An emergency responder is assigned to handle the radiological monitors at a hazmat incident. Several different brands of monitors are in use. Even those made by same manufacturer may be different models with modified operating instructions.

Worse, proprietary software may make it impossible for the equipment to work together or communicate in a common output language. The monitor in the firefighter’s hand may not be able to transmit data in a format that the computer in use back at incident command can understand.

To quote from the Next Generation First Responder Integration Handbook published by Homeland Security responders “are overburdened with data and devices, so throwing more technologies at the problem does more harm than good.”

Instead, the handbook states, responders need smarter, seamless technologies that increase their ability to focus on the mission, rather than distract from it.

 “Not having it all combined into a good, common operating system can make it hard to get the job done,” said Peter Jensen, battalion chief with the Ventura County (CA) Fire Department.

Jensen, with nearly 25 years’ experience in hazmat, serves on the International Association of Fire Chiefs Hazardous Materials Committee and the National Fire Protection Associations’ committee on competence of responders to hazardous material/weapons of mass destruction incidents.

He is also chair of the California Fire Chiefs Association’s Firescope (Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies) Hazmat Working Group.

He spoke during the IAFC’s Fire Rescue International conference and expo in Atlanta, GA, in August.

Fire Scope writes the standardized equipment list for all hazmat teams in the state. A request by a vendor to add a requirement to the list triggered the group’s concern about interoperability of electronic equipment used in hazmat response.

“We were not comfortable with that because (the vendor) was the only game in town at that time,” he said. “So we decided that, hey, this is a big problem. Let’s try to deal with this issue in broader terms.”

The goal was to implement a standardized approach to data transmission from multiple types of sensors capturing both discrete and continuous data streams in a hazmat situation. The solution proposed was to standardize all electronic hazmat equipment to use a common programming language known as JSON (JavaScript Object Notation).

JSON facilitates structured data interchange between all programming languages and requires less on-board computing power, Jensen said.

“It compresses into small data packets, really easy and fast to transfer,” Jensen said. “We can transfer it across any media, whether it’s Bluetooth, satellite, smoke signals or whatever.”

JSON utilizes XML as extensible markup language to encode documents in format that is both human-readable and machine-readable. The language is “open standard,” meaning it is public rather than proprietary. JSON also uses GML, an extensible markup language that dates back to the late 1960s and is still in common use.

“We don’t want to get into a situation where you pick a language that is outdated in three to five years,” Jensen said.

Both XML and GML makes possible structured data interchange between all programming languages. Both are also best suited towards the inclusion of meta-data heavy information such as video.

“These are the two that are being recommended for the new NFPA 950 standard that is in the re-write process right now,” Jensen said. That standard will govern data development and exchange for the entire fire service.

The point of this process is to make electronic equipment in the fire service more collaborative across the board, Jensen said, while giving the designers enough flexibility to customize that equipment for special uses.

“The end user will have the ability to build what they need with a third or fourth party designer,” Jensen said. “Not everybody likes to centralize on one particular manufacturer.”

As a first step, NFPA 950 standardizes the data language transmitted between the sensing devices used by the responder and equipment that displays those results at incident command headquarters. Standardization of data transmission “gives us the ability to make effective decisions in a rapid fashion,” he said.

“It allows the infrastructure group to build whatever is needed to make the device most efficient,” Jensen said. “It also allows us to customize the command display to accommodate the end users’ needs.”

The new standard is expected to become a reality within the next 36 months, he said. Ideally, it will put the end user in a better position when it comes time to draw up specifications for their next purchase of monitors, Jensen said.

“When we write the specs for a wireless device we can ask ‘Does your device meet the NFPA 950 standard?’” he said. “’Does it have a common operating language using JSON or XML?’ If they say no, then we, as the end users, have to say ‘Sorry, we’re going with the one that does.’”

The key to winning approval is getting the end users to band together in support, Jensen said.

“If we continue to ignore this requirement, then the manufacturers are going to continue to do what they want.”