Based on a 911 call, an Emergency Communication Center issues an alert, dispatching equipment and personnel to the incident. Emergency Responders receive the alert and initiate transit to the fireground. Addressing the situation to the best of their ability, fire fighters work to control the fire and ensure the safety of building occupants. An incident commander (IC) arrives on scene to manage fireground operations.

Available information on the situation becomes apparent piecemeal—neither collected nor processed in a systematic fashion. Teams of fire fighters independently analyze their immediate situation based on local observations and available data. The IC uses information from these teams and past experiences to build a mental model of the entire fireground and to issue commands. If the model is incorrect, or if the commands are misunderstood or misinterpreted, problems could escalate. Scenes like this play out hundreds of times a day in fire departments across the U.S. Independent data collection, analysis, and action lead to limited coordination and hamper the IC’s ability to optimize tactical decisions.

As a result, fire losses in the U.S. remain too high. In 2013, for example, fire departments responded to 487,500 structure fires, which resulted in approximately 2,855 civilian fatalities, 14,075 injuries, property losses of about $9.5 billion, and 30,000 fire fighters injured on the fireground.1,2


While standards exist for training, equipment, and other key focus areas, tactics and strategies are typically controlled by three major factors. First is the experience and judgment of the incident commander. Second is data, which is either visually observed or derived from the operating environment. Third are the jurisdictional, standard operating procedures. Consequently, each of the 30,000 fire departments in the U.S. operate in a relatively unique manner on the fireground contingent on the details of the emergency event. The procedures employed are often implemented with less than optimum 1) specific and reliable information regarding the location, history, and projected growth of the fire, 2) building geometry and contents, 3) the location of occupants and fire fighting personnel, 4) fire suppression activities and their consequences, and 5) the status of fire protection assets. Changing this situation will help the fire service attack the aforementioned losses. These changes will require new types of technologies.

Current state Future state
Tradition-based tactics Data-driven, science-based tactics
Local information Global information
Data-poor decision making Information-rich decision making
Lack of awareness Situational awareness
Untapped/unavailable data Comprehensive data collection, analysis, and communication
Isolated equipment and building elements Interconnected equipment and building monitoring, data, and control systems
Human operations Human controlled, collaborative, and automated operations with inanimate objects (buildings, machines, etc.)

Table 1: Transformation from Tradition-based to Smart Fire Fighting.


A third major technology revolution is underway. The Industrial Revolution was the first. It spearheaded advances in physical equipment and technologies. The Internet Revolution was second. It led to advances in cyber technologies, including hardware and software. The Industrial Internet Revolution is the third, which includes the Internet of Things, Big Data, Analytics, Machine-to-Machine Communication, and sensor networks. This third revolution, just like its predecessors, provides the foundation for new types of systems called cyber physical systems (CPS).

CPS combines the cyber and physical worlds in real time. The miniaturization of sensors and the power of computers coupled with wireless communication technologies has given rise to a range of commercial products previously unimaginable, becoming available to improve the safety and effectiveness of fire fighting and fire protection. They enable the creation of fire-related products that talk to each other and equipment and controls that are integrated into meaningful sub-systems. Connecting the sub-systems is the ultimate goal, providing comprehensive access to information. These technologies, when integrated, will facilitate the development of smart systems. Examples include Smart Grid, Smart Cities, Smart Buildings, and Smart Transportation, to name a few.


Cyber physical technologies can be used to create Smart Fire Fighting systems. This requires a framework to 1) collect large quantities of data/ information from a range of sources, 2) process, analyze, and predict using that information, and 3) disseminate the results and provide targeted information based on the predictions to enable informed decision-making by communities, fire departments, incident commanders, and fire fighters as appropriate. The framework needs to address many technology and standards challenges, technical and implementation barriers, and environmental hazards on the fireground. The solutions will facilitate a paradigm shift from tradition-based fire protection and fire fighting to smart fire fighting. This shift will transform fire protection and fire fighting from the current state of information and experience-limited decision-making (see Table 1) to a sensor-rich environment with ubiquitous data collection, analysis and communication, ultimately leading to data-driven and science-based decision-making. This shift will likely occur as CPS is developed and tested for various applications and employed for fire protection and fire fighting.

