Edited Version March 10, 1999 Transcript
EIIP Virtual Library Online Presentation

"The FireNet Story:
Information Technology Use at
Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department"

Ann Willis
Doctoral Candidate
George Washington University

Kevin Farrell
Information Systems Manager
Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department and 911 Center

EIIP Moderator: Amy Sebring

The original unedited transcript of the March 10, 1999 online Virtual Library presentation is available in EIIP Virtual Forum Archives (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each input were deleted but the content of questions and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the participants to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: Welcome to the EIIP Virtual Library!


Today we are pleased to have with us two of our EIIP friends, Ann Willis and Kevin Farrell. Ann is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University, and is about to get started on her research into the use of technology for emergency management and has been doing some preliminary investigations. Kevin Farrell is the Information Systems Manager for the Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department and 911 Center, and responded to an inquiry from Ann regarding technology applications.

Please see background material at <http://www.emforum.org/vlibrary/990310.htm>

Note that the URL above and any URL's Ann or Kevin uses are live links. You can view the information by clicking on the link and it will load in your browser window behind the chat screen. After Ann and Kevin complete their presentation on The FireNet Story: Information Technology Use at the Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department, I will return for brief instructions for submitting questions or comments.

Ann and Kevin, thank you for being with us today.


Kevin Farrell: Glad to be here!

Ann Willis: Thank you, Amy.

As information technology has matured and proven itself in the field, more and more emergency management organizations are attempting to automate their operations. Rick Tobin, in his book, Emergency Planning on the Internet, advises using consistent, slow steps when introducing technological tools into an EM organization. The Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department (APG FD) serves as an example of how this advice may be successfully followed. The information technology currently used by the organization was developed gradually over a twelve year period.

The purpose of this presentation is twofold --- to detail the progression of a small emergency response organization from paper-based operations to an automated environment; and to describe the effects computer technology has had on the organization. The Fire Department IT Manager, Kevin Farrell, will now describe the technology currently in use and its evolution.

Kevin Farrell: Greetings everyone, and thanks for joining us!

Information technology usage in my department is divided into two areas - the 'business network' and the 911 Center network. Although both are physically connected, but they are quite different and perform different tasks. The business network is Macintosh based and runs the day-to-day operations of the department. The 911 system is Windows NT based which runs on Intergraph hardware with custom software performing Computer Aided Dispatch / Geographic Information System / Enhanced 911 services (CAD/GIS/E911).

While the 911 Center is a fairly recent addition to the department, the 'business' network (known as FireNet) began back in 1988 as four single unconnected workstations purchased to run CAMEO in support of the Department's hazmat mission. Since the machines could be used for everyday productivity in between hazmat duty, and due to the fact that only two of the Department's 70 personnel had previous computer skills, the Mac proved to be a perfect fit for our users. Remember, 1988 pre-dates Windows so the Mac GUI was a perfect reason not to have to teach DOS commands to 70 firefighters, some of whom could be considered 'technology hostile.'

Three events occurred in 1987, which set the stage for the introduction of information technology into the APG fire department:

• First, Charles Jones was promoted to Department Chief. He knew that change was needed, and while somewhat reticent, he was open to the possibilities computers represented.

• Second, one of our firefighters attended a National Fire Academy class where he learned of the hazardous materials (hazmat) incident software CAMEO (Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations) and it's plume modeling companion ALOHA (Aerial Location Of Hazardous Atmospheres)

• Third, I was promoted from firefighter to department training officer. At this time I was one of only two men in the Department with any computer experience and I used that experience to leverage IT in managing the departments training.

Three critical elements came together: a new senior manager receptive to change, a promising new technology (CAMEO) with a good fit to the organization's mission, and a knowledgeable technology advocate to lead the implementation effort.

Since the decision to purchase the original computers, many changes have been made to the infrastructure. The major events are listed in the following timeline which I'll give you a few minutes to digest.

As you can see, first came the stand-alone workstations connected in each station by a low bandwidth network. Later came thin Ethernet and 'high speed' (for the period) modems with the first network application, email, which was our first 'great enabler'. A file server was added as a repository for digital reports, the bandwidth increased again, and provisions for remote access added. Next came web technology, still a 'new thing' in 1995, and our second biggest enabler.

Finally, in 1996, FireNet joined the rest of the world community in moving from a private intranet to the global Internet - a significant leap in our growth. As you can see, the growth of FireNet was gradual and used commercial off the shelf (COTS) technologies. All we did was to supply a little imagination and a net-centric computing model to make it all work.

Future plans for improving FireNet include: increasing the bandwidth of the internal network, possible use of pen based solutions, desktop videoconferencing, and increasing the use of the web server through web enabled applications for a consistent, cross-platform user experience.

We are also evaluating the concept of remote data entry into the GIS via mobile data terminals (MDT's) in our apparatus and administrative vehicles. These units would incorporate MDT/AVL/GPS features into a single unit which would communicate to the 911 center via a secure data link.

Now, Ann Willis will discuss information technology use, and its effects on the Department.

