A new iPhone application provides a “virtual window” into one California agency’s dispatch and emergency response activities. The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District’s FireDepartment.org application is drawing rave reviews from local residents and first responders, as well as national and international interest.
The free application enables users to listen in live to the actions of dispatchers, firefighters and paramedics in San Ramon Valley. They can view active incidents, including the real-time response status of dispatched units, and see incident locations on an interactive map. Users can also choose to be notified of incidents by category as they are dispatched and access photos of large-scale incidents.
The agency uses the application to communicate with more than 700 Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members, as well as to share information with the community at large during disasters.
“Yesterday, I was talking to a few people, and they were asking me about the app,” said San Ramon Valley Fire Chief Richard Price. “They pulled out their iPhones. All of a sudden, all the phones were notified that there was a fire two blocks away. We looked out the window, and there was the smoke. I said, ‘I’ve got to go, but just click over to the radio and you can listen in.’ These notifications go out at the same time we alert our stations. They push straight out from CAD.”
“We have this Web site, www.firedepartment.org, that’s become pretty popular,” said San Ramon Valley Fire Protection Project Manager Lucas Hirst. “One of the features we offer on the site is the ability to view incidents on the Web. One of our most popular pages is the scanner application, which we allow people to listen to. We thought about how we could move this to the mobile arena as the iPhone was exploding.”
Hirst said they wanted to design the application for a broad audience, from teens to senior citizens. “We have all the citizens and residents of the valley that we’re trying to reach out to and communicate with,” he said. “Everybody is going to mobile devices. Some people are replacing their computers—they’re just using their phone to do everything, and we saw this opportunity.”
The agency had the concept in mind, but didn’t have the know-how or budget to create the app themselves. Its proximity to Silicon Valley proved useful. Every year, Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (http://developer.apple.com/wwdc) draws software designers and other tech enthusiasts to Northern California. Hirst said they went to the conference last June and met with a for-profit company that develops apps. Understanding their needs and limited financial resources, they pointed the agency to an internship program at Northern Kentucky University.
“We had a conversation with the guys in Kentucky, and they were really interested. That’s how we started the project. It’s been a blessing to have the partnership that we’ve had, because the students there are just great to work with. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Price said the agency hasn’t experienced any problems with people arriving en masse at disaster scenes, interfering with response operations, etc. “We have not had that trouble. The functionality that’s in the application has existed on our Web site for quite some time. You could already go to our Web site and subscribe to calls only in your city or certain types of calls. There are several ways that you can sign up to get notifications on your cell phone, pager or whatever device you want. The iPhone is one more means.”
Medical call dispatches are also broadcast via the application. “We’re very careful with privacy law,” Hirst said. “If it’s a medical emergency, it will give you an approximate address, not the exact address. Our idea is, if you see an ambulance drive by or a fire engine drive by, you look at your app and there’s a little GPS icon on it, so you can see what’s the closest engine to you by looking on the map, and you’ll see that they’re going on a fire call over there or a medical emergency or vehicle accident.”
Many people probably download the application out of curiosity or to monitor activities as a hobby, but the application has fantastic potential for communicating information and instructions to CERT members, other agencies and laypeople during disasters or MCIs.
“Although we have other methods of contacting people, this is an extra way of letting somebody know what’s going on. The push component that the iPhone provides is something that we really like, as we’re able to send information right to the device, even if you’re not looking at the application,” Hirst said. “We can post things on our Web site, like ‘shelter in place,’ but unless somebody actually goes to the Web site, you won’t find out. With the iPhone, it allows us to send the information to the phone, so you get it. It looks like a text message.”
Price said the application is a “consumer version” of a larger program they continue to develop internally. “The development we’re doing internally goes a lot further than this for command and control,” he said. The agency is planning to use an enhanced version internally for use on employees’ handheld devices— not just the iPhone.
Will It Work for Your Agency?
The application was custom-designed for San Ramon Valley, and won’t transfer easily to other agencies, Price said. “There’s been a lot of interest. We’ve had business interests and other departments contacting us, but it’s not [easily replicated]. We spent more than a year on it, and we have a talented team, and we were fortunate to have a partnership with the university. There are a lot of pieces to get it up and running. It takes a live, real-time CAD interface that has more sophistication than a CAD interface that transfers to a record system when the call is over. This is a real-time, unit-level status interface.”
Price said with literally hundreds of new users every day, they’re having to pay attention to the scalability of the application. “When somebody says ‘notify us of structure fires,’ we’re sending out hundreds and hundreds of push notifications for all those devices, and that number is growing. So we have a certain amount of infrastructure, a certain amount of sophistication to support that; it’s not easily duplicable.”
The cost to develop the application was minimal. “Most of the core engineering for the application was done using college interns that we didn’t pay,” Price said. “And we have a very good internal IT staff, so our staff created the designs, the functionality, the look and feel of the application. The programming was all done by the interns.”
It’s still a work in progress. Hirst said they’ve taken users’ comments to heart and are already working on updates. “We’re going to be coming out with little updates to make the app run more efficiently,” he said. “We’ve had great reviews on the iTunes Store, and some people have come up with suggestions that we are working on.”
He said they have considered things like including a map of AED locations in the application. The trick is keeping it user-friendly by not overwhelming users with too much information. “The more features you have, the more complex it can be. But we’re looking at future versions where you can turn layers on to see all AEDs or all fire stations and so forth. We’re just not sure yet how best to implement them without making it confusing.”
The agency is definitely looking to develop the application to its fullest potential. “We want to keep improving on it,” Hirst said. “If you download it and notice something that you’d like to see, let us know!”
For more information, a demonstration video and a link to the iTunes Store, visit www.firedepartment.org/iphone.
Originally published in EMS Insider: Vol. 37(8):1-8, August 2010. Click here to subscribe to EMS Insider.