An Avoidable Tragedy

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The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that a 29-year-old woman had died from injuries sustained after being struck on her bicycle during a collision of two fire trucks responding to an alarm.

The accident occurred March 30 at an intersection in a commercial area of Houston. The driver of a ladder truck apparently ran a red light, hitting a pumper truck also en route to the scene and toppling. In addition to the cyclist, 10 others were injured, although none as gravely.

The tragedy was that the trucks were responding to a false alarm. What occurred, however, was a breakdown in city communications that can be avoided by the types of networked alarm, notification and surveillance systems that exist today. Although a fire had been reported, the Houston Department of Public Works (DPW) was only smoke-testing sewer lines. The DPW said it had notified the fire department that morning of the scheduled work.

The Chronicle reported this:

District Chief Tommy Dowdy could not confirm if HFD had received notification from the city about the smoke testing, but he said it wouldn't have mattered because firefighters would have gone to the scene regardless.

"If somebody calls it in, we treat it as legitimate until we get on the scene and rule out that there is a reason to be there," Dowdy said. "So we responded appropriately."

Yet is is likely the accident, and the young woman's death, could have been avoided if HFD had the means to verify and confirm the nature of the emergency before dispatching personnel and equipment.


A unified, networked security information management system could have:

  • Cross-checked the location of the incident with interdepartmental communications, finding the DPW memo and bringing it to the attention of fire department personnel who may have missed it;
  • Directed images from area surveillance cameras to fire stations allowing them to assess the nature of the situation and the equipment that might be needed before deploying a fleet of trucks;
  • Connected into Houston's traffic management system to use traffic lights to clear an appropriate route for responders, reducing the likelihood that two trucks would simultaneously converge on a single intersection;
  • Provided responders with that route through GPS devices, as well as real-time information as to the location of other responding units.
Any of these network-based processing operations might have likely prevented an accident. In the best of all worlds, Houston and other cities would employ systems that allow them to use all their information resources in service of emergency response. False alarms would be weeded out. At the same time, responders would arrive on the scene of actual emergencies better informed and equipped.

This is not pie-in-the-sky. Locally, the Port of Houston Authority is already using a situation management system that brings together numerous alarm and surveillance systems to manage and coordinate emergency response. It's not as difficult as it sounds. It's essentially what physical security information management (PSIM) is designed to do, using legacy systems in place today.

The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that a 29-year-old woman had died from injuries sustained after being struck on her bicycle during a collision of two fire trucks responding to an alarm.

The accident occurred March 30 at an intersection in a commercial area of Houston. The driver of a ladder truck apparently ran a red light, hitting a pumper truck also en route to the scene and toppling. In addition to the cyclist, 10 others were injured, although none as gravely.

The tragedy was that the trucks were responding to a false alarm. What occurred, however, was a breakdown in city communications that can be avoided by the types of networked alarm, notification and surveillance systems that exist today. Although a fire had been reported, the Houston Department of Public Works (DPW) was only smoke-testing sewer lines. The DPW said it had notified the fire department that morning of the scheduled work.

The Chronicle reported this:

District Chief Tommy Dowdy could not confirm if HFD had received notification from the city about the smoke testing, but he said it wouldn't have mattered because firefighters would have gone to the scene regardless.

"If somebody calls it in, we treat it as legitimate until we get on the scene and rule out that there is a reason to be there," Dowdy said. "So we responded appropriately."

Yet is is likely the accident, and the young woman's death, could have been avoided if HFD had the means to verify and confirm the nature of the emergency before dispatching personnel and equipment.


A unified, networked security information management system could have:

  • Cross-checked the location of the incident with interdepartmental communications, finding the DPW memo and bringing it to the attention of fire department personnel who may have missed it;
  • Directed images from area surveillance cameras to fire stations allowing them to assess the nature of the situation and the equipment that might be needed before deploying a fleet of trucks;
  • Connected into Houston's traffic management system to use traffic lights to clear an appropriate route for responders, reducing the likelihood that two trucks would simultaneously converge on a single intersection;
  • Provided responders with that route through GPS devices, as well as real-time information as to the location of other responding units.
Any of these network-based processing operations might have likely prevented an accident. In the best of all worlds, Houston and other cities would employ systems that allow them to use all their information resources in service of emergency response. False alarms would be weeded out. At the same time, responders would arrive on the scene of actual emergencies better informed and equipped.

This is not pie-in-the-sky. Locally, the Port of Houston Authority is already using a situation management system that brings together numerous alarm and surveillance systems to manage and coordinate emergency response. It's not as difficult as it sounds. It's essentially what physical security information management (PSIM) is designed to do, using legacy systems in place today.

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