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Photographs by John Marshall Mantel for The New York Times
Keeping tabs During a fire, a digital system with icons, right, would track firefighters and equipment more efficiently than the old-fashioned board with magnets, above, currently used by the New York City Fire Department.

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Fires and Firemen

World Trade Center (NYC)

Stations and Terminals (Passenger)

New York University

A Morphing Map Gives Fire Chiefs the Big Picture


Published: January 29, 2004

THIS 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 foreground.

"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 model.

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 safer."

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