An Asheville Fire Department team uses a ladder to conduct a rescue during a recent downtown fire. An online platform that Asheville piloted and Buncombe County launched last week will allow those seeking help to provide important information to firefighters, such as if someone in the residence has coronavirus. Photo courtesy of the city of Asheville

Buncombe County, in coordination with the Asheville Fire Department, launched a new online emergency response program during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the program had been planned before the health crisis, it has the potential to help residents during the ongoing emergency. In addition, the program, piloted last year by the city of Asheville, is designed for other communities to emulate.

Daniel Flinn, a division chief with the Asheville Fire Department, has been on the job for 26 years. His search-and-rescue training is ingrained.

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“I always search to the right first,” he said. In a scenario in which he’s on a fire rescue call, searching an upstairs with three bedrooms, he sweeps the room to the right first.

“But how neat would it be if you could have notified me in advance that only one of those bedrooms is occupied and it’s the first one on the left?” Flinn asked. “Those seconds could be the seconds needed to save that person.”

Buncombe County’s newly launched opt-in program, Community Connect, will allow residents to create accounts and provide first responders with such potentially lifesaving information. Flinn led the creation of the program.

How Community Connect works during an emergency

Most fire and police departments across the country subscribe to a mobile response software application, First Due, that pulls from geographic information system, or GIS, mapping and other sources to provide information like a home’s square footage or whether there’s a basement — information that is essential when time is of the essence and you need a plan for entry and escape routes. According to Flinn, this is the sort of intelligence that first responders are looking up as they speed to the scene.

But what if they could know in advance whether someone in the home has a special need or a medical condition, where to shut off utilities (like gas in the case of a fire or water if a home is flooding) or where to look for your pets during a sweep-and-rescue search?

It’s these sorts of questions that led Flinn to work with First Due on developing the Community Connect program for residents.

The city of Asheville launched it last spring as a pilot, and places like Spokane, Wash., Reno, Nev., and Ocala, Fla., have since adopted the program, which can be customized.

Buncombe County’s Community Connect website, which according to Flinn uses bank-level security, prompts residents to create a profile and add details geared to help first responders calculate a plan while en route.

The user-friendly platform asks questions such as the number of family members, pets, special needs or medical conditions, home layout, shut-off locations for utilities and emergency contacts.

The platform also includes an option for COVID-19 self-reporting, which feeds into the national COVID-19 reporting system and can help first responders know in advance if someone in the household has tested positive or is considered high risk for the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“I always tell people, ‘First responders and firefighters are here to help you,’” said Flinn. “Community Connect helps us help you better. Any info we can have before we arrive on the scene helps us better serve you.”

To keep information up to date, participants will receive email reminders about every six months to check that their information is still accurate.

This database will be accessible to city and county emergency workers. Flinn wants to remind residents that it is optional. “You’re inputting the info, so you’re only sharing what you’re comfortable sharing,” he said.

For residents of other counties who would like to see Community Connect adopted in their town, Flinn encourages people to reach out to their local fire department with the request.

He also wants to make sure residents understand that this is not a way to report an emergency. “This is info specifically for emergency responders en route.”

For more information or to sign up, visit Buncombe County’s Community Connect webpage.

Melissa Reardon

Melissa Reardon is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Buncombe County. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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