The introduction of new technology into the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) hasn't always been easy. "We didn't even have fax machines until the late '90s," department Chief Salvatore Cassano said during a forum held in the city Friday to highlight ways in which public safety agencies are turning to information technology (IT) to better manage demographic and other data as urban populations grow and departmental budgets shrink. "You can't manage what you don't measure," he added, "and we weren't measuring things well."

Help, if not money, is on the way as the FDNY prepares to roll out its new Coordinated Building Inspection and Data Analysis System (CBIDAS) in early December. Initially, only six of the city's 350 firefighting companies will have access to a "data warehouse," a group of interconnected databases designed to establish one centralized depot of fire-inspection information that will eventually be available to the whole fire department as well as to the New York Police Department (NYPD) and other city agencies. Also expected for the warehouse are Web-based portals for accessing reports a number of ways, including via mobile devices.

The four-year, $25-million CBIDAS project with IBM was initiated after the August 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank building in New York City, where two firefighters died. Investigators attributed the loss of life to a lack of timely information available to responding firefighters. This prompted the department to find a better way to track firefighters when they are working in any of the city's roughly 950,000 buildings, Cassano said. If the December pilot program is successful, CBIDAS access will be expanded throughout the FDNY's companies.

CBIDAS is also expected to help fire company officers prioritize inspections based on database information. Each fire company is allotted nine hours per week to inspect buildings in their respective districts, "so we need to get the most out of our inspectional[sic] time," Cassano said. Inspections are critical to firefighting, he added, because the information gathered during inspections alerts firefighters to a building's layout before they get to the scene of an emergency. "Firefighters do building inspection so the first time they're in a building is not when they're fighting a fire," he added.

Another FDNY IT project under development is designed to help the department determine whether it should relocate, and possibly consolidate, city firehouses to better accommodate New York's shifting population. In 2005 the department hired San Diego–based Deccan International, a maker of computer-aided dispatch software, to develop and implement a "siting and deployment" program (pdf) based on a geographic information system (GIS). Cassano expects there to be a lot of community resistance in neighborhoods where firehouses may be closed, as there was when the city shut down six stations in 2004, but he insists that such measures are necessary as the department copes with the city's growing population amidst budget cuts. This project is to come online within the "next few months," the fire chief said.