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Staying on Top

Constant map updating keeps fire and rescue up with new development in the county.

When people first move to Loudoun, one of the first things they often worry about is whether the Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Management has them on its radar.

"We get people all the time who call just to check that their addresses are in our system," Elizabeth Mancuso, GIS specialist for the department, said. "They just want to make sure."

As the county continues to grow, the demand on the Fire and Rescue Department also grows. Each station must keep updated on the areas it immediately serves, as well as other areas it might be called on to serve. Firefighters must be trained constantly, learning directions to new sites and streets almost every day.

"We average three or four new streets a week," Michael Carter, the department's Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system analyst, said. "We had one month with 72 new streets."

Last year the county topped more than 6,000 streets, with another 3,000 to 4,000 on reserve for developments under construction.

THE PROCESS OF keeping the fire and rescue system, and the firefighters themselves, informed of new streets, developments and businesses in the county, and making sure residents are receiving the highest quality service, is a complicated one. One of the biggest components to its success, Carter said, is communication.

"Until a couple of years ago we had a stand alone system," Carter said. "Now we share all the data with the mapping department. If the county shows something is a valid address, we show it as a valid address."

Once new developments go through the approval process with the county, the mapping office ensures that any new streets do not duplicate names already in existence. Then the mapping office passes the new information on to the Fire and Rescue Department.

"You can't get a building permit, without having the address and street information approved," Carter said.

The system is updated every two weeks, Mancuso said, with the updates taking two days to implement.

"It is a very long and detailed process," she said.

A few years ago, the county did a comprehensive remapping of the county's roadways, waterways, topography and physical features.

"Before that, the data in the west was 20 years old," Mancuso said. In addition to simple addresses, information about new addresses will include caution notes, such as driveway or environmental information that might impact a fire engine or ambulance's ability to access a house or business. The department does not differentiate between houses or buildings that are occupied and those still under construction, Carter said.

"We consider an address from the minute it is filed to be an occupied unit," he said.

ONCE NEW data is entered into the system, Carter distributes the information to the stations closest to the location. In addition to sending out new developments' information, a list of any street or address changes is sent to each station at the end of each month. The responsibility of keeping updated records falls to the staff of county's fire stations. Each station uses the box system to identify which station should be responding to a call. The system identifies portions of the county by the closest company's number, such as 6 for Ashburn or 9 for Arcola, and an assigned box number. The box system particularly helps with streets that sound like they should be in an area of the county other than where they actually are.

"In Loudoun Valley Estates, our first call was on Lucketts Bridge Circle," Carter said. "The guys out in Lucketts were heading for the truck before they realized it wasn't anywhere near them."

When Carter sends out the new street and address information to the fire stations, captains send the information out to their staff for them to learn.

"I am really hard on my guys about knowing their stuff," Capt. James S. Williams, Ashburn Volunteer Fire-Rescue Station 6, said. "But the first thing we have to do is make a run route."

Run routes are the most direct routes from each fire station to every street in its service area. Each engine is supplied with a map book, with every street listed alphabetically, that the firefighters must keep updated.

"A lot of the maps are really old or hand drawn," firefighter Clayton Parmenter, Ashburn Volunteer Fire-Rescue Station 6, said. "They have the locations of every hydrant and every building."

THE MORNING OF Friday, March 30, Parmenter was out mapping the new Lansdowne Town Center, noting hydrants, sprinkler systems and the layout of the new center. On average each station with a growing service area has three to four firefighters working on updating the map system, replacing the hand-drawn maps with computerized maps made using Microsoft Office's Visio software.

"The program has everything," Parmenter said. "It makes it very easy to make a new map. We can literally draw the exact curves of a street."

Having an exact map, with street access directions and secondary hydrant locations, can also help other fire stations that arrive at the scene of an incident.

"The first engine can tell subsequent engines alternate ways to get in to the neighborhood," Parmenter said. "It eliminates all the clutter of trying to get there."

In order to create the new maps, Parmenter and other firefighters are constantly out in the county, hand drawing new maps to be entered into the computer system.

"Some of it is honestly just going out and looking and making note of what is there," Williams said.

ONCE THE MAP of the Lansdowne Town Center is complete; Williams will e-mail the information out to his staff. It is their responsibility to study the map. Firefighters are constantly being tested on road names, directions from the fire station and hydrant locations.

"Every morning when we do our morning briefing, we do a drill," Parmenter said. "We'll be given a map and have to fill in the information. It is something different every day."

Parmenter said it takes a lot of individual study before run routes and street names are familiar.

"One of the most difficult things is streets that sound similar and roads that are cut up and not continuous. That's where the map book comes into play," Parmenter said. "We're always out there looking. You're out there so often, you pick up on things."