Bay Area software hailed as ‘revolutionary’ firefighting tool now in place across Sonoma County
During the deadly 2017 North Bay firestorm, Sonoma County fire officials were overwhelmed with the chaotic turn of events and did their best to manage resources, thumbing through paper maps and trying to communicate via busy radio traffic while keeping tabs on the whereabouts of their crews.
At times, first responders felt “pretty helpless,” said Chad Costa, assistant fire chief for the Petaluma Fire Department.
The siege of catastrophic wildfires has continued nearly unabated since then, and Sonoma County fire captains quickly realized they needed to up their technological game, Costa said.
In 2020, Costa and Spencer Andreis, battalion chief at Sonoma Valley Fire District, came across Tablet Command, an incident management and response software application founded by Bay Area-based firefighters. It is the kind of all-in-one communications, mapping and dispatch tool they were looking for.
In 2021, Costa and Andreis spearheaded a project aimed at introducing the software among all Sonoma County fire departments.
The software, now used by most fire apparatus in the county, has changed the game, Costa said.
Fire officials are now able to see where their personnel are on a map, assign resources, communicate, view incident locations and 911 dispatch information, assign crews, upload evacuation and weather briefings and more ― all through the touch of an iPad screen.
In 2007, Tablet Command founders William “Will” Pigeon and Andy Bozzo were relatively new at the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District when tragedy struck.
Two firefighters in their department died on duty, attempting to rescue two people from a house fire. A yearlong internal investigation found a mishandled initial report led to delays and miscommunication contributing to the firefighters’ deaths. It also shed light on weaknesses in the department including lack of coordination and reliance on face-to-face communication.
Bozzo and Pigeon, who had some college experience in computer science, began thinking how they could improve field communication in their department.
Sitting on the couch with Pigeon, playing Words With Friends, a multiplayer word game app, Bozzo dragged a “W” across the board. That’s when he had an epiphany.
The idea of placing a letter on the board, instantaneously seen by a random player thousands of miles away in Texas, could easily be transferred to the assignment of a fire engine and the points could represent the number of personnel assigned to that engine.
“So he had this epiphany like, ‘Oh my gosh, yeah, why can't we do that?’” Pigeon said.
The two came together and began sketching the idea out on napkins and whiteboards, brainstorming and raising money for at least a year. They launched the app in January 2013.
Almost 10 years on now, Tablet Command has over 18,000 EMS and firefighter “users” throughout North America, Pigeon said, referring to individual officials and engines. Over 200 of those devices are in Sonoma County, 125 of which are mounted in engines including the Santa Rosa Fire Department.
Their team of 17 staffers at Tablet Command is constantly tweaking the app, Pigeon said.
It now often notifies firefighters of incidents faster than the station does, he said. It also allows firefighters to easily view WildfireAlert cameras, work offline and locate strike teams across multiple agencies in the state.
For example, “fire chiefs came back from (the Caldor and Dixie) fires last year and they were saying that it’s just revolutionary, it's like electricity,” Pigeon said.
In Sonoma County, the software has allowed agencies to add personalized map layers including evacuation zones, fire scars, planned methods of attack and safety areas,
Recalling the 2017 firestorm, Costa said, “There's a lot of helpless moments, where it just felt like there was nothing you could do.”
“So we're dedicated to making ourselves better, and our departments better and sometimes, especially in today's world, that's utilizing those technology tools that are out there.”
Tablet Command has been a “great addition to our situational awareness, our accountability and our ability to be prepared instead of reactionary,” he added.
You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @alana_minkler.
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