The future of fire mobile data
MRT does some crystal-ball gazing with Gary E. Kaiser, the new president of Lake Mary, FL-based public-sector software provider HTE, and his public safety and justice systems director, Don Nagle.
Keckler is features editor. His email address is: [email protected] The software applications illustrated in this feature are developed and marketed by HTE. The images represent the company’s Fireline software suite.
Real-time communications, hazardous situation information and management of resources are all roles mobile data will play in the future for firefighters. A recent study by the Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) estimated that among fire and EMS agencies with more than 100 operatives, less than a third currently use mobile computing. However, the study projected that level of usage will double by the end of this year. To find out how mobile data will be implemented, MRT visited with Gary E. Kaiser, a former firefighter, and county administrator, who in April, assumed the job of president and chief operating officer with HTE, a Lake Mary, FL, developer of software for government applications. During our conversation, we were joined by Don Nagle, director of public safety and justice systems for HTE. Nagle is a past contributor to MRT (“Virginia Agency Speeds Queries and Dispatch with Mobile Data,” June 1998).
MRT: Gary, your background is in fire and county management, and now you’ve switched over to the private sector. Could you discuss this transition? KAISER: I spent about five and a half years with the city of Altamonte Springs, FL, and then I spent 25 years with Seminole County [north and adjacent to Orange County and Orlando, FL]. I was hired as the chief fire administrator, initially, and about two years later, I was named director of public safety, and they reorganized county government, and that included everything other than law enforcement. It was fire/rescue, EMS [emergency medical services], communications, telephones, 9-1-1, dispatching, animal control and emergency management. About three years ago, they had a change in county management, and they drafted me to be county manager. I served in an “acting” capacity for a few months and tried to get them to do a search and hire someone, and they wouldn’t do that, so I took the job permanently. I retired here in April with 25-and-a-half years.
It was an interesting time. I spent some time as a police officer when I was in Altamonte Springs and as a reserve deputy sheriff for Seminole County. MRT: What were your motivations for taking a job in the private sector? KAISER: It’s something that has interested me for years. I’ve tried to follow a lot of the private sector business and tried to employ a number of business techniques and strategies in government. In fact, we had re-engineered Seminole County government in the last three years, and if you look at our Web page, it says “Seminole County: It’s a business doing government work.” I enjoyed doing that, and I also did private consulting on the side for a number of years. And as a secondary income over the years, I did real estate syndication, so the business market was not something foreign to me.
MRT: HTE has a current $1.6 million contract to provide a public safety software system for Leavenworth, KS. What other projects are in the works?
KAISER: East Point, GA, just bought our entire software suite-everything-for $4.6 million; there’s also Alexandria, VA, Providence, RI, and Tyler, TX. MRT: With the intention of being a complete software provider, are you finding package deals more common now, with public safety, fire, EMS and services all wrapped together, or does it tend to be more discrete among those individual agencies?
KAISER: I think we’re seeing a tremendous activity in the package aspect of it.
MRT: There seems to be a lot of politics in some jurisdictions, with fire and EMS trying to keep on separate sides of the street. Is this a common or isolated situation?
KAISER: I think there’s a long history of that. That’s just the nature of it. I’ve seen it over the years not only among police, fire and EMS but police-to-police and fire-to-fire. You see it in federal government agencies, with DEA, Customs and Treasury. We’ve all known people that have worked in those organizations that pretty much all tell the same story. That’s just the nature of the beast.
MRT: As an administrator, you’ve had to work with budgets, and trimming budgets. When it comes to software suites and large communications systems, there are always budgetary concerns. Does “one size fit all”? How does it vary between a large city and one with less than 100,000 people?
KAISER: I think you have to look at the individual needs of the community, and that’s what we do very carefully. I think you need to do that nationwide. I agree that governments, in general, in recent years have had to trim tremendously and to become competitive and to compete with private enterprise. To that end, in Seminole County, for example, where I was manager, we outsourced our entire information technologies [IT] operation. We felt that our core business was serving citizens in the manner of paving streets and providing those services that they couldn’t provide for themselves-police, fire, emergency medical, emergency management, disaster recovery and those kinds of things-and to stay away from those things that we did not do well, that were not our core business. We look at the technology and want the result of that. We want the reports generated and the data and so forth so we can use that as a management tool. But in doing so, we said “We shouldn’t be in the computer business; the computer people should be in the computer business.” So we outsourced the entire operation and asked that to be managed.
Consequently, we were able to recover a three-and-a-half-year backlog. We were able to modernize all of the equipment. We went to a PC-leasing program and were able to replace, over a two-and-a-half-year period of time, virtually every PC that we had. So it brought us up to speed very quickly in the technology.
MRT: We’ve heard that same issue (“core competency”) raised in the private sector, such as for utilities [“Communications Outsourcing to Utility Companies,” MRT June 1998].
KAISER: Absolutely. Look at the deal that’s out on the street right now for San Diego. That’s a billion-dollar-plus deal.
MRT: How do you handle a community that’s at a zero level with data experience? How does HTE assist a community with needs assessment for fire or EMS data? KAISER: One of the first things you want to establish is: Do they really want to do it for themselves, or are they looking at a multijurisdictional, multifaceted approach? Don can address that, because he’s involved with that on a daily basis.
