What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.
Ben is a retained firefighter who is a construction worker in daily life. A couple of times a day, he drives in and out of town to get supplies or pick up his children from school. He knows he has to book off every time he travels further than 4 minutes from his fire station. But it is too much of a hassle, so sometimes he forgets.
Now imagine that without Ben, his station is no longer able to muster a full crew within 4 minutes. So, by picking up some supplies just outside town, he can unwittingly take the pump off the run.
Meanwhile, everything seems fine in the rota system. But Ben suddenly finds himself too far away when a call comes in, and his team will be in for a nasty surprise. They relied on “spooks”: team mates who they thought were coming, but actually couldn’t make it in time.
Go hands-free with geofencing
What if Ben could let go of planning his availability in advance, and make his smartphone automatically manage his availability for him?
An area manager responsible for RDS firefighter availability on an island recently asked us: “could we manage RDS fire station availability based exclusively on firefighters’ GPS position?”
The answer is “yes”. More specifically: “yes, by using geofencing”.
Geofencing means that we create a “virtual geographical fence” (hence the name) around the station. Firefighters inside the fence are on-call. Firefighters outside the fence are too far away and are considered to be off-duty. The picture below shows an example of a geofence.
There are a couple of benefits of using geofencing.
First of all, the schedules are automatically updated, so the list of currently available crew is always accurate. To illustrate why, let’s go back to Ben’s story in our example above: he won’t need to remember to update his availability anymore. When leaving for work, he is automatically marked as unavailable for the “home” station. When arriving at work he enters the geofence of his “work” station and automatically joins its on-call crew. His availability in the rota is correct and up-to-date at all times.
Second of all, with geofencing, firefighters could even be called upon outside their regular home/work environment. For example, when visiting friends, family or anywhere else in the country. This could be an effective way to increase available personnel and reduce crewing deficiencies.
Too good to be true?
Of course this all sounds great in theory. But in practice, a system based solely on geofencing has a number of drawbacks.
The key problem is the lack of predictability. Although the real-time picture could be accurate, it can change any minute when someone leaves the geofence. This could take the pump off the run without the necessary heads-up time to mitigate.
Also, firefighters who are inside the available zone might be off-duty for a good reason.
Finally, let’s keep the “minor issues” of required 100% smartphone ownership, network coverage and privacy for another post…
Easy, predictable, reliable: we want it all!
Does that completely write off geofencing? Not at all.
It is possible to combine the best of both worlds. If the primary goal is predictability, you need at least a minimal level of planning ahead. This could be done by using automatically recurring schedules and offering quick tools to book on and off. In addition, it is possible to use geofencing to check a firefighter’s position against his current availability. The firefighter can then be warned when accidentally traveling outside of the geofence while being on-call.
Whether you prefer the automatic process or the manual updating of availability, it comes down to finding a balance between ease-of-use and predictability. What’s your preference?