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Helena High students design app for fire department
[February 26, 2013]

Helena High students design app for fire department

Feb 26, 2013 (Independent Record - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Students at Helena High have garnered recognition from Verizon Wireless for developing a mobile app for the Helena Fire Department that allows firefighters to track emergency response times down to the second.

"For us, it's really important to know how quickly we can do that," said Sean Logan, the acting fire chief of the Helena Fire Department, during a demonstration of the app at Helena High on Monday. "The quicker we can get to an emergency, the better it is for the individual or the family with the problem." Ean McLaughlin, Jake Petek, Gregory Gilbert, Bridger Howell and Sage Smith -- who are all students in Buffy Smith's computer science class -- entered their app in the national Verizon Innovative App Challenge and were recognized Thursday as the "Best in State" team in the competition.

March 18, Verizon will name the top 10 schools in the competition nationwide. Each school will be awarded a $10,000 grant and the chance work with MIT Labs to develop and market their app; each team member will also receive a Samsung tablet.

Helena's team is ahead of the curve in the competition -- they were only required to come up with an app concept, not actually design one -- to enter the challenge.

With a few taps on the screen of a smartphone or tablet, the fire department app creates an individual report every time the fire department responds to an emergency.

Taking advantage of the precision clocks on cellular devices, the app tracks -- down to the second -- when a call for service is made, when firefighters arrive on the scene, how long the response takes and when the firefighters are available to go out on another call.

The app catalogues the reports, which fire departments are required to track, and the information can then be emailed between fire department personnel.

At Logan's request, Smith and her students started working on the app in mid-December.

Logan says the idea for the app was born from the realization that advances in technology, such as tablets and smart phones, could probably be used to improve firefighters' job performance.

The Helena Fire Department currently uses in-truck computers connected to dispatch via radio to track response times, but the computers are aging and occasionally have glitches or lose radio service.

"Basically, my understanding of an app is that if you can think of something, there's probably an app that can deal with it," he said.

But when he started searching for an app that would capture response times for a fire department, he found that there weren't any available.

Logan even surveyed other fire departments around the state to see how they track their response times. One department in the state reported that they tracked response times by writing them down on their hands or gloves while responding to emergencies.

This new app should eliminate old hardware and technology shortfalls while making tracking response times both easier and more accurate.

Future developments for the app or apps similar to it could include GPS information, such as tracking addresses and fire hydrant locations, Logan said.

Through a series of meetings with Logan and constant collaboration between the students, the team came up with a number of features for the app that prevents users from entering incorrect information or saving duplicate reports, Smith explained as she demonstrated how the app works.

"So what she's trying to do ... is make it fireman-proof," Logan said. "So if we do the wrong thing, it will force us to do the right thing. Mrs. Smith and her students have gone, I feel like, far above our original expectations, so this is just awesome." "These guys are incredibly bright kids," Smith said of her students, several of whom have been in her classes all through high school. "And this is an opportunity to show what they can do." People see and use apps all the time, says 12th-grader McLaughlin, but most don't know how the programs work.

"They just use it and consume it," he said. "We get to learn how to create it for others so they can use it. It's really cool." ___ (c)2013 Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) Visit the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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