data in an SQL database.

We take a lot of care around data. Quality is a big issue for us. We take a lot of care to make sure that this data is pristine when it arrives in and we try and minimise the amount of cleansing that we do to make sure that any time-stamp that is there is treated and not changed, updated or managed in any way.

In our business we have to know the facts; if it is working or not working, or that the changes that we have put in place are actually fixing things. Because at the end of the day, lives are depending on this.

How long has this system been in place?

We started implementing this in 2012 and it was probably 2014 before we really got seriously into it. We had a lot of problems initially. There were no data models available to us at the time for fire and emergency business intelligence. You can’t just take it off a shelf; it doesn’t exist. To a large extent, we had to invent the system and it has been a voyage of discovery.

We have developed a formal management capability to all aspects of the service. Rather than your usual dashboard, I can look at things individually such as individual trucks, appliances going out, a watch, a crew, a station, a type of fire, geographic breakdowns of the city. I can pick Sallynoggin or Drumcondra or any part of the city. I have a 360-degree view of the world to drill down and around. This is how we make sure that the the brigade remains at peak performance.

They they have to get the alarm bells ringing, get their gear on, and all five or six guys onto the truck and out the door in a few seconds.

Do you gather telematics information from the trucks?

We have an automatic vehicle location (AVL) system gathering that information. We would like to connect it with our BI system, but first we would also like to learn a lot more about the post-fire situation because we are really hinging a lot more towards risk management.

The perspective of the brigade is not just to combat fires; we are far more interested in preventing fires in the first place. The way we do this is we try to find patterns in the system.

Previously we would have had, for example, a belief that came from the UK that fires were more likely to come from low ABC1 homes, people over-65 living alone. In fact that is not the case.

Until the recent tragic fatal fires that occurred in the travelling community, most of our fires were happening in low-quality, tenement-style accommodation, generally occupied by somebody who might be a recent immigrant and cooking on a Primus stove. Our data systems help us to figure that out and we profile the demand very carefully here, particularly the ambulance service. We have pictures and views of where we see demand for the ambulance service happening, hour-by-hour, day-by-day and we map that.

A new development is we have developed an algorithm ourselves to look at criticality and other key indicators that help us work out where the pinch points are in the city. We have mapped where we need to put extra appliances, where to give extra resources in the city and, in preparation for having extra resources, we are ready to go. We know exactly where to put them right now.

Can crews access data while on the move to up their performance, such as get information on buildings?

In terms of information at the scene, we have a system where we can get information on premises such as hotels, hospitals and nursing homes – anywhere where there are likely to be large congregations of people.

That information is available to district officers who travel in cars and they would have all the latest plans on a laptop. What we would like to do is put that data on a tablet in the cab but, budgets being what they are, we haven’t gotten that far yet. Resources are tight and we have currently 1,100 firemen across 17 locations.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years