Category Archives: 911

Lessons from NG-3-1-1 for NG-9-1-1

Next Generation 911When you are in a life-threatening emergency – a serious car accident or having a heart attack or your house is on fire – what do you do? You call 9-1-1, of course. With the emphasis on CALL, because, with just a few exceptions, there’s no other way to get police or firefighter or emergency medical help except calling on the phone. You can’t text 9-1-1 or send an email to a PSAP or tweet to 9-1-1.

9-1-1 Centers, often called PSAPs or Public Safety Answering Points, have a lot of sophisticated technology beyond 1920s-era voice phone calls, but very little of it is used to communicate with the public.

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the government – specifically the Federal Department of Transportation – have a plan to fix that. The plan is called “Next Generation 9-1-1” or NG-9-1-1. At some point you may be able to text 9-1-1 or send an e-mail message or upload photos and video to help first responders protect life and property.

Some cities, however, have already implemented 3-1-1 systems for non-emergency customer service. In these cities – Portland and Denver for examples – you call 9-1-1 for emergencies and 3-1-1 to get help with any other municipal government service such as building permits, streetlight repair or animal control.

I recently did a podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network (APN) discussing 9-1-1, 3-1-1 and these next-generation contact methods for the public. Fletch (@Fletch911) and I came up with the term “Next Generation 3-1-1” to describe using a set of new technologies and social media for citizens to reach their governments for service.

What can NG-9-1-1 and PSAPS learn from “next generation 3-1-1”?

Next Generation 311 - term coined in this blogWell, for one thing, “next generation 3-1-1” has already arrived. If you are in one of the places with 3-1-1, you can obviously just call that number to initiate almost any government service or report a problem. But virtually all those 3-1-1 cities also offer a 3-1-1 web input form and give you a tracking number. Some of them now tweet and allow tweeting as an input. Others are experimenting with Facebook pages, online chat, and email. Many of these contact methods allow you to send a photo or video of the issue.

Another common contact method is texting – there’s even “an app for that” in Textizen, developed by Code for America. In truth, Textizen is as much about citizen engagement and interaction as it is 3-1-1 and requesting service. But the important point is that Philadelphia, Austin, Salt Lake City and other places have implemented it as an alternate contact method.

Seattle's Find-It Fix-ItA final, powerful, “NG3-1-1” technology is the downloadable mobile app. Some cities have developed their own app such as Boston’s Citizen Connect or Seattle’s Find It Fix It. These are sometimes built on technology developed by private companies such as Connected Bits or See-Click-Fix (Ben Berkowitz, the CEO, is a worldwide leader in this space).

A frequent criticism of NG-3-1-1 services and apps is that they only work in one city. You can download the “Chicago Works” NG-3-1-1 app, but cross into the suburbs and it is useless. But Boston and Massachusetts fixing this by extending Boston’s Citizens Connect into Massachusetts Commonwealth Connect. This allows 40 cities in Massachusetts to have their own individually branded app, but, using the GPS feature on smartphones, to report problems no matter where they are. A resident of Chelsea who is in Boston for a Red Sox game could see a problem – a smashed stop sign for example – and use the Chelsea app to report it to the Boston.

Admittedly, we have a long way to go with 3-1-1 – most places in the nation don’t have it (indeed, even in Boston and Seattle you don’t call 3-1-1, but rather a 10 digit phone number). But we can still think about some future “next generation” features for 3-1-1 which would be relatively easy to implement with today’s technology even if they are still difficult to implement in the culture of government operations:

