Firefighters getting the green light(s) for better response times

When Tyler Ryan is piloting a huge fire truck carrying 2 tons of water and a heavy inventory of emergency equipment through the full bloom of rush-hour traffic on 170th Street, there’s nothing he hates to see more than a red light.

Yes, the truck has a loud siren, bright lights and a stunning air horn, but sometimes drivers just don’t clear a pathway when all four lanes of traffic are jammed full and people ­– stereos turned up in their sound-proofed cars – are waiting for cross-traffic to stop so they can go.

Sometimes, Fire Station 4 Captain Greg Winter says, drivers will become aware of the fire truck and move forward into the danger zone where cross-traffic is still moving quickly.

“And sometimes, there can be a big box truck blocking my view of one or more lanes on the cross-street,” says Tyler. “I really do not like red lights!” he says.

“People don’t realize that when a serious collision resulting from the response of  one of our trucks occurs on the way to a fire, we’re obliged to stop and assist, which takes one unit away from its main purpose – dealing with the original emergency,” says Greg.

Even if there are no issues at a red light, fire trucks are required to slow to single-digit kilometers per hour to protect both public safety and their own. Slowing a heavy truck down, then accelerating again at multiple red lights is a highly time-consuming process when seconds are crucial. Stop-and-go also produces extra wear and tear on fire vehicles.

Technology to the rescue!

…all of which is why firefighters are thrilled that a new GPS Emergency Vehicle Pre-emption system for traffic signal advancement is being installed over the next three years at 120 key, high-volume intersections in the city.

“The Opticom system will ensure that when we’re on our way to a fire, we get green lights virtually all the way there,” says Greg. “Our firefighters would far rather ‘go with the flow’ and move vehicles aside more safely with lights and siren, than slowing down and speeding up through red lights,” he says.

“The system involves a GPS-infrared unit on the truck that constantly transmits  the position of the truck and sends a signal to a control box mounted on traffic signal poles. It prompts the Opticom system to adjust the signals to enable green lights for emergency response units. The opposing lights will change to yellow, then red, to stop cross-traffic at the intersection before we get there,” says Tyler.

“The light in our direction will remain green until we’re through and gone, then the normal light cycle will resume.”

A 2012 pilot program at 20 intersections along 156 and 170 Streets proved that the system cuts fully 30 seconds off response times.

“When you consider that a free-burning fire doubles in size every minute, that 30 seconds can easily mean the difference between life and death, or between losing a structure or possibly saving it,” says Greg.

The bottom line is that the system gets firefighters to fires much quicker, and offers both them and the public a much higher level of safety while the trucks are en route.

Greg says Fire Rescue Services chose the locations of the 120 new Opticom locations – for which they’ve received $2.2 million in capital funding – in a democratic way.

Officers from every fire station were gathered in front of a big city map, given six stickers each and asked to identify the intersections that gave them the more cause for concern.

tation Captain Greg Winter and Firefighter Tyler Ryan were part of a 2012 pilot program that proved that GPS can cut 30 seconds off their response times.
tation Captain Greg Winter and Firefighter Tyler Ryan were part of a 2012 pilot program that proved that GPS can cut 30 seconds off their response times.