[Nagle joins the conversation.] NAGLE: What we look at initially is population base and calls for service. We want to see what kind of technology they’re running now, as well as what their capability is to staff it, so that we can be walking through the door with a “market basket” of products, as opposed to walking through the door and saying “This is what our product is, and this is right for you.” We have two CAD systems, we have one records management system, and we have multiple core systems. We want to be able to walk in the door and provide solutions. I know that sounds corny, but not a lot of software companies out there in this market have multiple capabilities to do that.
MRT: Is it the modularity and interconnection capability of the software that creates that opportunity?
NAGLE: It is, but it’s also the different platforms that they run on. If you’ve got a small- to medium-size department with a limited DP staff and capabilities, we’re going to recommend a host-based system. If you’ve got a technical staff, we’re going to walk through the door and bid a client-server environment, an NT environment.
MRT: What is your estimate of the penetration of mobile data into EMS and fire markets?
NAGLE: I think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. Gary and I were discussing that we’ve done a huge market share in law enforcement because of the funding mechanisms that are in place and all of the federal grants that have come down the road over the last 10 years. Also, that money is used to bring police officers to the street and for mobile data environment. In the fire departments and the EMS services, there hasn’t been a revenue stream for them to accomplish those projects, except with their own budget, which is difficult at best. There are a lot of very good programs that have come forward over the last couple of years, and great technology for fire services and EMS, but it’s not even remotely close to the penetration the law enforcement side has had.
MRT: We’ve noticed recent federal legislative efforts, such as H.R. 1168, to make billions in funds available to local fire operations through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), including money for communications. Could that be a boon for getting that penetration?
NAGLE: Absolutely. I’m sure that Florida and the wildfires we had last year played a significant role in that issue. Communications issues that were taking place, and the mobile data issues with that, in trying to coordinate responses, were astronomical. That’s good news for us, too. We’ve watched that very closely. We actually have a grant-writing program on the law-enforcement side where we provide services for our customers. We help them write the grant and provide a grant writer for them to obtain this type of funding.
MRT: Is that program limited to law enforcement, or will it be expanded? NAGLE: Absolutely, we’ll expand it.
KAISER: I think you’re also seeing a reaction, not only to the wildfires, but also to Hurricane Andrew, to Hurricane Hugo, to the Oklahoma City kinds of events where FEMA has had a major presence, and the fire services have had a presence and a response via what used to be “emergency management” that’s unprecedented in the past. I think the federal government has recognized the intricate role the fire services play in that initial response and it’s said “This has been a neglected funding target for years, but yet is a major response component.” In years past, it was called “disaster services,” or “civil defense,” or more comtemporarily “emergency management,” but it is, for the most part, the fire services. So I think they’re saying “We’ve watched this happen. We’ve seen significant deficiencies in communications in multi-agency responses.” All of these eventswere way beyond the capabilities of any one or two agencies.
In Hurricane Andrew, I was down there the morning after the hurricane. We sent two strike teams down there. Our county provided a mobile emergency operations center adjacent to the Homestead city hall for the first days of operation. That, coupled with the wildfires, has changed awareness dramatically.
MRT: What capabilities do software and mobile data now offer to cope with these types of events?
KAISER: I think being tied into AVL and GPS and imaging. They need real-time mapping. They need to be able to send over photographs for the EMS side. Don and I were discussing the large percentage of calls that are EMS-related with trauma issues where you can send that data directly to a physician in an emergency room in real time and he can see the mechanism of injury. Those kinds of things have profound effects. Like everyone else, they need information now, in real time. The problem is bandwidth and all the other issues that the FCC has been struggling with over the last several years.
MRT: You’ve anticipated our direction. How can technology help get mobile data on-line, given existing bandwidth problems for voice communications?
NAGLE: In every single scenario, it’s never the same. If there’s an embedded infrastructure, we want to work with it. If there’s not, then it’s CDPD that we’re dealing with and depending on the coverage and other issues that are associated with that. It’s never “one size fits all,” and I don’t see that going away. All of public safety-law enforcement, fire and the EMS side-all face the same issue. The issue has been, and will continue to be, the availability of frequencies and bandwidth. Until we address that issue on a federal basis, and somebody makes a hard-and-fast decision, I don’t see that problem going away. KAISER: What you’re seeing is a collision between a bona fide public safety need and the commercial applications and the money that’s involved.
MRT: What do you mean by “a collision?”
KAISER: How competitive the commercial market is, and the ability or inability of the FCC to deal with these issues in a timely manner ….
NAGLE: It’s the auctions of frequencies for PCS and other systems that have come forward. Public safety has a problem because, obviously, the FCC is looking at both sides of the ledger, the public safety/public interest side as well as the commercial side of the endeavor.
MRT: Public safety communications officials have told us that although Congress is diverting a large chunk of spectrum reclaimed from HDTV conversion to public safety, it may be as long as 10 years before it can be effectively used. NAGLE: And you face the issues of embedded infrastructures, backward compatibility and additional funding to new technologies and frequencies that are coming forward.