  • Fedex-style tracking of service requests. With tracking you could snap a photo of graffiti, get a tracking number and then be notified as the service request is reviewed, triaged, sent to the police department for review by the gang unit, sent to “graffiti control central” to determine if it is on government property and which department (transportation, parks, etc.) is responsible to clean it up, see when the crew is dispatched, be notified when the work is done, and then be asked your opinion of how well the whole process worked. (Some 3-1-1 apps purport to do this now, e.g. Chicago, and the Open 3-1-1.org organization actually is evangelizing it).
  • 3-1-1 Open Data and analysis.  The details and results of 3-1-1 calls for service should be on an open dataset for anyone to review and, indeed, are in some cities such as Boston, New York City, and San Francisco. Certainly departments and Mayor’s Offices should be analyzing the tracking data to improve service management processes. But how about mashing the 3-1-1 data up against datasets such as building code violations, utility shutoff due to non-payment or crime incident reports to find “hot spots” of difficulties in the City which need to be broadly addressed by cross-functional teams from law enforcement, code enforcement, social workers and more. Boston is, indeed, doing this, but I’ve not been able to find detailed data about it.  (Note:  Socrata, headquartered in Seattle, is the software driving all the “open data” sites mentioned above as well as hundreds of others such as the Federal Governments own data.gov.
  • Facetime and Skype to 3-1-1, conveying video to the 3-1-1 operator so they can see your situation or you can show them graffiti, a problem in the street, and so forth.
  • Chat and video chat. Chat functions are fairly common on private customer service sites but extraordinarily rare in government. Indeed, I can’t cite a single example. I think government customer service departments are concerned about being overwhelmed by work if chat is opened to the public.
  • Twitter and Facebook comments/apps. Elected officials certainly realize the power of Twitter and Facebook. And I think they (or their staff) actually review and respond to comments or tweets, and even turn them into service requests for follow up. But most of the line departments in most cities (water, transportation, public works, certainly police and fire) don’t accept calls for service via these social media channels. I’d also like to see developers write Facebook apps or games which could be used inside that social media community to engage the public or manage 3-1-1/service requests.

Lessons for NG-9-1-1. I’ve laid out a long list of examples and suggestions above which, together, could be called the “landscape and roadmap” for Next Generation 3-1-1. Some of them clearly could be adopted for use in PSAPs and 9-1-1 centers. The “low hanging fruit” here, I think, for NG 9-1-1 is:

  • A smartphone app for texting 9-1-1. Although you can directly text 9-1-1 from your phone, an app would be better because it could prompt you for critical information such as your location. Textizen could be an NG-3-1-1 model for this.
  • A smartphone app for calling 9-1-1. This sort of app might not just telephone 9-1-1, but also allow you to include photos or other data from your phone, including GPS coordinates, direction and speed of travel etc.
  • Facetime or Skype to 9-1-1. Such an app (when PSAPs are able to receive the information) would allow the telecommunicator in the PSAP to see what’s happening to you or in your area.

A number of obstacles remain, however:

  • Technology is an obstacle, as most 9-1-1 centers don’t have even text messaging available, much less email, twitter or chat. A notable exception: York County, Virginia, where past APCO president Terry Hall directs the 9-1-1 center – you can text 9-1-1 in York County.
  • Culture and training are an obstacles. Telecommunicators (call takers and dispatchers) in 9-1-1 centers know their jobs extraordinarily well and execute them almost flawlessly, as you hear from tapes after any major incident. Every new technology or method of communication we add to the PSAP makes those jobs harder in terms of training and obtaining the right information to get first responders to the incident.
  • Chain of evidence. When a video or video call or image is sent from a citizen to a 9-1-1 center about a crime, can it be used as evidence? Has it been altered (even by Instagram) thereby perhaps rendering it useless in a court of law?
  • Security and cybersecurity. We’ve seen cases of “spoofing” telephone numbers and “swatting”, where 9-1-1 centers are tricked into sending officers or SWATs to unsuspecting citizens. Every new method of communicating adds new difficulties in verifying caller identities and preventing such antics.

And, most importantly, with 9-1-1 lives are often at stake, so thorough research and preparation must precede adoption of these new technologies in PSAPs.

