GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — So you think battling big flames is a firefighter’s biggest concern? No: It’s the highway.
“Believe it or not, operating on US-131 almost makes us more nervous than operating in a house fire, mainly to do with distracted driving,” Grand Rapids Assistant Fire Chief Brad Brown said.
Close calls for firefighters headed to emergency calls or parked on roadways while dealing with traffic crashes and other hazards are unnerving and expensive.
“We’ve had million-dollar apparatus struck and out of service for years at a time,” Brown said. “We’ve had numerous firefighters almost get struck.”
The city has tried everything from brighter lights to louder sirens to a dump truck with a big shock absorber on the back. Now it thinks the answer may be the one thing many blame for the distracted driving problem: mobile devices.
“What better way to connect with people than through the device that they’re always looking at?” Brown said.
Available for both Apple and Android devices, the HAAS Alert app uses GPS signals on city emergency vehicles, as well as private ambulances, to alert other drivers where they’re going and where they’re parked.
“It will give you an audible alert and it will give you a vibration alert, depending on how your phone is set up,” Grand Rapids City Information Services Coordinator Brian Block explained. “You can tell whether the emergency vehicle is on scene, so whether you’re approaching a vehicle, or whether a vehicle is approaching from a specific direction.”
The signal is set off when the vehicle’s emergency lights are activated.
“It alerts you within a radius, usually about a half of a mile. So it gives you hopefully at least 15 to 20 seconds to respond to the alert,” Block said.
Block worked with the Grand Rapids Fire Department and other emergency agencies to adapt the app for the city’s use. The effort caught the attention of Smart Cities Connect, a group that follows efforts to introduce digital solution to cites. The organization recognized the project one of its Smart 50 Awards.
The problems the app is designed to avoid are not unique to Grand Rapids. According to the National Safety Council, 168 people died in emergency vehicle crashes in 2018. The majority of those killed were in the vehicles that collided with the emergency responders’ vehicle.
As for the success of the app, GRFD officials say much like fire prevention efforts, it’s difficult to quantify things that are prevented.
“But I can tell you there was a documented problem out there, and we’re very hopeful continuing this relationship with HAAS is going to bring positive outcomes in the future,” Brown said.
As more autonomous vehicles hit the streets, this kind of technology will be more important.