MRT: It seems like it has a chilling effect on new applications that could be offered, such as fingerprint transmission, real-time video and response type-dependent assignment of bandwidth.
NAGLE: We were talking about CDPD, and how that hasn’t taken off in terms of the coverage in so many areas as quickly as everything else did because it looks like the providers are building that infrastructure “pay as you go” instead of being willing to step out there like they did with PCS and everything else and take these huge gambles that “if you build it, they will come.” That’s holding things up.
MRT: In specific software applications, how important is encryption becoming for mobile data?
NAGLE: We’re just starting to take a look at it now. We’ve got a new mobile data product called Mobile Data Browser that was driven by our customers coming back to us and saying “We want our mobile data to really look like what’s on our desktop.” We’re just starting to take a look at the encryption side of that whole issue as we bring to the table the additional switches that attach to the CAD system.
MRT: HTE’s main fire data program, “Fireline,” is actually a software suite with add-on modules. How was that program developed?
NAGLE: The goal and objective for us here is that we want to sell product suites. We want to take what’s on the desktop in front of the dispatcher or within the fire station and put it in a remote wireless environment. So we’ve really taken all the issues about fires, inspections and CAD systems in front of the dispatcher and taken them to the Fireline product, which is wireless.
MRT: How does mobile data make a difference to the personnel in the field, in terms of personal safety, speed of response and successful conclusion to an incident? What does this really mean to the person on the fire line?
KAISER: Well, information is power. And information in that business is also safety. It’s their ability to access it themselves quickly, and without delay, and whatever piece of that information that they want or want to highlight. It just gives them greater control, faster.
NAGLE: They’re looking at this as they’re responding to an incident or a fire call. Their expectation has now become “Not only do we want to know where it is-show us a map of exactly how to get there and what is the best route for us to accomplish that-we want to see a blueprint of the building that’s involved. I want to know a premise history of all the calls that have taken place there in the last six months, or a year, from computer-aided dispatch, and I also want to know what the last fire inspection looked like.”
That is an expectation. From my background, which was law enforcement, that is the way that mobile data evolved. It was more information to that guy on the screen, so there was quicker response and better officer safety.
KAISER: It helps the responder develop his response to different scenarios. For example, in a mass-casualty situation, it helps tremendously to have some kind of visual on what you’re going to encounter in terms of floor plan, or lot layout or location accessibility, rather than just pull up there and only have a single-dimensional view. There’s a huge advantage there.
MRT: What about the flow of information the other way, from the field back to the base? Is it as important for fire as it has proved in law enforcement?
KAISER: It’s every bit as important. Not only for accountability but for the management of resources. It’s what you have available at that point in time, what is going on, the impact on what your inventory is and how you handle simultaneous situations.
More importantly, if you encounter a situation that escalates very quickly, what else can you count on?
MRT: What is the blue-sky future for public safety mobile data? What kinds of things can we look forward to in the next five or 10 years?
NAGLE: It gets back again to the bandwidth issue. We had a lot of talk over the last several years about live-scans fingerprints and mug-shot imaging and all of those things for the law enforcement side. On the other side of the issue, on the fire and EMS side, every fire department that we deal with is looking for systems status management, where they can take historical data files, data based on times of day and days of the week, and really position their equipment appropriately for the fastest response.
MRT: So there is a predictive factor?
NAGLE: Absolutely, based on time of day and the types of incident that the historical files will bring forward.
KAISER: And it’s very accurate; it’s very effective. There’s a lot of dimensions to that: weather, time of year, holidays, all kinds of things. As you get near the holidays, it’s knowing that suicide rates go up and knowing where your target populations are for that.
In terms of equipment, certainly the manufacturers will keep evolving, but I think the majority of it will be software-driven. I think the possibilities there are extremely exciting. There’s a lot out there right now that could be used in terms of hardware, that, because bandwidth and frequencies haven’t settled out, would be employed, and you’d have software programs for that if the green light was given.
Just reflect back on GPS. About 10 years ago, our county was chosen as a test site for one of the first mobile GPS systemsfor navigation …. They had the technology-the satellites were there- but they hadn’t worked out the delivery system to take advantage of that. That’s the limiting factor in terms of what we’ll see in the next five years. We’re hung up right now to a great extent in the public safety community by the limitations of the FCC.
MRT: What about the expansion of databases?
KAISER: Not only expanding, but integration of different sources is the key. There are multiple databases out there; it’s successfully integrating all of the different pieces to come up with what you need at the user end. The tax assessor, the property appraiser, the GIS mapping, the CAD, the AVL-it’s when you can link all of that together in real time and overlay multiple layers of GIS maps on a given specific location, water mains, gas mains, flood plain, elevations, all those kinds of things. They’re all there-they’re just out there, in many cases, separately. Our company is geared toward integrating all of that and providing that as a package.
MRT: So it’s the data equivalent to the calls for interoperability in voice communications?
NAGLE: We refer to it as “total integration.” In the Alexandria, VA, contract, we’re doing an integration with the city’s GIS system, and it’s primarily for the fire department.