My podcast with Mark Fletcher on the Avaya Podcast Network was a fortuitous meeting. We’ve probably coined the phrase “Next Generation 3-1-1”. But while the tools and technologies of NG-3-1-1 certainly chart a path for PSAPs and NG-9-1-1, following that path will require innovative solutions to a number of obstacles.

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Filed under 311, 911, apps, future of technology, open data, social media

– Kids can be 911 Heroes Too

photo of the Local 911 Heroes Award

Rodrigo, Lori and Tom receive the 911 Local Heroes Award

Most of us have probably called 911 at some point in our lives to report a crime or a car accident. We take it for granted that the call will be answered efficiently and help will arrive quickly.

We forget, however, that calling 911 is something we learn to do. Even adults will overwhelm 911 after a minor earthquake with “did you feel that” calls. Calling 911 is a skill to be taught, knowing when to call and when not to call, staying calm, relaying the proper information. 911 For Kids is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping kids know about 911 and also prepare for other disasters and emergency response.

I attended an inspiring event at the APCO 2012 Conference in Minneapolis this week, where 9 year old Rodrigo Sanchez Sosa was recognized as a “local 911 hero”. He called 911 when his 2 year old sister fell unconscious after a seizure. Dispatcher Lori Patrick and emergency medical dispatcher Tom Polzin took the call and guided him through helping his sister until an emergency medical team arrived.

Rodrigo, Lori and Tom were all recognized as “Local 911 Heroes” on Tuesday, August 21st, in a ceremony opened by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and sponsored by AT&T. “Local 911 Heroes” is a program established in 1999 to recognize people, especially kids, who perform in an extraordinary manner using 911 when faced with an everyday crisis.  AT&T sponsors these “Local 911 Heroes” Awards all across the country.

(Read the rest of this post on my Digital Communities Blog).

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Filed under 911, APCO

– Why don’t Cops Use Smart Phones?

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Responders’ Smart Phones – Click to see more

Every teenager – including some of us 50 and 60 year old teenagers – seems to have a smart phone these days.  I’m writing this on an airplane, and I just finished an intense, 20 minute “Angry Birds” session on my HTC Android smart phone (yes, it was in “airplane” mode!).   And I’m almost a Luddite when it comes to apps and smart phones.

But many people young and old commonly use their smart phones or tablet computers to do interesting, productive activities such as:

  • listen to public safety two-way radio;
  • take meeting notes using Evernote or One Note;
  • watch episodes of TV series using Hulu;
  • read books and newspapers;
  • take photos or videos and text message them around the world.

Gee, some people even use their smart phones to actually make voice telephone calls!?

So why don’t cops and firefighters, emergency medical technicians and electrical lineworkers, public works and transportation department employees, and a whole other host of critical and important government workers use smart phones in their daily jobs?

Of course these public safety workers DO use smart phones. Often they use their PERSONAL smart phones to do some part of their job. But rarely do governments give their workers smart phones – other than BlackBerrys for email, that is – to officially do their jobs and become much more productive.  In fairness, that’s not because Mayors and County Executives and Governors are unsupportive, or government CFOs are enny-pinching.

We don’t give government workers these important tools for two basic reasons:

  • The apps don’t exist;
  • There is no guarantee of priority access to commercial cell phone networks.

In terms of the “apps”, most governments use a relatively small set of applications from a few vendors – there are records management systems, computer-aided dispatch systems, utility billing systems, work management systems, etc.  And many of the vendors of those systems only recently have built them to accept even web-browser access. The terms and conditions for our (government’s) use of such software explicitly says we’ll only use the software with vendor approved configurations, or the vendor won’t give us support.  And most vendors for these government-specific systems don’t make a version of their application which runs on a smart phone, whether it is a Windows Phone 7, Apple iPad or Iphone, or  Google Android.

Software companies:  Get on the stick and write smart phone apps for your software. ‘nuf said.

