GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The basics of firefighting haven’t changed: It’s still a matter of putting water to flame. But new technology has made the job safer and more efficient.

If the alarm goes off in a Grand Rapids Fire Department station, there a good chance Battalion Chief Rich Clark will be in charge. If GRFD was a band, he would be the conductor. It’s his job to know how many firefighters on the scene and what are they doing.

“Whether it be a hazmat call, a medical call, a fire call, a car accident, you name it, there’s different tasks,” Clark said.

Those tasks include searching for victims, putting water on the fire and tearing open a wall to get to flames firefighters can’t see.

“Who’s there and what are they doing? Where are they at?” Clark described part of his duties. “When I first joined the fire department … the chief officer on scene would just track that in their head.”

Fire engines and other traditional tools of the trade are important but so are communications and accountability. Over the years, keeping track of crews involved paper forms on a clipboard or a whiteboard in back of the chief’s car. But technology adapted for the fire service called Tablet Command is helping replace some of those old-school approaches.

Tablet Command helps Grand Rapids Fire Department battalion chiefs keep track of crews. (April 2023)
Tablet Command helps Grand Rapids Fire Department battalion chiefs keep track of crews. (April 2023)

“First group in the scene is Engine 11. I’m going to make them fire attack right away. It tells me who’s in charge of that group,” Clark explained as he pulled up information on the tablet. “Who’s on Engine 11? I pull it up and it shows they have three personnel and their names.”

If a chief knows exactly which firefighters are on scene, where each one is and what’s getting done, it’s less likely someone is unaccounted for and hurt.

“All the ways that we track our personnel … is all based on safety. It’s all based on firefighters who have paid the price in the past,” Clark said.

Other fire department leaders can access the information of their phone even when they’re off duty.

“And can look at his tablet and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got a fire working in the city. Does he have everything managed? Is everything fine? Oh, there’s another fire that just came up. Do I need to start heading into work now and put a third chief’s car in the city?’” Clark said.

Right now, the tablets are being carried by the city’s two on-duty battalion chiefs. Eventually, GRFD would like to have the tablets in all its fire vehicles.