Ann Willis: As you can see from Kevin's presentation, the APG Fire Department has automated a wide variety of their business processes.

Their technology use may be classified into five categories:

• Automating Manual Processes,

• Information Sharing and Standardization,

• Strategic Planning,

• Electronic Mail, and

• Service Delivery.

Most of the Department's early technology implementation falls into the category of automating manual processes.

Three main effects from this automation were noted:

1. Improved efficiency in generating daily reports. This was accomplished by reducing the drudgery of producing the reports using a typewriter.

2. Improved responsiveness to information requests. Personnel were able to access the data quickly and therefore respond faster to requests for information.

3. Improved efficiency through re-engineered work processes. Example: One run report per incident, instead of one report for each piece of equipment responding to a call.

Information sharing was the second category of IT use in the Department. With the addition of the AppleShare file server to the network daily records management became completely digital. The use of file naming conventions and templates provided standardization of file names and content allowing the Department members to easily share information.

Information sharing reached a new level with the addition of the internal web server to FireNet. The first documents staged on the server were the Department's Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). The web server substantially simplified the distribution and maintenance of these documents.

Information is also shared with organizations outside of the Fire Department. An example of external information sharing involves providing hydrant flow data to The Department of Public Works (DPW). The flow data is incorporated into the DPW GIS database. The two organizations are also considering the benefits of networking the GIS database to the CAD/911 system to provide dispatchers live access to the most current base infrastructure data.

Strategic Planning is a third use for automation as the following example illustrates. In the past, the Department had made numerous requests to DPW for the re-lining of water mains in several areas. DPW had fought or ignored these requests. Using the data collected in their spreadsheet, the firemen were able to show the annual flow values for an area and track flow trends. They pinpointed areas of concern and proposed a long-term plan which budgeted the cost of the needed work over several years. DPW agreed to the plan.

E-mail was one of the first network applications implemented by the Fire Department. It had an immediate effect on organization-wide policy dissemination. Before e-mail, it was difficult to disseminate information to all three stations simultaneously. Headquarters received the information immediately, but there were often delays in getting notices to the other stations. Email eliminated the delays and increased morale. A large fraction of routine business is now conducted through the use of e-mail.

The CAD/911 system was a logical "next step" in extending information technology from the business side of the organization to the service delivery side. The existing dispatch process was inefficient. There were 6 points of dispatch connected by a party phone line. When a call came in, everyone would pick up on the line. The CAD/911 center consolidated dispatch services for the Aberdeen Area of the Proving Ground Fire Department. While the 911 center has been operational since 1997, the organizations involved are still in the process of working out the policy and control issues of the consolidated operations.

Looking at the various technologies implemented by the Department, most of the benefits can be attributed to improved efficiency and associated time savings. The time savings resulted from re-engineering work processes and sharing information within the Department on a daily basis. Through continued daily use, computers have become second nature and the tools of choice to accomplish the Department's work.

The most obvious human impact from this daily IT use was the conversion of Kevin's job from training coordinator to IT Manager. Through his ability to continuously learn new information, Kevin has changed from a firefighter with some knowledge of computers to an IT Manager with knowledge of firefighting.

A less obvious impact is the gradual increase in the importance of the IT Manager position. It can be argued that this position is now the most important one in the Department. Kevin is solely responsible for the identification, implementation and management of the information technology currently in use at the APG FD. Information technology is now at the core of the Department's daily operations. Any network outages have a devastating impact on the organization.

Technology identification is a continuous challenge. Kevin spends a substantial portion of each day reading industry publications, scanning Internet sites, and ferreting out resources pertaining to new developments. Kevin also plays a key role as change advocate for the Department. Once he identifies a promising technology, he must sell it to the Chief. If the Chief approves, then Kevin develops a "proof of concept" demonstration. If the demonstration is successful, it is time to plan a full-scale implementation of the new technology, including training the firemen in its use. Once the new capability is installed Kevin must manage and maintain it on a daily basis.

To summarize, this organization has truly succeeded in implementing and incorporating technology into its daily operations. The Department has transformed itself from an organization where only two men had computer experience, to an organization where every man has the skills necessary to operate a computer.

Four guiding principles of success may be identified:

1. Senior leadership buy-in is critical to successful implementation. Early and continued support from the chief, was critical to the successful dissemination of computer technology throughout the Department.

2. Environmental scanning or "finding the next big thing" is also critical. Kevin scans the horizon for promising new technology on a daily basis.

3. IT is not an end in itself, but a tool for accomplishing work. The computer on each officer's desk is not an ornament, but enables that officer to do his job.

4. Users must accept a system in order for it to be successful. Kevin devoted much time to training and acclimating the men to new technology before, and after, it was introduced.


That concludes the formal presentation. Amy, would you describe the procedures for the remainder of the session?

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ann and Kevin. If you wish to ask a question, please submit a question mark (?) to the chat screen. You may then compose your question or comment but please do not send until you are recognized. We will take questions in order of requests to speak. Please indicate if your question is directed specifically to Ann or Kevin. We are ready for the first question, please.