More importantly, government workers presently have to use commercial mobile networks for their smart phones. And on those networks, public safety and critical infrastructure workers have no priority. That means your teenager (even if she’s 50 years old) has the same priority as a cop or firefighter or electrical lineworker responding to a major incident or emergency.

Do you want that emergency medical technician responding to YOUR heart attack to have priority access – wirelessly and in real time – to your medical history, and to the emergency room doctors at the level 1 trauma center, and to a video conference with your cardiologist?  Of course you  do!

During a robbery, when you or your employees are being held up at gunpoint, don’t you want the responding cops to be able to see the video of  your store – including the images of the perpetrators, in real time as they respond?  And have passers-by snapping photos and video of the perps to send to 911 centers using next generation 911 technologies?  Of course you do!

When your electrical power is out, or your water is interrupted, don’t you want that utility worker to have access to all the diagrams and network configurations so they can accurately pinpoint where the outage is and rapidly fix it?  Well, of course you do.

If, all of a sudden, a kid in your child’s high school goes crazy and brings a gun to that school, taking teachers and students hostage, don’t you want responding cops and firefighters to have access to the video cameras with interior views of the school, and to the school’s building plan showing all the exits, and maybe even to the GPS on the cell phone used by the kid with the gun so they can see his (they are all boys, alas) exact position in the school? Obviously we do.

But the blunt fact of the matter is this:  At the same time you are having a heart attack, or your business is being robbed, or your electricity fails, or a school lockdown occurs – everyone who has a cell phone within a mile of the incident may be texting and calling and tweeting and sending photographs to their loved ones, and the commercial cellular networks will be overloaded.

That’s why we don’t give cops and firefighters smart phones.  Because – besides the fact that safe, secure, apps don’t exist – when responders most need their smart phones, the cell phone networks will be overloaded and fail them.

Is there a way out of this dilemma?  “Of course there is!”

Several bills are pending in Congress today which would allocate wireless spectrum for priority use by police, firefighters, emergency medical techs – and also by electrical lineworkers, public works employees and transportation workers .  Those same bills would auction other spectrum for use by carriers, producing almost $26 billion in revenue to both reduce the federal government deficit and to build a nationwide public safety network which responders could use – with priority over all other users and uses.

Then those first and second responders could use smart phone applications every day, confident that the network will be available, no matter what nearby teenagers are doing.

But, like so much else in this year of 2011, Congress is in deadlock. Some brave Senators and Representatives such as Jay Rockefeller
and Kay Bailey Hutchison (with Senate Bill S.911) and Peter King and Maria Cantwell and Dave Reichert do step up to the plate, led by Vice President Joe Biden.  They all support creation of a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.   At the same time, many others in Congress stall and block the work, while people needlessly are hurt or die.

Why don’t cops and firefighters use smart phones?  Because some in Congress would rather play politics, argue endlessly, and pinch funding than give our responders the tools they need to save lives and protect property every day, as well as during future disasters.

With the 10th anniversary of the September 11th World Trade Center disaster just a month away, does this dithering make sense?   Of course it doesn’t.

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Filed under 911, APCO, homecity security, radio, Sept. 11th

– S.911: Profiles in Courage

Joe Biden speaks at the White House, Photo by Bill Schrier

Vice President Joe Biden leading the charge

It is fascinating how words and phrases take on difference nuances of meaning depending upon their context. I guess that’s why it is so hard for computers (IBM’s Watson notwithstanding) to understand and properly interpret human speech or, in many cases, writing. Take “911”. In most contexts and for most people, that would be the police/fire emergency number . The number you’d call to get help with a heart attack or a burglary-in-progress or a lost child.

But 9/11 refers to that infamous day when terrorist Osama bin Laden’s gang of terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City.

Now, today, 911 has a new meaning. S.911 is the United States Senate bill sponsored by Senators Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, which allocates additional spectrum and $11.75 billion in funding to build a nationwide interoperable public safety wireless broadband network.

That bill passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee on a vote of 21 to 4 on June 8th.

