min read

How a US Fire Department Uses Aussie Software to Solve an Age Old Problem

Written by
Helen Hall
Published on
August 8, 2023

With a history of both fire fighting and as a paramedic, Justin Magill has experienced firsthand the unmet need of being armed with the necessary information required to know where to go and what to navigate when responding to an emergency.

“Traditionally in the fire service, preplans had been hand-drawn either on paper or on a computer with no georeferenced data included. Advances in technology have made it possible to create more detailed and accurate preplans using computer-aided drafting (CAD) software. The challenge there is that buildings and infrastructure are constantly changing which requires preplans to be updated to reflect these changes. CAD preplans make it much easier to update these changes”.
Justin Magill

Upon on a Google search, Justin uncovered an affordable, user friendly, one stop shop application which would provide the accurate geospatial information that he could supply to emergency services in the form of a preplan. All the way over to the other side of the world and already widely used in Australia, Justin signed up online for a free trial for Locatrix’s PlanStudio.

What’s required in a preplan? A complete preplan should include the following information:

  • Site photos
  • Specific building layout
  • Fire flow calculations
  • Location of fire hydrants and other water sources
  • Location of hazardous materials
  • Evacuation plans
  • Emergency contact information

“Simple placemarks on a Google Earth image are not sufficient for a complete preplan. The preplan should be as detailed as possible so that firefighters can have a clear understanding of the building and the surrounding area before they arrive on scene.”

Some of the benefits of using advanced technology for preplans:

  • Increased accuracy
  • Easier to update
  • More detailed
  • Provides a better understanding of the building and surrounding area

“While simple CAD software can provide a way to provide this detail, it is not easy to adopt due to it being expensive to create from a resource and time perspective, they require specialized software which often has pricey licensing fees and due to these reasons are often not accessible to all firefighters.”

The City of Richmond Heights Division of Fire is responsible for protecting the lives and property of the citizens of Richmond Heights, Ohio. With a population of 10,476 with 33% living in aging apartment complexes, there is a lot that the local fire department needs to be aware of to ensure the community’s fire safety. In addition to the residential buildings, there is a hospital, an airport, several large shopping malls, school systems, and four long term healthcare facilities and two industrial complexes, so a very complex demographic with many diverse safety needs.

To do this effectively, the Fire Department must be prepared for any type of fire or emergency. One way that the FD prepares is by creating preplans for high-risk buildings. Preplans are detailed documents that provide information about the layout of a building, its fire protection systems, and potential hazards.

Chief Neumann, originally a Division Chief with Orange County Fire Rescue Department in Florida, moved to Ohio because he recognized and welcomed the challenge of managing in a diverse region and the change from a large, urban organization.

Chief Neumann
“The primary fire safety challenges we face occur during the construction phase of a building. While the occupancies do meet the necessary codes, they have been constructed with materials that may not provide the best protection from fire, therefore requiring the fire department to maintain a high level of building intelligence on record.  With many older buildings in need of updating, there are many projects in place or being planned to either demolish and rebuild or renovate and extend. The latter poses a significant threat as occupancies such as hospitals, schools, and shopping malls must stay operational while the construction is being carried out.  Simultaneously running two different fire safety systems with many operational considerations and overlapping procedures poses a risk for accidents to occur, and often they do”. 

Chief Neumann of the Richmond Heights Division of Fire stated.

“I learned from previous experience how important technology and mobile data were and how a one-stop-shop to find data to improve situational awareness in firefighting including G.I.S. (Graphic Information System Mapping), was key. When Justin showed me PlanStudio, I was excited and relieved that we had found an affordable solution that checks all the boxes and can better assist in the pre-planning process”.

“PlanStudio is user-friendly and provides information essential to firefighting and survivability. Making pre-planning simple, by easily adding information such as utilities, egress, and fire equipment as a one-stop-shop with a concise, clear, and dynamic view which an incident commander can share with firefighters before they arrive at the scene”.  

“Before PlanStudio, the preplan process was very manual. Preplans were created by firefighters on paper or on hand drawn digital files, and then stored in binders or on USB drives. This process was time-consuming and inefficient. It was also difficult to keep the preplans up to date, as buildings and fire protection systems change over time.”

Justin explains.

Since implementation of PlanStudio In 2023, the Richmond Heights FD have started to see the following benefits:

  • Increased Efficiency - Preplans can be created and updated quickly and easily on an iPad while completing walkthroughs. The software has saved the FD a significant amount of time in creating and updating preplans. Complex plans usually take 50-75% less time compared to the previous methods that did not include site specific photos and the level of detail achieved within PlanStudio.
  • Increased Accuracy - The software includes a cloud-based database of building information that is constantly being updated ensuring that preplans are always accurate. All data is georeferenced to the real-world enabling the data created to be utilized in existing GIS databases that dispatch centers may be using. This is important for firefighter safety, as it allows them to make informed decisions about how to approach a fire.
  • Increased Accessibility - Preplans can now be accessed from any device with an internet connection. This makes it easier for firefighters to access the information they need when they need it, regardless of where they are.
  • Enhanced Security - The software is password-protected and preplans can be encrypted. This helps to protect the information within the preplans from unauthorized access.

Justin has already mapped a significant amount of high-risk buildings in the short time since he signed up with PlanStudio earlier this year.

By having accurate and up to date preplans, firefighters are better equipped to respond to fires in a safe and effective manner. Having the right information at the right time is critical to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities caused by fires. We hope to create a training program for firefighters on how to use the software, developing a process for regularly updating the software's database of building information and encourage other fire departments to adopt PlanStudio for pre planning purposes. We believe the implementation of the new preplan software has been a success for the City of Richmond Heights Division of Fire as it has saved the Fire Department time, improved the accuracy of preplans and made them more accessible. PlanStudio has made the city safer for residents and employees.”
Matthew O'Donnell

Matthew O'Donnell, Fire Fighter at Richmond Heights was eager to help Justin with the task of mapping some of the local buildings.

"When I heard we were going to begin updating our preplans I jumped at the chance to help Justin out. We have several plans that were noticeably outdated, and several that were hand drawings. I wanted to be able to help our department be more efficient, and solidify my own knowledge of some of our buildings. 

"I have no experience using mapping software whatsoever. As soon as I was told we were using Locatrix's PlanStudio, I began researching what I could about the software. The site has several videos that walk you through different aspects. I watched all the videos and took ample time using the PlanStudio academy to get familiar with the program. After getting accustomed to it I got to work mapping apartment buildings. Having the ability to add pictures and alter plans as we walk through buildings has been a fantastic help, especially for somebody who is learning on the fly like me". 


The City of Richmond Heights Division of Fire is confident that the use of PlanStudio and its implementation within their fire service will improve the safety of the city and its residents.

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