New technology holds promise of improving response times to city fires

With major new technological upgrades scheduled to go into effect next month, Dover's volunteer fire company figuratively is moving from the Stone Age to the Space Age.

At least that's the view of Fire Chief Matt Carey, whose company recently received new iPads and support equipment and software that will be installed in every fire engine and truck in the department.

"We have the largest call volume in Kent County, and we're one of the busiest departments in the state," Carey said Monday. "At the same time, we're probably the farthest behind when it comes to technology."

The new equipment, consisting of 10 iPads, protective cases and related support hardware and software, will go into trucks in February.

Combined with already established programs, the iPads will allow responding firefighters to precisely locate a fire and even avoid traffic tie-ups that will allow them to get to the scene that much faster.

Currently, Dover's volunteer firemen leave the station less than three minutes after receiving a call, and arrive at the scene in approximately 7.5 minutes, a rate much better than the national average, Carey said.

The iPads will replace 8-inch-thick paper books firefighters currently use to find their way around.

"They're really very cumbersome," noted fireman and IT specialist Mike O'Connor. "You open the book, pages fall out and they're very hard to keep up to date.

"People have asked us, 'Why don't you use Google Earth?' Well, that's what we're about to do."

Fire department crews already have done a complete survey of all buildings and homes in Dover, carefully mapping out the location of each fire hydrant, internal fire department connection – those pipes seen on buildings that look like dislocated hydrants – as well as so-called knock boxes.

Firefighters need to locate the hydrants and other connectors to start the flow of water as quickly as possible, and they need to know where the knock boxes are located. Those boxes, usually hung outside the main entrance to a building, allow firefighters access without having to break down doors or windows.

Their locations now are standardized, but that wasn't always the case, and searching for the boxes wastes valuable time, O'Connor said.

"We'll be able to overlay Google maps with all these features so that when we arrive, it will give us the closest hydrant and fire department connections so we can set up all our equipment as quickly as possible.

"We'll have all the information right away," Carey said. "Right now, we're kind of scrambling."

Money for the $10,000 worth of upgrades comes from the department's vehicle upgrade fund, used to buy new equipment for various trucks and other vehicles.

Currently, the 190-member fire department has an annual budget of approximately $807,000, one third of which – the operational costs ­− is provided by the city of Dover. The remainder is supplied by the state, county, and through grants.

The iPads also have built-in security features so that if one ever is lost or stolen, it can be located to within a radius of 6 feet.

One of the many add-on apps the department can use will be an accountability application, which tracks where equipment and firefighters are located.

"It will give me a more accurate account of where everyone is and what they're doing" Carey said.

There's even an application Carey can access on his cell phone to let him know what's going on before arriving at a fire scene.

"I'll be able to look down on the way to a fire and know I'll still have another dozen or so people coming, and to decide if we need additional aid.

"That's a really important piece of information to have," he said. "With these technological upgrades, we'll be an even better department, now and for the future."