On June 16th, Vice President Joe Biden and public safety officials from cities and states across the country celebrated this huge step forward on a long road toward building that network. Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and many others called upon the full Senate and House to pass the bill, so the President could sign it this year.

You don’t usually think of Senators as “courageous”, but we have twenty-one really courageous Senators on that Commerce Committee (and a courageous former senator in Vice President Biden).

They faced (and continue to face) a wide variety of pressures:

  • The continuing pain of the Federal budget deficit, which threatens to suck away the almost $12 billion allocated in this bill for public safety.
  • The pressure from some wireless telecommunications companies, who would rather see that spectrum given to them to build more consumer networks;
  • The Federal debt ceiling – which needs to be raised for the economic health of the nation – but many in Congress are holding that rise hostage to force budget cuts;
  • A lack of trust by some in the ability of state and local governments, who some believe cannot be trusted to continue to build out the network. This is ironic, because when anyone telephones 911, it is local police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians who respond.  Furthermore, eight local governments are already building these networks under waivers from the FCC;
  • A need by electric and water utilities, transportation agencies, and other critical infrastructure providers for spectrum to build their own interoperable networks so they can respond to hurricanes, tornadoes, windstorms and earthquakes too – luckily, if S.911 passes Congress, it would modify Federal law and allow these utilities to share the public safety network and spectrum;
  • Oh, did I mention the Federal budget deficit as an as an excuse to NOT giving cops and firefighters and local governments the network they need to keep us all safe?

These are all poor reasons used to justify voting “no” on S.911. Reasons to justify inaction. Reasons to put the safety of 300 million Americans aside.

The campaign to pass S.911 – to fund and build this vital network – is significantly helped by the leadership of President Obama  and Vice-President Biden, who allocated the money in their 2012 budget. The Vice-President is especially active leading the charge to build this nationwide public safety wireless broadband network.  The Administration just issued a report describing the urgent need.

Yes, there is a lot of courage on that Senate Commerce Committee, and hopefully the courage is infectious and spreads to at least the 51 Senators and 217 members of the House needed to pass the legislation.

Because 9/11 is looming again.

9/11/11.

The 10th Anniversary of the terrorism at New York City’s World Trade Center. Where hundreds of firefighters and police officers lost their lives because their radio communications networks didn’t get them the order to evacuate the buildings which were about to collapse.

Will the rest of Congress have the courage to act?

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Filed under 911, emergency operations, Sept. 11th, wireless

– Citywatch

Block Watch - click to see moreThis past Tuesday night, there were 1,219 parties in the street all around Seattle. Kids, hot dogs, drinks, cops and firefighters and neighbors everywhere. It was part of the National Night Out. And it was, perhaps, one of the last in Seattle, as the City may cut the jobs of six or seven crime coordinators responsible for the Blockwatch program.

Blockwatch programs are a widespread form of civic engagement. And they’ve morphed over the years adopting technology to become more effective. Now the combination of the Great Recession, the Great Budget Crisis and the explosion of social media such as Facebook, they are likely to morph again into a new and cool form of civic engagement, if we can maintain the thin blue line of civilians who run the programs.

Blockwatches, often called neighborhood watches, are a staple of many communities across the United States. I talked to Terrie Johnston, a crime prevention coordinator and 30 year employee in the Seattle Police Department, and she gave me some history of Blockwatches in the Seattle PD. This history is typical of Blockwatches across the nation and Canada.

Often a Blockwatch starts around a particular incident in a neighborhood. Sometimes it is a series of burglaries, or perhaps a drive-by shooting, or an incident near a school. One or more people in a neighborhood get concerned enough to call the local police precinct or Seattle Crime Prevention. The crime prevention coordinator sets up a meeting with the neighbors, discusses the incident and related crimes, and gives the neighbors hints, tips and advice on how to be watchful and protect each other.

