Computers aren't the first things that come to mind when you think of EMS operations, but in today's high-tech world, proper information technology (IT) management is vital to keeping public safety agencies connected and working safely. Like their frontline counterparts, EMS IT managers have their own battles to fight against tight budgets, incompatible equipment and harsh weather conditions. To get a sense of what they're up against, EMS Magazine interviewed three managers in Miami, Detroit and Seattle.
DETROIT FIGHTS TIGHT BUDGETS
The city of Detroit has been fighting for years to maintain services in the face of a declining population base and associated municipal taxes. The pain extends to the Detroit Fire Department (DFD), its 1,700 EMS/fire personnel and its IT department.
"We have virtually no budget to work with," says Lt. Orlando Watkins. In fact, "We are actually not a department within the DFD organizational structure. I am a detailed lieutenant who oversees a detailed sergeant, detailed dispatcher and three part-time contractors. We are the first line of defense for IT/GIS functions of the department. Anything we cannot handle, city ITS Department picks up the slack.
"It's interesting how I got involved with this entire thing," Watkins adds. "I was asked many years ago to come to Communications for input on our first-generation Unisys CAD system. I was told I would be detailed for two weeks. That two weeks has turned into over 18 years."
So how does the DFD's nonexistent IT department keep things running? "In the past, we have been successful enough to gain grant funding for a lot of projects, but we have learned to be creative in a lot of areas," Watkins replies. "We recently got away from Microsoft Office and transitioned over to Open Office [Linux-based software] to cut down costs. As our budget pressures grow, we are increasingly looking at open-source solutions to many problems."
Currently, the Detroit Fire Department uses a Tiburon computer-aided dispatch and RMS system. "We have MDC mobile computers in all our vehicles, use online training via Target Safety for our EMS Division, MobileEyes for fire prevention inspections and FireView for our GIS needs," he says. "We are looking at a new patient care reporting system."
With just three people, the DFD is hard-pressed to keep its IT systems operational. In particular, "Staffing is crucial, since we are a 24-hour operation," says Watkins. "With only two sworn individuals working on the user support end of things, we put in many hours to keep things running."
Although the DFD will be adding a patient care reporting system in the near future, "We are struggling to keep what we have at this point," he says. "System updates outside of what we get in our software maintenance contracts are a no-go for us at this time. We are really trying to get our hands around the technology we currently have and use it to its fullest potential.
"We are trying to convince our administration that a permanent IT section is a must for this department," Watkins adds. "When we are asked to do so much more with less, we look to technology to help. If we do not have anything in place to support this technology, we are in trouble."
MIAMI'S ONE-MAN BAND
The city of Miami has a population of about 400,000 people, which expands to 2.5 million during business hours. The city's fire-rescue department has about 700 sworn staff, 55 front-line apparatus in service at any given time, and just one person manning its IT department. "My staff includes me, myself and I," says Information Systems Manager Kevin Burns. "My primary duties include, but are not limited to, first and foremost keeping the fire computer aided dispatch (CAD) up and running 24/7/365. I am responsible for maintaining all of the Windows servers, application and code changes and upgrades, database infrastructure, interfaces with external applications, station computers, apparatus mobile data terminals (MDTs), RMS tablets, patient care reports, statistical reporting, state and federal reporting requirements, LAN/WAN/WWAN, station alerting, research and development, purchasing and legislation for the city commission."