Data analysis brings new approaches to emergency management, planning

TML Communications Specialist

A new project conducted by Metro Nashville and Vanderbilt University is using technology to improve emergency response, giving the city insight into the best places to put fire department personnel and even where to locate new fire stations to best serve the community.

The Integrated Safety Incident Forecasting and Analysis project is a collaboration between the Vanderbilt Institute for Smart Cities Operation and Research (VISOR) and Metro Nashville, bringing together Nashville’s fire department and the Metro Nashville and Davidson County Information Technology Services.

The project took data collected in the past three years on everything from various safety incidents, motor vehicle incidents, fire incidents, health and emergency related incidents, average response times, pedestrian traffic, road traffic, road characteristics, weather, and even major events occurring in the city.

That data was then incorporated into a computer model that can both predict where incidents are most likely to happen in the future as well see if adding personnel, equipment, or even a new fire station might improve responses.

Colleen Herndon, Smart Cities project manager for the Metro Nashville and Davidson County Information Technology Services Department, said the project began after city IT officials and researchers working with the VISOR program sat down to see if they could collaborate on a project that met needs for both.

“We were talking about what the benefits of a collaboration could be for the university, for Metro, and for the citizens and the community,” she said. “That was when we started talking about where their strengths were and what our needs were as a government. It was out of those talks that the idea first arose that emergency response would be a good intersect for a project.”

Abhishek Dubey, assistant professor in the electrical engineering and computer science department at Vanderbilt University and senior research scientist at the Institute for Software Integrated Systems, said the major goal for the university was to see if they could use historic data and computer programming to predict future emergency response outcomes.

“Our goal at the university was to take a look at a very unique urban planning problem that is happening in Nashville and impacts everybody,” he said. “We wanted to see if we could take a scientific lens – for example data science tools – and make a positive impact. We wanted to answer questions like ‘when should a fire department request more equipment’ or ‘where should a fire department be located?’ We wanted to see if there was a way to identify what will be the future needs and goals of a large urban planning area. We also wanted to see if we could predict the type of problems that a fire department could expect to see in a certain area.”

Dubey said the Integrated Safety Incident Forecasting and Analysis project gives emergency officials a new way to look at data, especially in terms of using other data like traffic patterns to help put the emergency response data fire officials are familiar with into a greater context.

“It’s not that the fire department wasn’t already looking at the data,” Dubey said. “We just provided certain other features to match with their data. We wanted to create a tool that helps them analyze the impact they can make. This program is now available to them, and it doesn’t stop here. The tool is continuously learning. As new accidents happen, new data comes in. Our goal is that, at the end of the day, it will become something like an oracle. You can use the tool to see if adding a new fire truck, adding more personnel, moving equipment, building a new fire station, or relocating a fire station will change anything. We can actually use the data to explain what the results of those decisions would be and why those results would be.”

Herndon said some of the results were surprising.

“We were really expecting to see an impact on emergency response when we had special events, especially when we had special events downtown,” Herndon said. “After doing an analysis of several years, we were able to determine that special events are not a trigger that is causing an increase in emergency calls. Taking into account all the different data sets has been very interesting as well.”

Herndon said the information can also give statistical backing to new projects or show ways to use existing equipment more efficiently.

“For the fire department to have this additional information to provide to city planners is great,” she said. “Recently, we had an area that was identified as a candidate for putting a new fire station. A lot of the firemen who worked in the area knew that area wouldn’t be ideal, though, because of the rush hour traffic that sits right in the front of the station. It’s important when you go to city officials to have the data that is able to show why something works or doesn’t. It’s great to be able to show city officials if you moved this one truck over to this one station you could reduce response times by three seconds. That is a powerful tool to have.”