by guest contributor, Ted Steinbrecher

The most tragic events throughout U.S. history have often served as catalysts for change in public safety technologies.

The Radio Act of 1912, which required all radio stations in the country to be licensed by the federal government, was enacted after the sinking of the Titanic – an event which resulted in the loss of over 1,500 lives. World War II hastened the mass production of penicillin, lowering the price per dose from $20.00 in 1940 to $0.55 by 1946, due to major technological advances in manufacturing.

More recently, the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001 led to the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a federal agency that has provided billions of dollars in funding for the development of highly sophisticated public safety technologies to the first-responder community through a variety of grant programs.

The need for more robust ways in which to prevent and respond to disasters like these and light-year advances in digital technology have converged over the past century, putting some of the most powerful systems and tools in the hands of our nation’s emergency management agencies.

While some state and local public safety agencies have been hesitant to adapt to the rapidly changing world of technology, many others have whole-heartedly embraced these changes, reaping many benefits not only for their departments, but more importantly, for the constituents they serve.

In Wilson, North Carolina, Fire/Rescue Services (WF/RS) Chief Don Oliver has incorporated the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software from Esri to help the department make informed decisions when responding to a fire. GIS data on the water supply system is used to pinpoint areas of the community which have low water flows or inadequate supplies that affect the ability to, as firefighters like to say, “put the wet stuff on the hot stuff.”

For hazardous materials planning and response, WF/RS can refer to an interactive map showing the location of all hazmat locations in relationship to population/demographic information. This tool enables the agency to better evaluate risks to the community in the event of a hazmat incident.

In the Spring 2011 edition of Esri’s ArcNews, Chief Oliver said, “We’ve been using GIS information for years. With any emergency response, we have just minutes between the alarm sounding and our arrival on scene. Accurate, instantaneous information about the situation improves our chance of success. GIS provides a more accurate situational awareness for our critical decision making.”

Just up the coast in Virginia, the New Hope Volunteer Fire Department recently installed the Attendant Information Center (or AIC) from ToughJobs, LLC in one of their ambulances. Designed to provide paramedics with an integrated solution that makes the input of patient medical and billing information more efficient, the AIC offers a unique combination of several separate technologies. This system has markedly increased the emergency medical services provided by the Department.

Mounted in the patient care area of the ambulance, the integrated solutions includes a ruggedized computer with a 15” LCD touch screen, docking station with power supply, mounts and cables, all at the cost less than a tablet PC itself.

“With any emergency response, we have just minutes between the alarm sounding and our arrival on scene. Accurate, instantaneous information about the situation improves our chance of success …” –  Chief Don Oliver, Wilson, NC Fire/Rescue Services

According to Fire Chief Josh Sprouse, “Since we’ve installed the AIC, we as a department have become more patient-focused. Inputting data into the reporting system is very accurate and live. There is no need to remember the times you started that IV, pushed that medication, or obtained those last vital signs because the touch screen is right beside you. The end result is an accurate report for the hospital and billing company, patient and EMS provider safety. Lastly, by using the AIC, the patients are better monitored because it is a patient-focused system.”

Another integrated solution combines law enforcement information from multiple databases into what is called a “dashboard” because of its likeness to the console in a car. The dashboard organizes data from multiple sources into visualizations – charts, maps, and reports – that provide an instant snapshot of current criminal activity and other threats to public safety.  The dashboard eliminates the need for law enforcement managers to access multiple sources and formulate their own snapshot of current activity, which can be both labor-intensive and time-consuming.

“The significant difference between the dashboard system and a crime analysis program is the ability to view information at a glance. This benefit is increased by the increased flexibility to design very specific problem-solving maps and reports and display them in many different ways,” according to Police Chief Bence Hoyle of Cornelius, North Carolina.

Are all of the technology innovations unilaterally embraced by the public safety community? As with any type of modernization, there are bound to be both detractors as well as early adopters, such as the three examples highlighted in this article.

The trend, however, is clear: An increasing number of law enforcement and fire/rescue service providers are applying technology solutions that increase productivity and allow public safety agencies “to do more with less” … a common theme as governments and public agencies strive to meet today’s fiscal challenges. The need to preserve safe communities will remain a core element of public service, while the tools and systems to achieve this mission will continue to evolve as technological advances offer innovative solutions.

About the Author:

Over the past thirty-seven years, Ted Steinbrecher has accumulated a unique combination of progressive experience in the public sector market. Early in his career, he served in the suburban Chicago area in municipal positions such as Assistant Village Manager and Director of Public Services.

Mr. Steinbrecher later became a senior consultant and technology solution provider/vendor to the public safety industry. He is currently president of TS & Partners, LLC, a public sector consulting firm specializing in information technology.

He graduated with honors from Roosevelt University (Chicago) with a Masters in Public Administration degree and holds a bachelor’s degree in Government from Monmouth College (Monmouth, Illinois).