Amazingly, Terrie says, it is young families with children who often initiate the Blockwatch or get involved to protect their families. I say “amazingly” because it is this demographic – young people who have kids and very busy lives, often with two jobs – who are hard to get involved in public meetings with City officials. Not so with the Blockwatch!

From this beginning, Blockwatches progress in a variety of ways. Many become social groups as well as crime prevention tools. In my neighborhood we have an e-mail list, we get together for a Christmas party, we even watched the Presidential debates of 2008.
In most Seattle neighborhoods, the Blockwatches also organize themselves into a SNAP (Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare) team. Seattle will have a major earthquake in the future. Such a quake – perhaps at 8 or even 9 on the Richter scale – will mean many neighborhoods may be isolated and have to survive on their own for many days. Neighbors need caches of food and water, need to know first aid and light search and rescue. Neighbors need to help each other.

There are probably a thousand active blockwatches in Seattle, but the Seattle Police crime coordinators have a list of 4000 blockwatch contacts.
The crime coordinators actively stay in touch with their Blockwatch contacts. Originally this contact was by conducting meetings and handing out fliers or maps of recent crimes. While they still attend meetings, make phone calls and hand out paper, the coordinators have also adapted technology. By far the most common method of contact now is e-mail, and they’ll email hints and tips or alerts to their Blockwatch Captains and contacts.

The most active Captains themselves will suggest alerts and updates – for example alerting neighbors to a Memorial Day observance at a military cemetery which included gunshots – a 21 gun salute. Every precinct has a blog and web page for crime prevention.

Crime Mapping on Seattle.govJust within the last year the City of Seattle and Seattle Police have developed a whole series of new online tools to improve the effectiveness of crime prevention. There’s now an online tool which allows residents to map almost all the crimes in their neighborhood (domestic violence and a few others are excluded). The map also allows people to actually download and view the actual redacted police report for many of these crimes. Just last week mapping of Police 911 calls debuted on the website, added to the mapping of Seattle Fire 911 calls which has been available for 6 years or more. Also last week a new crime reporting function was added to the Seattle.gov web, so residents can file reports online for minor crimes such as thefts under $500 or car prowls or similar incidents where they don’t need to talk to a police officer.

Seattle departments – including Police, Fire and others, have adapted twitter to rapidly inform residents of incidents as they occur. The Seattle website also includes a series of fifteen interlinked blogs called CityLink. On the Police blog, called spdblotter.seattle.gov, more detail is given on crimes and other incidents which the Police also tweet .

There are many organizations which operate in every neighborhood. Besides Blockwatches, there are district councils, and arts organizations and community development groups, not to mention an active set of privately operated neighborhood blogs which have, in many ways, taken over the functions formerly performed by community newspapers. The City has an index of all these resources on its website, Neighborhoods on the Net.

I think Blockwatches may morph in two ways in the future – first expanding their function and also changing their method of communication to use social media.

In terms of function, traditionally some Blockwatches have morphed from crime prevention to community engagement. They actively advocate for cleaning up derelict properties, eliminating graffiti, calming traffic (adding speed bumps or traffic circles) and of course caring for each other, e.g. checking in on the elderly or disabled.

But the City hasn’t always adopted the power of the Blockwatch movement for other forms of civic engagement. Many City departments go to neighborhoods and hold public meetings to gain input on zoning changes or neighborhood plan updates or changing the configuration of an arterial street to add turning lanes or bike lanes. But those meetings tend to be “one shot” deals or tend to use or create new e-mailing lists. Rarely do the other departments take advantage of the existing power of the organized Blockwatches. And often the City doesn’t actually give feedback to neighborhoods about how their input was used.

In these days of constrained resources, Blockwatches can and should morph from just crime prevention, to community involvement groups – “Citywatches”.

To do this, municipal governments need to find ways to adapt social media to Blockwatches and community engagement.

