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Geodata to the rescue: How the Düsseldorf Fire Department uses Google Cloud

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Whether it’s a sprained foot or a burning building: when someone needs help, fire and emergency services come to the rescue. Being in charge of all fire, rescue, and first responder services is a huge responsibility, and it’s growing: urban areas are changing, and climate change brings new challenges. These challenges require innovative solutions. In this blog, David von der Lieth, Director of the Düsseldorf Fire Department, explains how the city’s fire brigade leverages Google Cloud to better serve the city and its inhabitants with instantly available location analyses.

When we get an emergency call, every second counts. So where we put our fire stations really matters, especially in a growing city like Düsseldorf. We have to ensure that we can reach any address within six minutes –  undeterred by heavy traffic, construction sites, or other unexpected developments.

With a growing number of emergencies and residents, it’s increasingly difficult to live up to this standard. In order to optimize the distribution of new and existing fire and rescue stations, we used to rely on surveys and location analyses from consulting firms. These were not just costly, but also time-consuming. We often had to wait three to four months for a single survey. Today we get the same result in a few minutes, thanks to our Google Cloud-based analysis tool.

Fast-tracking the optimization and planning of locations with geodata

The Düsseldorf Fire Department has been using Google Cloud and Google Maps solutions since 2020. Back then, our partner Ubilabs developed a vaccination route planning tool. The tool leveraged geospatial data, helping us to better reach people who were unable to visit clinics or vaccination centers due to health reasons. When we rolled out the solution, we quickly realized we could use a similar planning tool for the distribution of our fire and rescue sites.

Because incorporating new software solutions into municipal IT systems can be complicated, we wanted a cloud-based software-as-a-service tool that could be easily integrated. And “easy” is the keyword here. We wanted a visually appealing tool that was intuitive and didn’t require any training for the end user. We wanted it to be so simple anyone could quickly understand the context and its implications in screenshots and presentations.

Delivering analyses in minutes instead of months

With these specifications – and constant feedback from our end – Ubilabs developed the planning tool in just 10 weeks. The finished solution delivers information in minutes rather than months. And from a financial perspective, it’s already paid for itself, because the entire software development cost about as much as a single third-party report.

The tool is simple to use. We place location markers for existing and planned fire and rescue stations on a map. Because we sometimes have ambulances on standby on specific parking lots and other locations on certain days of the week, we can also add temporary locations. All these locations are displayed on a list.

We then use this geodata to find out how many of these addresses we can reach within a specified time limit. On the map, the regions we can’t reach fast enough are marked in shades of red. With this setup, we can quickly run through various scenarios and find out where we need to make improvements.

Finding new sites with greater flexibility

We’ve already used the analysis tool to identify the ideal building site for the construction of a new rescue station. That’s usually a very complex and lengthy process, and it’s not uncommon to find out at a later stage that we can’t use our ideal location after all, for regulatory or other reasons. In that case, we quickly need to come up with alternative suggestions, and examine each of them carefully.

Caption: The tool makes it easy to quickly try out different scenarios.

In the past, we would have needed a new third-party report for each new suggestion, which would have delayed the planning for months. Today, we can use our analysis tool to quickly run through new scenarios and provide an answer in minutes. That’s a tremendous asset helping us to save time on construction projects.

Data-based relief for rescue workers

The Google Cloud-based tool also supports other strategic and operational decisions. We just started using it for the dynamic allocation of rescue resources during certain events in the city of Dusseldorf. It also helps us to adjust the remit and responsibilities of specific locations and better balance the capacities of different rescue stations.

In order to reduce the burden on our rescue workers, we can send ambulances from another area on specific calls as long as they meet the six minute criterion. Our rescue workers often take on between 10 and 20 calls in a single shift and have to give it their all every single time, so any relief is welcome.

Innovating for the community

Of course, our experienced fire and rescue workers quickly notice even small changes to their daily routines and responsibilities. That’s why it’s important for us to transparently explain each measure and the reasoning behind it. Not even the world’s best cloud solution can replace decades of experience gained in on-the-ground fire and rescue missions, but it can help us test new strategies and open up new perspectives. Human know-how and modern technology go hand in hand.

Our analysis tool has become indispensable for our strategic and operational decisions here at the City of Düsseldorf. But we’re just getting started. Together with Ubilabs and Google Cloud, we’re already thinking extensively about ways to further improve and expand it. For example, there’s a lot of freely available, geo-referenced data that’s extremely important for the fire department, such as weather data, traffic data, air data, or river level data. In the future, we might be able to display all of this data in aggregated form or in separate display layers on our map. This would help us make better operational decisions and get the right emergency services to the right place at the right time, faster.

We have lots of ideas, and collaborating with Google Cloud and Ubilabs provides us with the perfect playground to try them out. The development was simple, the result is sensational – it’s a real asset for the Düsseldorf fire brigade and the community that we serve.

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