[Audience Questions]


Amy Sebring: Kevin, any pitfalls to avoid from your experience?

Kevin Farrell: There will always be little setbacks but you can't stop moving forward. If you can imagine doing it, you probably can.

Avagene Moore: I would like to say that this example of using technology should be shared far and wide. Let's try to do that with a news article, etc. Good show, Kevin.


Joseph Donaldson: How many software companies did you go to and did they help you?

Kevin Farrell: In which case Joe, the business network or the 911 system?

Joseph Donaldson: Both since they should be linked together.

Kevin Farrell: Well, the business network used commercial off the shelf software that was applied to our tasks. There is nothing custom there. As for the 911 system, APG already had a large investment in an Intergraph GIS. We saved a considerable amount of money in using Intergraph Public Safety's CAD software, while leveraging the existing GIS data.

Amy Sebring: If I may add in here, Kevin, we did an early Library session with Bob Scott of Intergraph. See <http://www.emforum.org/vlibrary/980107.htm> Thank you.


Lindsey Burke: I am currently learning CAMEO and a few other EM packages, here at the University of North Texas, and I am really quite excited to see that they actually do have an application in real time scenarios. It gives me confidence that what I am learning can actually be used within a career, instead of stored for later use.

Kevin Farrell: CAMEO actually has two parts, Lindsey; the planning element and the response (Codebreaker) element. We use the response element almost exclusively.

Ann Willis: Yes, it is always good to see that what we learn in school is applicable to the real world. There a some very good EM programs of study in academia now.


Greg Shaw: Kevin - Obviously, technology costs money. Did you have to present a business case to get top level management to make the decision to invest?

Kevin Farrell: Funding is always a problem because the folks with the money don't always have the same vision of the future that we do.

Ann Willis: It should be noted that Kevin has built his network on a slim budget. The proof of concept method was critical.

Kevin Farrell: I've been fortunate to have folks above me who have come to rely on my research when approving funding. And as Ann stated, it was done a little at a time.


Amy Sebring: Are you in the process of researching mobile data terminal implementation now and when do you expect to be moving forward with those applications?

Kevin Farrell: The MDT research has been done. Funding for proof of concept will be next, and then hopefully program funding to do the whole department (which also includes the police). Actually, the police will probably get them first.


Avagene Moore: Is there a contrast between the department's attitude about technology since you began the process of automating the department?

Ann Willis: I saw a definite change in attitude. From two men with computer skills to the whole department using computers on a daily basis. The computer is now a valued tool.

Kevin Farrell: 80 people as of right now.


Amy Sebring: Kevin, when you were training folks on these tools, what methods did you find effective? Did you need to do a lot of user support individually?

Kevin Farrell: To be honest when I installed the first four machines, the only thing on them besides the operating system was games. That got them to want to use them, and in doing so, they actually learned to operate them. After awhile, a few people came to me and asked, "What else can these things do?" When that happened, I had captured their minds and the rest was easy.

Ann Willis: Later, giving the firemen access to the web prepared them for learning how to operate the 911 center.


B.J. Sibley: Do your FD people do their time reporting by computer?

Kevin Farrell: Yes. Daily routines are captured in a spreadsheet, and our secretary enters time into a mainframe application. Without her, none of would get paid! I think that makes her the most valuable employee.

Ann Willis: Time sheets were one of the first applications automated by the Department.


B.J. Sibley: Do you have firewalls for unauthorized access to porn or other things?

Kevin Farrell: Firewalls and filters in, but nothing out. Other items are restricted by login and password.


B.J. Sibley: Have you had any problems with what people access?

Kevin Farrell: Not really. Everyone is aware of the accepted use and that the net is monitored for inappropriate access.

Final Question:

Amy Sebring: I am interested in your integration with DPW and how that is going?

Kevin Farrell: DPW is one of our biggest supporters and best allies. I'm looking forward to integrating even more with them. They have great data. Environmental data is next in line after DPW

Ann Willis: DPW is willing, the problem is finding the funds to accomplish what they want to do.

Amy Sebring: Ann and Kevin, we appreciate you being with us today and for sharing your information with us. To the audience, thank you for your attention and participation also. Thank you.

Kevin Farrell: Thanks for having us!

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ann.

Ann Willis: Thank you, Amy.

Amy Sebring: Avagene, would you please remind us about the coming week's events in the Virtual Forum?

Avagene Moore: Thank you, Amy. Next week, one of our newest Partners, Presponse System Integration, Ltd., will be leading our Round Table discussion on Tuesday March 16, 1:00 PM EST.

The Wednesday, March 17, 12:00 Noon EST session in the Virtual Forum will be a panel discussion with representatives from the State of Missouri to discuss the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP). Please watch for details on speakers from the State and Local perspective this weekend. Back to you, Amy.

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Ava. It is time to close the Virtual Library. We will return to the Virtual Forum room for a few moments of open discussion and you are invited to join us there.