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Government focuses on video conferencing systems to curtail travel time and improve service to citizens.

Government focuses on video conferencing systems to curtail travel time and improve service to citizens.

Continuing education and training are critical for first responders, but finding a way to offer those opportunities without racking up exorbitant travel and overtime costs or compromising public safety presents a challenge. Snohomish County Fire District #1 in Washington overcame those obstacles by rolling out a video conferencing system to improve the skills of its firefighters and better serve its community.

“The driving force behind this is the national response time standards,” says Snohomish Assistant Fire Chief Gary Aleshire, referring to the National Fire Protection Association’s requirement of an eight-minute response time for 90 percent of calls. The district struggled to meet these standards during its monthly training and review sessions at headquarters in Everett, Wash. During the meetings, paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and a physician review and critique the previous month’s emergency calls.

“We used to take firefighters out of their station, bring them to a central location and let firefighters from other stations take care of the calls,” Aleshire explains. “If you take a company out of the south end of the county and their replacements have to cover two areas and perhaps a third, you’re looking at 12- to 15-minute response times. [The district’s eight fire stations cover 54 square miles along Puget Sound.] Now everyone stays in their own station, which greatly reduces the domino effect.”

Fire department, court and law enforcement officials around the country rely on video conferencing to cut costs, minimize carbon footprints, reduce paperwork and improve services. “The economy and the environment are fueling the uptake of video conferencing, webcasting, webconferencing and telepresence,” says Claire Schooley, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. “It’s become more and more a part of the tools that people use to do their jobs.”

Convince the Camera-Shy

During the most recent fiscal year, the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy trained more than 36,000 first responders.

IP technology has also propelled video conferencing deployment. Andy Golub, principal of Technical Advantage, a computer services company in Everett, Wash., advised Snohomish County to purchase an IP-based Polycom MGC-50 conference bridge and the RSS 2000 for recording and archiving. A VSX 8000 camera sits at district headquarters, and each station has a VSX 6000 set-top video conferencing system. The system also uses the VSX 7400 mobile cart unit.

“I fought for two years to get this video conferencing funded because the cost savings are tremendous,” says Golub. “They can spend millions on overtime in one year. This eliminates the need for overtime.”

But change didn’t come easy to public-sector employees who are used to doing things a certain way. County officials recognized the reluctance and skepticism among firefighters and delayed the video conferencing implementation to give them time to adjust to the technology.

Many staff were unnerved by the presence of cameras in the station and feared that their privacy would be violated. “We had to go out to stations and do a touchy-feely to make sure everyone was online,” Aleshire says.

Law enforcement and court officials in Oakland County, Mich., were also skeptical when OakVideo was introduced in 2001, but it didn’t take long for everyone to see the benefits of video conferencing. During the rollout, three inmates escaped while being transported to a hearing.

“It was a little embarrassing, but it encouraged everyone to start using it,” recalls Charlie Covetz, systems administrator for OakVideo. The digital arraignment system links courts, police and corrections facilities and allows them to manage documents through a centralized server. “You not only save the cost of transport, but you don’t have a potentially violent prisoner sitting there in court.”

Bring on the Benefits

Snohomish County first responders are eager to take advantage of the training opportunities video conferencing provides, notes Capt. Shaughn Maxwell.

Rick Dahms

OakVideo uses the Polycom MGC-100 conference bridge and the VS4000 view station, which supports four-way video conferencing. Holding cells house the gear. The county’s district and circuit courts, police departments and sheriffs’ stations use the Polycom PowerCam camera. The OakVideo equipment cost $6.8 million, says Covetz, who estimates the system saves the county about $4.2 million annually.

“We just didn’t realize all the unintended consequences of this, like how much time it took for an officer to get one warrant,” Covetz says. “It could take half a day. Now, as soon as a judge issues a warrant, the police department gets it automatically. This speeds up the process, saves time and mileage.”

Firefighters in Snohomish County are starting to realize the benefits of their system, too. Capt. Shaughn Maxwell, medical services supervisor for the fire district, says most EMS personnel are excited about the training opportunities video conferencing provides. “The paramedics are really hungry for education because the more you have, the better you can serve the public.”

The district also uses the video conferencing system to deliver “Chief Chats”: the fire chief’s quarterly visit to all the stations. Previously it took a month to complete, but “now we can send out the chief’s message to all the stations and archive it so the next shift can come in and view it,” says Aleshire. “And if they’re interrupted because they get an emergency call, they can finish it later.” Beginning in January, the district’s Board of Commissioners will use the system to broadcast and record its biweekly meetings.

Aleshire urges other state and local agencies to spend time educating and training employees so they understand how the system can make their jobs easier. He also advises doing a thorough cost/benefit analysis before embarking on such a project. “The initial cost is very discouraging, but the long-term gains far outweigh it,” he says, citing a return on investment in four to five years.

“This has a very direct impact on the community,” Aleshire says. “We’re improving response time during training sessions, we’re eliminating overtime and putting those savings back into operations, and reducing the tax burden on our citizens.” He also points to the untapped possibilities of video conferencing for such things as telemedicine, delivering public safety messages and providing CPR training to the public.

Indeed, Sharon Cocchiola, an IT team leader at the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Office of the Executive Secretary, says local judicial and law enforcement officials have found unique ways to use video conferencing. The Virginia Supreme Court video network facilitates more than 800 warrants issued on video each day and is used at 300 facilities around the state, including jails where magistrates can connect with police officers for hearings using a video camera and bridge.

But the state also uses video conferencing at large public venues such as the Nissan Pavilion in Prince William County and the Virginia Tech stadium in Blacksburg. “People drink and get out of hand, but we didn’t have enough magistrates to cover during concerts, so a couple years ago we set up video conferencing during concert season,” Cocchiola says. This allows magistrates to connect with police officers to issue arrest warrants and conduct bail hearings on site.

“We’ve set video conferencing up at the Foxfield [equestrian] Races, and we’ve had requests from hospitals to facilitate medical temporary detention orders,” Cocchiola says. “There are lots of applications for this kind of technology.”

Seeing Red

The Youngstown Fire Department in Ohio asked colleagues around the country about the color of their fire engines.

  • 78.4% Red
  • 9.8% Other
  • 7.8% White
  • 2% Green
  • 2% Yellow

Despite what you probably learned in preschool, not all fire trucks are red. Some fire departments have moved to other color schemes.

According to youngstownfire.com, an independent source of firefighting statistics and resources, the second most popular color for fire trucks is white. Municipalities including Denver, Shelby County, Ky., and Taunton, Mass., favor a white color scheme.

The next most popular are yellow or green. Clark County, Nev., Chambersburg, Pa., and Honolulu favor yellow; Greenock, Pa., prefers standard green; and Gas City, Ind., and Hollywood Heights, Ill., go for lime green. Scottsdale, Pa., combines the two in a green-and-yellow fire truck.

Blue in some form is the next favorite, although not represented in the survey. And some municipalities go way outside the norm with striping. —Karen D. Schwartz

Jan 15 2009

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