Source Information Type
Fire Fighter
  • Radio
  • PASS alarm
  • Thermal imaging cameras
  • SCBA cylinder pressure
  • Physiological monitoring
  • Fire hose water flow
  • Fire fighter location
  • Floor plans, firewall ratings, locations of stand-pipes, building entrances, interior stairwells, elevators, hazardous materials
  • Annunciator panel
  • Carbon monoxide alarm
  • Fire alarm
  • Activity/motion sensors
  • Fire sprinklers
  • Building information models
  • Surveillance cameras
  • Local temperatures
  • Occupant location
Fire Apparatus
  • GPS routing, maps
  • Building pre-plans
  • Nearest hospital
  • Nearest hydrant
  • Apparatus water pressure
  • Accountability systems
  • Apparatus resource use
  • Community and regional resources
  • Computer-aided dispatch
  • Detailed building plans (e.g., stairs, exits, utilities, standpipes, construction, etc.)
  • Weather information
  • Traffic information
  • Ambulance information
  • Hospital status/information
  • Community utilities (water pressure, power)
  • Fire loss records; fire inspection records

Table 2: Examples of Existing and Emerging Fire-Related Information Sources.

Fire Service Role Knowledge Needs During an Emergency
Incident Commander
  • Real-time forecast of fire location(s), size, environmental conditions (tenability)
  • Crew and victim locations
  • Existing ventilation
  • Building status/forecast of time to significant failure in structural and situational tenability
  • Self-reporting by occupants of status (e.g., evacuated, still in the building, etc.)
  • Suggested situational tactics
  • Risk factors based on incident (fire, fire fighter, occupant locations/conditions)
  • On-scene personnel, equipment, and resource assignments and locations
  • Health status of crew, victims, occupants
  • Available/en route community resources (other departments, ambulance/hospital, police)
  • Hazard/injury forecasting from building & fire information based on hazards such as gas species, thermal conditions, building collapse
  • Current and projected weather
  • City utility status and building utility control
  • Status of non-scene community-based emergency responders (fire departments, police, ambulance, etc.)
  • Hospital status (occupancy, resources, etc.)
Safety Officer
  • Real-time forecast of fire location(s), size, environmental conditions (tenability)
  • Injury forecast for personnel: risk-based physiological data & rate of change
  • Injury forecast from building and fire information: risk from conditions such as gas species, thermal conditions, building collapse
Search and Rescue Team
  • Real-time forecast of fire location(s), size, environmental conditions (tenability)
  • Crew and victim locations
  • Prioritized search location list
  • Backdraft forecast
  • Projected nearest and alternate exit
Suppression Team
  • Real time forecast of fire location(s), size, environmental conditions (tenability)
  • Crew and victim locations
  • Water pressure, flowrate, line length, line errors
  • Change in fire over time, based on cleared area
  • Predictions of likely extensions from modeling
  • Suggested strategy for optimal output
  • Projected exit path
Ventilation Team
  • Real time forecast of fire location(s), size, environmental conditions (tenability)
  • Crew and victim locations
  • Existing ventilation
  • Expected ventilation results
  • Suggested location and type of ventilation
  • Projected exit paths for crew inside
  • Structural integrity (e.g., roof)

Table 3: Fire Service Dynamic Information and Knowledge Needs


The ability to acquire actionable information is critical to effective firefighting operations. The value of any specific piece of information depends on its accuracy, completeness, and accessibility. There are at least four major types of information sources that support Smart Fire Fighting: community-based information, building occupant information, building information, and information related to fire fighters and their tools. Table 2 lists some of the existing and emerging sources of information that are useful for Smart Fire Fighting. Today, data from these sources are independently collected and separately processed, which limits their effectiveness.


Data must be compiled, processed, and integrated into actionable information. Table 3 lists examples of the types of processed information that may be useful.


The complex process of information gathering begins with sensors, which are becoming cheaper, more powerful, and pervasive. As a starting point, leveraging existing and emerging sensor technologies and installed systems in buildings provides opportunities for smart fire fighting. New electronic technologies can provide an ever-increasing, sensor-rich environment from which vast amounts of potentially useful data can be derived. Buildings will see an increase in sensors that will track both the environmental condition and occupants’ status. Fire fighters will be equipped with sensors that track their location, monitor their physiology, and sense their environment. Sensors in fire fighters’ personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as in equipment and apparatus, provide the possibility of detecting and characterizing exposure hazards and monitoring fire fighter hydration, thermal stress, and location. The data would allow fire fighters to assess environmental conditions in real-time and take informed actions to minimize associated risks. A key to widespread use and acceptance of these new sensors is a common architecture and standards.


