AMU Cyber & AI Cybercrime Fire & EMS Public Safety

How Prepared Are Your Fire Departments for a Cyberattack?

By Dr. Randall Hanifen
Edge Contributor

The TV and the internet have been filled with Ukraine and Russia’s war. While the United States is not directly involved in the fighting, the U.S. and its partners have been heavily involved in the economic sanctions that have crippled the Russian economy and the high-income class who supports many of Putin’s initiatives.

In turn, Russia is now threatening to launch cyberattacks on the United States. While the obvious targets are the Department of Defense, large corporations and financial markets, we should not rule out the possibility of those attacks including local government infrastructure. Such a cyberattack could include the software that supports daily public safety operations such as fire departments.

Most Fire Departments Have Many Software Programs

The fire service and emergency medical service (EMS) mostly rely on manual labor operations; our personnel perform both simple and complex tasks to handle the public’s emergencies. However, much of this manual labor is only possible due to many computer programs.

In modern fire departments, there are several operations run by computer programs. One type of software, for example, is used for scheduling and payroll. It enables employees to know their work schedule and helps the administration ensure enough people are present each day to perform the necessary tasks for emergencies. As some Telestaff customers discovered in late 2021, the inability to view a schedule, provide off time for personnel and process payroll can almost bring a public safety organization to a standstill.

A second type of software that is crucial to operations is the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) programs that run the majority of dispatch centers. This software tells a dispatcher what apparatus to dispatch to different types of 911 calls and keeps track of all equipment status.

While this software has only been commonplace for less than 30 years, I feel that most dispatch centers would greatly struggle to maintain normal operations without it. Aside from knowing what equipment to dispatch, which most on-duty battalions or chief officers could help to identify, knowing the unit status would be the true struggle.

A third software controls the radios. Even the most basic radio systems are computer-driven, much less the 800 MHz, multiple-zone radios that can talk to nearly everyone.

These sophisticated radios often operate on more than one radio system, parse information to ensure the most efficient use of the airwaves, and can even send pictures to the other radios used by other personnel and dispatchers. While the radios are designed to work on a line-of-sight capacity, talking to dispatch or to units not in the immediate area would still be an issue if the software was hacked.

Fortunately, many fire department tools are not driven by computers, but many do have computer chips. The fire engine, for example, has many computer chips that allow the engine to pump water at a certain pressure upon firefighters’ arrival at a scene. If these computer chip-driven pressure regulators or throttles are inoperable, the engine is essentially a very expensive gate valve between the hydrant and the attack line.

Fire departments also use records management software to enter their incident reports. While these reports could be done on paper and put into the software later, long periods without a records management system will eventually begin to hamper public safety operations. Manual information must be recorded and then input when the software comes back online, which would be a time-consuming task.

All Fire Departments Should Have Emergency Manual Backups

There are various ways to protect the data recorded in fire department software. For payroll software, printing out each day’s schedule on a monthly basis or downloading a copy of the schedule would ease any problems if the software went down. It’s also worth considering if you have provisions in your collective bargaining agreement that allow manual filing when the scheduling system is not working and does not have the ability to apply complex rules.

A CAD software malfunction can be overcome by ensuring paper alarm cards are available for the dispatcher and that the dispatch center has a manual status board to allow dispatchers to manually track units. While this work will likely require another person, an off-duty command officer or company officer could come to the dispatch center to help maintain the status board.

Protecting the radio software would be a bit more complex. When I was a Battalion Chief, I had a plan to have all of the stations take the medic unit’s mobile phone and have the officer carry it. The fire company and the EMS would make calls together; we would call the fire station to alert them to a 911 call and they would call and provide information about status changes. This phone could be staffed by the person running the manual status board.

Unfortunately, there are not many ways to overcome electronic problems in a fire engine. However, having at least some water coming out of a fire hose is better than none, and adjustments to firefighting operations must take these limitations into account.

Lastly, the RMS system will not be missed immediately. However, someone must ensure that a record of 911 incidents is properly maintained, so that when the software comes back online that all of the data exports properly from the CAD system.

Computers and software definitely make the fire service a much better and efficient operation. However, we must always be sure to have manual backups in place to overcome our dependence on computer programs in the event of a cyberattack.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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