Using #CivicTech to Stop Fires in Vacant Properties

Using #CivicTech to Stop Fires in Vacant Properties

The Louisville City Accelerator team reflects on a hackathon that created a low-cost wireless smoke detector.

As part of our participation in the Living Cities’ Accelerator program, the Louisville Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation (OPI2) brought together a cross-functional team that used a data-driven approach to develop a plan to deliver improved services to a challenged portion of our community.

The team consisted of members from the Louisville Fire Department (LFD), the department of Community Services (CS), and OPI2. During data discovery, the team learned that a lot of fires occur in homes also served by CS in two of Louisville’s lowest income neighborhoods. To respond to this revelation, they developed a plan to work together to target at-risk households with the aim of preventing fires before they happen with fire education and free smoke detectors.

A map depicting fires at vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville District 1 & 2 from 2012 to 2015

Fires in Vacant and Abandoned Properties in District 1 & 2 from ’12 to ’15 (Credit: Jess Brown)

Analysis also revealed a much higher proportion of fires in vacant and abandoned properties (VAP) in the more impoverished neighborhoods of Louisville. Further analysis revealed that these VAPs were often located near occupied structures since these were older parts of the community in which houses were historically built closer in proximity. The risk then of a fire in a vacant structure is also a risk to the nearby neighbors especially since fires in vacant structures often become more involved before anyone notices.

Using City data, we found that 125 of the 459 fires in LFD District 1 from 2012 to 2015 involved a vacant property. More alarming, we found that of the 26 of the 59 (44%) “Involved” fires (with 2 or more structures) in District 1 started in vacant properties and then spread to 38 other properties. Of those 38 properties, 24 of the buildings were classified as being in “regular use” — meaning people were living in them.

LFD District 1 - Fires in Vacant Properties graphic

With this information, we asked the questions:

  • How can we know if an empty structure without electricity is on-fire?
  • Knowing wireless smoke detection systems require electricity and expensive telemetry, can an ultra-low cost, battery operated smoke detector be created?

To help answer these questions, we reached out to LVL1, a local maker-space, to organize a civic hackathon around creating a device for detecting fires in vacant and abandoned properties. LVL1 had the space, and, most importantly, the right network to bring people into the fold for the challenge. LVL1 brought together the supplies, advertising, and people for a successful competition that included four entries.

The winning entry came from three local makers that built a device that would listen for the alarm sound of a standard issue smoke detector and then send a signal to the appropriate entity via a 3G device. In addition, they built a front and back end web-interface that can monitor the status, location, and presence of a fire for thousands of their hacked devices. This kind of hacked together solution when produced in quantity would cost less than $50 per structure installed and last more than a year. Their product and plans were interesting enough that we are currently in a second phase with them to build some prototypes for a potential field test.

Coming out of the hackathon, we hadn’t completely solved the problem we set out to tackle, but we got a lot closer and learned some important lessons about working with the civic tech community. Most importantly, we learned how to activate the Civic Tech community for public challenges. Below is a summary of the key takeaways from this work:

Identify a challenge

Pick a challenge that allows your government to do “more with less” and/or needs a fresh perspective. Think about the community challenge first and then try to find a technology to apply. Not the other way around.

Find a partner

As a government, you probably don’t have the people or network to host a successful hackathon. Tap into your local tech community to help you.

Bring resources to the table

Provide money to your partner for hosting, buying the necessary tech equipment, and promoting the event. It doesn’t need to be a lot, but it needs to make it cash flow positive for them.

Give the “hackers” access to the experts.

We had a Major from the fire department, an IT expert from the Emergency Services department, and a fire protection company representative all participate as advisors and judges in the competition. It provided depth and understanding to the challenge that would have not been possible without them.


If someone builds a viable product, continue your work with them. We have continued our work with our winners, and our judges are continuing to provide them support as are developing a prototype for a potential field deployment.

If you have any follow-up questions about the initiative, please reach out to Ed Blayney via email ( or on Twitter (@edblayney)


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