Web innovations: How fire departments can use new comms technologies

A fire district in California is leading the way in Gov 2.0 by engaging with its community using modern methods


Editor's note: At Fire-Rescue International earlier in the summer, the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District was awarded the prestigious US Safety Engineering Award for Excellence program by the IAFC. The award recognizes innovations and achievements in managing resources to reduce the loss of life and property from fire and other emergencies. In a further honor last week, its Fire Chief Richard Price was  selected by the American Heart Association as the 2012 "Heart of Gold" honoree. The award honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to the advancement of cardiovascular disease protection and has enhanced the welfare of the Greater Bay Area community. Learn about the department's impressive efforts below, and we hope you can learn some ideas for your department to explore, too.

By Information Officer Kimberly French
San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District

Just 40 miles north of San Jose sits the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, but with its award-winning website and first of its kind iPhone application it might as well be located in the heart of Silicon Valley.

This special district, which recently received CFAI accreditation, provides all-risk fire, rescue and emergency medical services to approximately 170,000 residents over a 155 square mile jurisdiction.

In April 2009, FireDepartment.org, the district's redesigned website went live. The new site was the first step in creating a combination of online and mobile tools for the community. Many of the features incorporated into the dynamic and visually stunning site came after reviewing the results of a community-based survey, which asked residents what they would like to see from their fire district's site.

As a result, FireDepartment.org was created, providing expanded district information, incident news releases, vibrant photo and video galleries, an interactive "Kid's Corner" and helpful tools for local businesses and residents.

"It was our endeavor to provide information and services to our community to help them efficiently interact with the district online", Fire Chief Richard Price said. "We have been overwhelmed by the positive feedback and increased productivity that has resulted since FireDepartment.org launched."

Streaming audio
Visitors to the district's website can access streaming audio of emergency dispatch radio traffic and can zoom in on live incidents using one of two webcams mounted on hilltop locations.

Users can also sign-up to receive district announcements, news about job opportunities and even live incident alerts via the district's Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Twitter feeds.

The district uses a Web content management system (WCMS) to keep content up to date and information fresh. The WCMS allows district employees in various divisions, who are responsible for providing and maintaining site content, to add information to the site without having computer programming or html skills.

Once submitted, an automated workflow routine routes new content to the appropriate managers for review and approval prior to the information becoming available on the live site.

For example, Human Resources can update information on job announcements, the District Clerk can post agendas and the Information Officer can post news stories and details on recent fire activity in the jurisdiction.

"FireDepartment.org has been an invaluable communication tool between the district and our residents," Fire Marshal Christina Jamison said. "It has been wonderful to have a place to direct business owners, residents and even children for the latest news and activities regarding fire safety."

Prestigious honor
A little over a year after the launch of FireDepartment.org, the site received the prestigious honor of being among five government sites worldwide to receive a "Webby" award nomination by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences.

"Having Firedepartment.org nominated in the same category as websites for the U.S. Census Bureau, NASA and the U.S. Air Force was quite an accomplishment for our District," Fire Chief Richard Price said. "We were honored."

Fresh off their Webby nomination, San Ramon Valley Fire announced that they were going mobile. The FireDepartment.org iPhone application was made available, free to the public, in June last year. The application defined a new category of iPhone functionality by providing a virtual window into the district's 9-1-1 dispatch center. iPhone users now have real-time access to emergency activity occurring in the San Ramon Valley. The application also provides the district with a powerful avenue to communicate with its mobile population.

Whole new level
This past January, the fire district took their iPhone app to a whole new level with the addition of an innovative new location-aware CPR notification capability. The CPR functionality empowers everyday citizens to provide life-saving assistance to victims of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA).

Application users who have indicated they are trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can now be notified if someone nearby is having a cardiac emergency and may require CPR.

If the cardiac emergency is in a public place, the application, using sophisticated GPS technology, alerts citizens in the vicinity of the need for CPR. The application also directs these citizen rescuers to the exact location of the closest public access Automated External Defibrillator (AED).

Both the original application and the 2.0 CPR version was created through a partnership between the District and students enrolled in the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) for iPhone engineering and programming services. By working with the District, the NKU students received valuable intern experience by addressing real world business needs.

What's next for San Ramon Valley Fire? "We are ambitiously working to share the FireDepartment iPhone CPR app with other communities around the globe," Fire Chief Richard Price said.

"The district has formed an independent and external foundation to distribute and support the application, hopefully at no cost to participating agencies through grant funding."

Interested agencies can learn more about the FireDepartment iPhone app that crowdsources Good Samaritans to CPR needed events by visiting www.firedepartment.mobi or myself at KFrench@srvfire.ca.gov.

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