Deep in the heart of West Ashley sits a brand new tech startup, InciComm. Their workspace, an old doctor’s office just off Orange Grove Road, is still in shambles, with new chairs and desks yet to be assembled, sitting beside furniture that was built before the founders were born. Their office mascot, an enthusiastic bulldog who loves to snuggle and enjoys free roam of the vast space, bounding through empty rooms and open doors.
But there, amidst the moving-in mess, the three InciComm employees are working on a solution to a nationwide problem. If used correctly, their new software could help save lives in some of the most dangerous situations of our tempestuous world.
The goal of InciComm is simple: they hope to bring clarity to the chaos of a fire scene. They hope to provide fire department incident commanders with intuitive, easy-to-use software that tracks resources and benchmarks at every single fire to which they respond. They want to help firefighters do their jobs better and more efficiently. And that’s no easy feat when every single fire has the potential to be explosive.
During a brief walk through the North Charleston American LaFrance Fire History Museum, it’s immediately apparent where fire departments have spent all their money over the years: trucks.
Older, steam-powered fire trucks were tricked out with chrome and shiny paint, and the same can be said for today’s massive ladder trucks. Trucks then were worth thousands of dollars, a huge sum by the standards of the time, while trucks today are worth half-million or more. But the best trucks and equipment in the world mean next to nothing without the training and experience that comes with firefighters and their chiefs.
As America has seen again and again, a simple scene has the potential to escalate into a major, national disaster. Think 9/11 and our own Sofa Super Store fire. Think wildfires out West. All these scenes have one thing in common: confusion.
During 9/11, fire departments and other public safety teams didn’t have a common language. Firefighters struggled to communicate with police; police struggled to communicate with the National Guard. As the disaster escalated, it was managed manually by a group of men clustered around a kitchen table-sized whiteboard, deciding where to deploy teams, and pulling other teams out of harm’s way. Radios were jammed with too much chatter, and the 10-codes used by each individual team didn’t match. No one knew what to think or how to work together.
Since then, we as a nation have implemented a common process called the National Incident Management System. Every public safety department now speaks in the same language and uses the same information.
But one thing hasn’t changed. In most fire departments, incident scenes are still being managed by men clustered around a whiteboard, writing down team assignments and erasing them, struggling to communicate over hectic radio stations with team leaders on other sides of burning buildings. The room for human error is great; so too is the room for improvement.
This is where InciComm comes into play.
InciComm began a little over a year ago with a realization. “It was this moment where we said, ‘Oh my God, it’s 2013. How come such complicated decisions like those that go into incident command and that are so life and death in nature. How come something so important is still being managed with a piece of paper and a pen?'” says Edward Thomson, firefighter and InciComm co-founder.
He and childhood friend Rivers Evans, a commercial real estate agent, got to work. They began sketching out a mobile app that would be “smarter than a white board, but easier than a pen.” With the help of Connecticut-based ex-firefighter and IT professional Ross Peoples, they turned their idea into a prototype. A mobile app with touchscreen technology, it would allow incident commanders to track fires in a whole new way while using the same language and simplicity of their old-fashioned whiteboards. They found investors, early implementers, and fire departments around the country willing to help them tailor the solution to the actual needs of working firefighters.
Working with the InciComm team, fire station representatives input a slew of information into the app: resources (like fire and ladder trucks and ambulances), personnel, and benchmarks they’d like to hit at every single call. When a call comes in and firefighters arrive on-scene, the incident commander can pull up a touch-screen with all this data. A single touch from a finger or stylus allows the IC to move a resource into an assignment (i.e. Engine 3 to a certain location). Fire teams can be shifted as a scene escalates or scales down. Preset “attack” or “defensive” plans will move resources into new locations, all at the click of a single button.
When Peoples’ availability changed, Thompson and Evans began working with seasoned software pro Tim Wolf, who spent years working with Blackbaud and Boomtown!, two other local software companies. With Wolf, they found their man. “With this startup,” says Wolf, “I really felt like I could make the world a better place.” He took a leap of faith joining InciComm, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Of course, a simple web app will never be enough, no matter how simple and user-friendly. For a tool such as InciComm to reach maximum effectiveness, they need a reliable network to share data across tablets. They need tablets that can withstand the trauma of a chaotic fire scene. They need reliability above all.
To address these concerns, InciComm is partnering with major national companies to build in redundancies to add to reliability. There’s talk of putting antennae on trucks to emit their own data signals. There’s talk of offering rough-and-tumble tablets that can withstand the heat of a fire. “Conditions on scene can deteriorate rapidly,” says Wolf. “Things can go textbook perfect and things cannot. They can pivot very quickly so I want to make it super-easy for the incident commander.”
He adds, “It’s just like having a really great baseball bat made. In my hands, it doesn’t matter, but in a slugger’s hands it’s amazing.”