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The Hidden Battles Facing Public Safety IT Managers

      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.


   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."


   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."

   So what happens when Burns needs help? "I do have a fire lieutenant also assigned to communications whom I consider to be a peer," he says. "We work well together and back one another up."

   For decades, the city of Miami has been running a 'home-grown' dispatch system. Originally it was XGEN/COBOL-based, running on a Unisys mainframe and database; however, in recent years, the city has migrated dispatch onto the Windows server platform and SQL database. As a result, most of the legacy computer equipment "has either been upgraded or replaced," says Burns. The Windows-based dispatch system connects by radio to Panasonic Toughbook CF-19 laptop computers, which have been installed in Miami's fire, police and EMS apparatus.

   Despite the hardware and operating system upgrade, Miami Fire-Rescue still relies on its homegrown dispatch system. "About seven or eight years ago, we were searching for a COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) dispatch system, but after two or three years of research, we could not find one that performed all of the critical functionality that has been custom-built into ours over the last 20-25 years," says Burns. "So we abandoned the idea of purchasing a COTS dispatch system and instead decided to port our existing code from Unisys XGEN and COBOL code to object-oriented code running on a Windows platform and utilizing SQL as the database." In non-technical speak, Burns brought his department's fire IT system out of the 1980s and into the 21st century.

   The good news: Miami's Windows-based dispatch system has cut annual computer code and maintenance costs by 60%-80% a year. But that was just the first step in its dispatch upgrade. "The next was to install MDTs that can perform many CAD functions in the laptop, as opposed to having dispatch do this for us," he notes. "This alone should save somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 radio transmissions in the course of a year."

   Miami has also added the SafetyPAD EMS patient care reporting system to its field units. "Now, 90% plus of all reports are complete upon delivering the patient to the hospital," says Burns. "In the previous system, the report was created on paper. When staff arrived back at the fire station, they would have to enter the information into our computer system, creating at least double the work load."

   Looking ahead, there are lots of improvements Burns would like to make for his fire and EMS crews. "I want to implement mobile mapping, automatic vehicle locating, complete our GPS project and implement some additional software upgrades," he says. To make this happen, however, his department will "need to explore every avenue of funding possible to start any new projects."


   About 1,100 EMS and fire personnel work for the Seattle Fire Department. Fourteen people within the SFD's IT department handle all its computer needs, headed by IT manager Leonard Roberts.

   In contrast to many other EMS/fire IT managers, Roberts knows where his department is going. "In 1997, we hammered out a strategic IT plan with EMS/fire, police, utilities and other city departments to decide what we needed to be doing to serve our clients," he says. "By figuring out our mission first, we can make sure we are driving technological change, rather than having technology drive us."

   In practical terms, the SFD's desire to keep its EMS/fire crews fully connected and informed has resulted in the deployment of an 800MHz Motorola digital radio system aided by 120 Data911 mobile data terminals (MDTs) inside its frontline apparatus. These radios and computers are integrated into the city's dispatch system, with data carried over Sprint commercial wireless networks.

   Roberts isn't a big fan of this arrangement. "Being on a commercial network makes you vulnerable to outages during crises, at the times you need data connectivity most," he says. This is why the SFD has joined with other public safety agencies to lobby the FCC for permission to use the vacated 700MHz band for private first responder-run wireless communications.

   "Right now, we are spending $1.5-$2 million annually to pay for commercial wireless service," Roberts notes. "If we can get the right to deploy our own private high-speed wireless network in the 700MHz band, we will save that money outright. Yes, we will have to pay to build such a network, but by owning and operating it ourselves, we can ensure it is there when we need it and the equipment it supports is tailored to our needs, not the commercial wireless market."

   Seattle's strategic IT plan is also being applied to the currently chaotic collection of WiFi networks being used by city departments. "Everyone has pretty much gone their own way on WiFi, resulting in 10-15 different wireless frequencies being used," he says. "Not only is this wasteful, but many of the systems that have been purchased are proprietary: They can't talk to other vendors' WiFi networks. This kind of non-interoperability is precisely what we have been trying to resolve in our regional radio communications. We don't now want to see it turn up on wireless networking."

   If all goes as Roberts hopes, Seattle will settle on a standardized wireless data approach, using 700MHz for mobile and distance connections and WiFi in tight quarters. "Ideally, we want the city to be working on wireless networks," he says. "Being wireless allows for so much more portability and less capital cost. As for our existing wired networks, we can use them to backhaul data between wireless access points and to serve as a redundant backup."

   Roberts isn't worried about paying for the projects. "It is always possible to move money around in the budget, especially when the changes we have in mind will result in substantial savings," he says. "It is all a matter of having a plan, which we do, that keeps us focused on what we are trying to achieve. Because we know this, we don't waste money buying new technologies that don't really give us what we need. We stay on the ball and stick to our goals."

   James Careless is a freelance writer with extensive experience covering computer technologies.

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