HIS is our replacement command board," Deputy
Chief Vincent Mandala said, opening an 18-by-24-inch welded aluminum
case standing on folding legs in the 11th Division station in
downtown Brooklyn. "The old one was destroyed on 9/11."
Each division of the New York City Fire Department owns such a
board, which is used by the commander at the scene of a major fire
to track units as they respond. And for all the technology devoted
to public safety these days, it is a decidedly quaint approach.
Magnetic identifiers for each engine, ladder truck, or other unit or
city agency at the scene are stored on the case's inside lid.
To demonstrate, Chief Mandala sketched a building with marking
pen on the board, placed E207 in the third floor to indicate that he
had sent Engine 207 into the building, and added L122 to a box
labeled R & R to show that Ladder 122 had just emerged from the
blaze - information also relayed to headquarters by radio. "It's
just a simple, efficient way for me to know where everyone is,"
Chief Mandala said.
But its limitations also became evident on Sept. 11, 2001, when
343 firefighters perished at the World Trade Center. It was
difficult to keep up with units (including those of the 11th
Division) rushing into a critical situation, often without checking
in, or to relay that information instantly to a central command for
immediate use or later review. These and other system failures were
laid out in August 2002 in a report by the management consultants
McKinsey & Company that called, among other things, for a
wireless electronic command board.
A few months later, John Beckman, a former firefighter working in
the press office at New York University, saw something that seemed
to fit the bill: a table-like 42-inch plasma touch-screen display
developed by the university's Center for Advanced Technology. Mr.
Beckman put friends at the Fire Department in touch with the center,
and by last June their collaboration had produced a prototype of a
tracking device that the department hopes to have in use by the end
of this year.
Chris Poultney, a research scientist at the technology center,
showed a reporter the ease of calling up an aerial view of the five
boroughs and zooming in until Manhattan and then just Lower
Manhattan filled the screen. Mr. Poultney switched from the
photograph to a street view and panned uptown to Times Square and
then back toward Washington Square. From this virtual height, the
street names and building footprints are visible, but he zoomed in
further toward N.Y.U. until the floor plans of the building he was
standing in were evident.
At a fire, icons would be dragged onto the map in a parallel to
what Chief Mandala had done with his marker and whiteboard: E33 at
the corner of Waverly Place and Broadway, E5 around on Washington
Place. The software also allows Mr. Poultney to add finger-written
notes, use a roll-over magnifying window to see greater detail, or
superimpose a street map over an aerial view.
But the biggest difference between old and new is that the
information he enters is transmitted wirelessly to Fire Department
headquarters, where it is displayed on an identical board.
For the incident commander, access to all of that data in a
single, visual interface is meant to take much of the guesswork out
of the job. In addition, officers will be able to review the data
and to use it in training.
Officers mention a third advantage when they talk about the
unsettling possibility of simultaneous terrorist attacks.
"Those of us at the Fire Department command center will be able
to get a whole city picture, and decide how to allocate resources,"
said Deputy Assistant Chief Joseph W. Pfeifer, sitting at his desk
at Fire Department headquarters in Brooklyn. Chief Pfeifer, who lost
20 men in his battalion on Sept. 11, sits beneath a panoramic
photograph of the city, the World Trade Center gleaming in the
"I want this yesterday," he said of the new technology. "But
that's not going to happen."
A vendor to produce the system is to be chosen this spring.
Eventually, officials hope that it will integrate live video feeds,
information from the police and paramedics, data from other city
agencies, hydrant locations, gas and water lines, and subway station
layouts. There are plans for tablet computers, connected by wireless
network, that will give each battalion chief at a fire both an
overview of the situation and a means to relay updates.
As new technologies become available, the command board will
begin to track casualties and determine the closest hospitals for
treating the injured. As more buildings are wired with environmental
sensors, the board will display information on room temperatures and
other conditions. And most important, it will automatically log in
units as they arrive at the scene.
"If we see a sudden drop in the X axis," or height, said Mike
Uretsky, co-director of the Center for Advanced Technology, "we know
the floor's gone out from under a firefighter long before he can hit
the S O S button." But Professor Uretsky acknowledges that several
problems must be solved before this vision becomes reality. First,
there is the packaging: the command board needs to be easy to
transport, water-tight, chemical-resistant and rugged. Improvements
will also be needed in wireless capability; current signals cannot
penetrate high rise buildings.
After 9/11, when the Fire Department was first considering an
upgrade, Chief Pfeifer visited half a dozen fire departments in
major cities to see the other systems in use. He found plain old
white boards and Velcro setups but, above all, lots of interest in a
digital version. The New York initiative, he said, could become a
Putting out a blaze in a skyscraper is different from fighting to
save a wooden house. But Chief Pfeifer says all fire scenes have
this much in common: "It's dark. It's smoky. You can't see five feet
away.'' A high-tech command board, he said, "will make the job