CPS architecture defines a system’s components as well as their functions and interactions across temporal and spatial scales. There currently is no universal CPS reference architecture that enables collaboration and sharing of ideas and solutions within and across sectors and domains. To make progress, Smart Fire Fighting systems and technologies require an integrated architectural design. Many CPS deployments are sector-specific and fragmented, and have not demonstrated their true potential of broad impact. The CPS research community is in the process of developing a framework to identify universal or cross-cutting elements of CPS architectures. This development will help identify common problems (such as technology integration) and solution.


Integrating sensor data with software analytics tools within and across architectural levels will require 1) standardized networking protocols to cover wireless communications and 2) standardized syntax and semantics to cover the conceptual content. A number of wireless standards exist already. Nevertheless, issues regarding their effectiveness on the fireground remain.


CPS will offer, for the first time, the ability to systematically monitor the implementation of specific tactics on the fireground. Since the gas temperatures throughout a structure are being tracked in real time, an IC will be able to monitor whether a suppression team is effective in reducing fire intensity. Based on fire data, an IC will have more information on which to choose to supplement or withdraw the initial suppression team. Feedback from CPS to the IC will enable fire ground operations and tactics to be improved.


The fire service is benefiting from the trend of an ever-increasing, sensor-rich environment with vast amounts of potentially useful data. The key to widespread use and acceptance of these new technologies is standardization. Standardization will come in two forms: performance and protocols. Performance standards govern how sensors should function and the data they should provide. Protocols govern the integration of sensors with other physical or electronic equipment and related software applications.

One arena where the specific topic area of Smart Fire Fighting is being addressed is within the NFPA family of codes and standards. Two new relevant documents are NFPA 950, Standard for Data Development and Exchange for the Fire Service, and NFPA 951, Guide to Building and Utilizing Digital Information. NFPA 950 provides a standardized framework for the development, management, and sharing of data for all-hazards response agencies and organizations. NFPA 951 will provide guidance on the development and integration of information and communication systems to facilitate information sharing for emergency response and national preparedness.

The National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA) Standard SB 30-2005—Fire Service Annunciator and Interface Standard provided the fire ser vice with wireless information across manufacturers’ platforms to enable easy operation without the need for specialized training on each individual system. The NEMA SB 30 Standard was adopted for inclusion in NFPA 72, the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. Since then, however, it has been rescinded, leaving a gap in an important enabling standard. Connecting buildings to public safety networks is complex, involving networks using different standard protocols.3 A large number of standards associated with Smart Fire Fighting remain to be resolved,4 including some crosscutting issues, affecting all CPS:

  • Secure methods of transmitting a standard data set in a standardized format
  • Standardized information for first responders and standard building data models
  • Standard communication protocols and user interfaces
  • Implementation of appropriate authorization, authentication, and security protocols
  • Interoperability standards for software and hardware
  • Plug-and-play architectures that facilitate integration of cyber and physical components


Information Enhanced Fire Fighting. An early demonstration of Smart Fire Fighting was conducted in 2005 by NIST with the Wilson Fire/Rescue Services, Wilson, NC. The goal of the demonstration was to relay information to first responders on their way to a simulated incident, thereby improving decision making. Some of that information came from three sensors in the target building: smoke sensors, heat sensors, and CO detectors. The sensor data was used by a zone model to infer probable future conditions with the information transmitted to the first responder’s laptop computer en route (see Figure 1) including:

  • Location of fire hydrants, building entrances, interior stairwells, elevators, hazardous materials, building occupancy, construction
  • Fire size and its location
  • Sprinklers/no sprinkler
  • Locations of interior standpipes, fire wall ratings, location of fire fighting & emergency medical services equipment
  • Floor plans with fire hazards deduced from sensor signals using a zone fire model with indication if flashover has occurred in real time; if a toxic/thermal hazard is present; if significant smoke is present or if a possible fire hazard exists.

The SAFER Project. In 2009, an analogous system was tested and implemented in Frisco, TX, as part of the Situational Awareness for Emergency Response (SAFER project), an information-based system for first responders and community resources.1 On the way to a fire, a variety of information is provided to first responders, including maps, arrangement of fire lanes, the location of fire hydrants, and pre-plan information with site details. Information includes the location of standpipes, how the building was constructed, the building layout and room functions, annotations on any recent problems, a list of hazardous materials in the building, updated contact information for school administrators, real-time video camera information from within the target building, and available water lines. This type of system provides a model of how information can be tapped for fire fighter and civilian safety.

