Put aside the sunshine, ocean waves and Santa Ana winds, and folks in Los Angeles still have it good — especially at the Los Angeles Fire Department. For example, many fire departments are not lucky enough to have an in-house IT staff to build out their computer-aided dispatch system. But such a resource has been a LAFD mainstay for years, said Dennis Bloemhof, the department’s director of systems.

I recently spoke to Bloemhof about how the LAFD managed to get its IT group. He said the department originally hired a vendor to build a CAD system, but at the end of the day, it didn’t meet their requirements. The city staff took over and, in April 2004, rewrote the CAD system in C++. In addition, it doesn’t hurt that the initiative is supported by a mandate in the Los Angeles city charter that states there must be a centralized IT shop, known as the information technology agency, to establish IT standards for all first-responder agencies.

“We are very fortunate,” Bloemhof said. “We have a programming staff on the business side and on the 911 dispatch side to support us, in addition to having our own IT staff in the fire department.”

Bloemhof admitted that there’s a certain convenience that comes with an in-house team of IT experts. Specifically, an in-house IT department is essential to modernizing radio and computer systems and more effectively serving the public. He recommend fire chiefs recruit someone who has the education, training and experience in systems to be able move projects forward and work closely with subject-matter experts, whether they are civilians or uniform members. (In Los Angeles, all dispatchers are uniformed members of the fire department.)

The department also is preparing to handle data. It currently uses Oracle to support data applications, including incident data housed in a production database that is updated every minute and used to run reports. Bloemhof said the database also is used to track EMS incidents and can be accessed during emergencies by Los Angeles County’s health services department to identify any patterns early on during an incident.

But capturing text and video from callers is a completely different issue, Bloemhof said. So they plan to build a next-generation system that converts the current 911 telephone system into an IP-based system.

“With that, we believe we will be in a better position to receive those text messages from the public and better track them in our CAD,” he said. “Right now we would have to have separate workstations to capture the text and any photos and then associate that in our database with the call. What some agencies are trying to do is to tell the caller to call another number or go to a website to upload the data, and we don’t want to really do that. So we are focusing on getting this new phone system up and running, and then we will focus on capturing that future data.”

Bloemhof said the most important part of the process is getting feedback from users of the technology and making sure to fix all problems.

“We record issues and problems, and we follow up,” he said. “We then go back to our test environment, isolate the problem, write up the functional specs and then the programmers fix the bugs. We then test it, make sure it works and have it redeployed on the floor.”

There’s no doubt folks at the LAFD are lucky to have IT resources on call 24/7. But it’s not cheap to run an IT department, Bloemhof said. The city sustains the department through revenue-generating programs, such as ambulance billing and small fees added to permits issued, for example, building inspections done by fire-protection personnel.

“It lets us sustain the staff and the systems we have without having to try and find millions of dollars for any particular project,” he said.

But the department also is feeling the pressure from the current economic climate.

“Currently, we are feeling the effects of the economy,” Bloemhof said. “And I know that we are in the position in the next fiscal year of losing some IT positions.”

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