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Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Craig Vanderzwaag

Ray Ford

Santa Barbara County Fire Captain Craig Vanderzwaag


Fire Captain Creates Emergency Notification App

Response Deck a Major Tool for Santa Barbara Engine Crews and Area Residents


Monday, November 4, 2013

When Santa Barbara County (SBC) Fire Captain Craig Vanderzwaag graduated from Cal Poly in the late 1990s, little did he know that one day he would be developing apps for iPhones and iPads that could revolutionize how emergency services provide real-time information about incidents such as fires, vehicle accidents, and medical emergencies.

In 2007 when the iPhone was first introduced, Vanderzwaag and current SBC Division Chief Eric Peterson began to think about how the new Apple product could be used to provide county firefighters with more information about incidents they were being dispatched to.

“As a captain on a fire engine, when a call comes in I need to know immediately which direction we’re going, what the exposures are going to be, what the potential hazards are, and I need that right then,” Vanderzwaag said.

At the time, none of the fire engines were computerized, meaning that all they had to guide them was the initial callout info, radio communications, and personal knowledge of the area where they were heading. Vanderzwaag and Peterson immediately began to look into ways to use their new iPhones as another tool in their arsenal.

“Being a captain on an engine company and a paramedic, I began to look at my phone from the point of view of how I might be able to use it to help me do my job better,” Vanderzwaag said. “It got me wondering how difficult it would be to create an app that could be used to support our fire services.

“The answer turned out to be really difficult,” Vanderzwaag added with a grin, “especially for someone who doesn’t have an IT background.” His background is in biology, his major when he graduated from Cal Poly in 1997, a degree he admits wasn’t going to lead him to a career path that excited him. His interest in emergency services developed in college when a family friend who was a battalion chief in the Orange County area invited him to go on a ride-along with him. “I saw a whole group of people who loved what they were doing, and it sold me,” he said. “I saw they were helping people and that it was really rewarding. It opened my eyes to a world I didn’t know much about.”

More importantly to Vanderzwaag, his first job with the Avila Beach Fire Department allowed him to stay in the San Luis Obispo area and to raise his family there. Eventually, he was able to catch on with Santa Barbara County Fire in 2000 and is currently working at Station 18 in the Gaviota area.

Screenshots of latest version of Response Deck
Click to enlarge photo

Ray Ford

Screenshots of latest version of Response Deck

Version 1.0

The first version of Vanderzwaag’s free Response Deck app was released in 2011 and was pretty basic. “Version 1.0 included a log of the SBC incidents, fire policies, and protocols for dealing with emergency situations,” he said. “The important thing we were able to do was to work with Sheriff’s dispatch to have access to their information as it related to County Fire and to be able to post that through the app in real time. Turns out it was pretty easy for dispatch to provide that.”

To get the app from that point to where it is today took Vanderzwaag hundreds of hours of programming time, much of it just in the process of learning to program in Objective-C to build the features that can now be found in Version 2.0, which was released on May 17 this year. Though the app was designed primarily for internal consumption within the fire community, which Vanderzwaag thought might be 100 or 200 people at most, Response Deck has just reached the 1,300 user mark, far exceeding expectations.

“I had no clue it might be this popular,” he said. “Weirdly, there are even users in a bunch of other countries.” What makes the new version valuable is the ability to get instant notification of every emergency callout made by County Fire. When you open the app it is possible to filter by fire station and by incident type.

Filtering by Type

For myself, I’ve only checked the incident type named “Wildland Fire,” and under the Stations, one called “Code 20,” which will provide notification of any major incident in the county that could involve mutual aid, such as a major disaster. Having the ability of knowing when a wildfire or major disaster breaks out is critical information, especially to those who live in high-fire-risk areas.

You’ll definitely want to keep the notifications confined to those you really want to know about, as the tone that sounds when an incident is blasted your way is pretty loud. No matter where you are in the house, you’ll hear it. You’ll also get the notification as long as your phone has a connection, which I discovered while traveling through the New England area.

What is really, really cool is that when you open up the app after hearing the tone sound, you are provided with basic information about the incident. And with one touch, the app opens to a full-screen map that displays the location of the incident, your current location, and routing information to the incident. For a reporter, this is absolutely invaluable information, and priceless for anyone who lives in a high-fire area.

“I cannot say enough about what Craig has provided for County Fire,” said Peterson. “We all use the app. In the past when we heard a callout, we’d all run for our radios. Now, all we need to do is take out our phones.” Peterson is currently working with others in the department to work out the details that will allow the county to accept the hundreds of hours of work Vanderzwaag has put into building the app and formally transfer it to County Fire ownership.

“It was a labor of love,” Vanderzwaag said. “Zero tax dollars were used to build it, and I’m happy to have been able to create something that will help both emergency services and the community at large.”

iPhone Only

If there is a drawback, it is that the app is limited to iPhones and iPads only. It’s not that Vanderzwaag doesn’t like the Android world, but he finds it cost prohibitive to create one for Android-based phones. “They use a completely different programming language,” Vanderzwaag said. “The cost to have someone do it for me would likely be in the $20,000-30,000 range, and that isn’t practical for an app that is offered for free.”

The app can be found in the iTunes Store by searching for “Response Deck.” To find out more about Vanderzwaag and other apps he’s created, visit his website at http://bluehulastudios.com. One app you might want to check out is his “Beer Timer,” which calculates how much time you need to get your favorite beer from room temperature to the perfect drinking temperature when you put it in the freezer. Totally cool.

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