Exploiting the Power of Big Data. A popular descriptive phrase used today is "big data.” Before 2013, fire inspections in New York City were paper-based. All that changed when FDNY’s Analytics Unit initiated operations. There are 330,000 buildings in the inspection portfolio in the City of New York, with about 10 percent inspected annually. To address the question as to which buildings ought to be inspected, FDNY’s Jeff Chen and Jeff Roth put together "FireCast,” a data-driven predictive risk engine.7 Dispensing with a reliance on empirical causation in favor of correlation, data on every aspect of life in New York City was accessed. This was possible because the city has digitized and harmonized whatever data was available including 311 noise complaints, sewage back-ups, power outages, building age, sprinkler presence, if the building was guarded, and building permit information.

FireCast 1.0 was deployed in March 2013 and included a dozen risk factors. The latest version relates thousands of types of data to determine the relationship with key fire incident indicators. The risk profile is updated daily and provided to inspection teams that can then decide which properties need inspection. Infraction rates have significantly increased with the deployment of FireCast 2.0. The impact of this work is being tracked and is expected to lead to reduced fire losses.

Figure 1. Screen-shot of en route information displayed by an emergency responder’s laptop showing the Wilson Hospital floor plan from Ref 6. Yellow indicates real-time toxic/thermal hazard areas based on a zone fire model calculation.


In an effort to kick-start a Research Roadmap on Smart Fire Fighting, a workshop titled, Smart Firefighting, Where Big Data and Fire Service Unite, was held in March 2014.6 The workshop established a dialogue among subject matter expert s familiar with the unique characteristics of fire fighting and CPS. Workshop results are being used to develop the technical basis for a Smart Fire Fighting Roadmap8 to identify high-priority technical barriers and research gaps that hinder widespread application of CPS to fire fighting.

The idea of Smart Fire Fighting is based on creating, storing, exchanging, analyzing, and integrating information from a wide range of databases and sensor networks. Key challenges involve innovative design strategies, new control theory, systems integration, intelligent sensing and control, and automation. Another key challenge is the ability to develop usable performance metrics for experimentation, evaluation, and validation, and to enable the design, control, and efficient operation of advanced cyber-physical systems. A third challenge is to enable interoperability among different cyber physical systems.

As wireless networks get faster and more prevalent, as sensors become smaller and less expensive, and as computing resources become more powerful, the potential for impact on fire fighting and public safety using Smart Fire Fighting will continue to expand. To enable progress, many standards need to be resolved; work is underway to address many of these, but much remains to be done. The fire protection community needs to be aware of the latest CPS developments and start implementing smart systems to benefit the next generation of fire fighting and fire protection.

Anthony Hamins, Albert Jones, and Nelson Bryner are with the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Casey Grant is with the Fire Protection Research Foundation.


  1. Karter, M.J., Jr. and Molis, J.L., "U.S. Firefighter Injuries - 2013,” NFPA, Quincy, MA, Nov. 2014,
  2. Karter, M.J., Jr., "Fire Loss in the United States During 2013,” NFPA, Quincy, MA, Sept. 2014,
  3. Vinh, A. and Holmberg, D.C., "Connecting Buildings to Public Safety Networks,” International Multi-Conference on Engineering and Technology Innovation (IMETI 2009). Proceedings. Vol. 3. July 10-13, 2009, Orlando FL, 199-203, 2009.
  4. Averill, J.D., Holmberg, D., Vinh, A., Davis, W., "Building Information Exchange for First Responders Workshop: Proceedings October 15-16, 2008,” National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, NIST Technical Note 1643, 60 pp, December 2011.
  5. Davis, W.D., Holmberg, D.G., Reneke, P.A., Brassell, L.D., Vettori, R.L., "Demonstration of Real-Time Tactical Decision Aid Displays,” National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, NIST IR 7437, August 2007.
  6. Davis, W.D., "Intelligent Building Response,” Fire Protection Engineering, No. 33, 26 Winter 2007.
  7. Hamins, A., Bryner, N., Jones, A., Koepke, G., Grant, C., Raghunathan, A., Smart Firefighting Workshop Summary Report, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, Special Publication 1174, August 2014.
  8. A Roadmap for Smart Firefighting, National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, NIST GCR in preparation, 2015.