Facebook has taken the Internet by storm, with over half-a-billion users. It seems to be a natural new way for Blockwatches to post news, communicate and interact both internally, with other Blockwatches and with police departments and other City functions.

But Facebook as a company doesn’t “play nice” with government or other companies, in that it is hard for governments to save Facebook entries and comments, thereby complying with State records retention laws and FOIA laws. Furthermore, it is hard – if not impossible – to create a set of “blockwatch neighbors” separate and distinct from other groups and friends, and keep that group private, only sharing selected updates with other groups or the municipal government.

Facebook’s great advantage for this purpose is that so many people use it – they don’t have to learn or adopt some new tool. Other social media tools also hold promise for the future of Blockwatches and Citywatches. These include, perhaps, Wiki’s for sharing information about neighborhoods, Ideascale or Uservoice tools such as Ideas For Seattle to generate and rank ideas on certain topics, and Twitter.

A common problem – especially with Twitter and Blogs and Facebook – is easily capturing and harvesting comments or tweets so the Blockwatch captain or appropriate City department can adequately respond. Smartphone applications are already used by governments for JAPA (just another pothole application) feedback, but haven’t been widely used in public meetings, e.g. making comments and what is being said or voting during public meetings, which can improve the level of involvement among the audience. Certainly many governments are afraid of being overwhelmed by input which underscores the need for tools or software to harvest and consolidate responses.

Seattle has asked Code for America, the new non-profit founded by Tim O’Reilly, for help in developing a solution to improving Blockwatches via such social media tools, and thereby helping them to evolve into new platforms for civic action and engagement. With some luck, such a solution can be developed and used by many local governments across the nation.

Finally, I will admit and lament that personal interaction among neighbors has declined. The many time pressures on families mean we have less time to simply talk to our neighbors. But all these new smartphone, social media, technology tools can help improve that interaction.
Fundamentally, however they only supplement the face-to-face Blockwatch meeting which builds community and trust, so neighbors truly care about and watch out for each other.

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Filed under 911, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

– A Peek at the National Broadband Plan

Broadband Wireless

Broadband Wireless

On January 26th Admiral Jamie Barnett of the FCC spoke about the National Broadband Plan, which is now due out on March 17th (and I understand New York City, Boston and other cities with large Irish-American populations plan to have parades in honor of the plan that day, too!)

As a CTO, I’m so immersed in technology that I’m not sure “broadband” means anything to the average American (if an “average” American exists).   Certainly most Americans are now at least aware of the Internet and use technology in their lives, even if that tech is nothing more than a cell phone or ATM.   But all you have to do is watch the security lines at any airport and see all the laptops and luggables and cell phones and DVD players and other associated smart lumps of plastic dumped on the scanner lines to know that tech is ubiquitous in most people’s lives.

A significant fraction of people know about broadband and what it means.   In Seattle, some 84% of homes have an Internet connection, 75% have something faster than dial-up and 88% have a computer at home.  Of course Seattle’s got a reputation as a city of high tech folks (an image Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and I work hard to polish).   But even nationwide 79% of homes have an Internet connection and 63% are faster than dial-up.  The source for these stats is here.  

These are numbers are hard to fathom when one considers the web didn’t exist 20 years ago,  and most people probably thought “Internet” had something to do with basketball, volleyball, tennis or another “net-centric” sport.

Admiral Barnett heads the Homeland Security and Public Safety Bureau at the FCC.   He’s charged with making wireless spectrum available to government in general and specifically to the law enforcement, firefighting and emergency medical agencies who keep the public safe.   He spoke at the Winter Summit of Association of Public Safety Communications Officials on January 26th, and gave us a glimpse of what the National Broadband Plan will contain. 

Admiral Barnett’s remarks centered on wireless spectrum for use by first responders.  About 10 Megahertz is available nationwide for public safety, but the license for that is held by a  single nationwide organization.     Yet most police, fire and emergency medical agencies are operated by cities and counties.    Given this paradoxical situation, 17 states and cities have requested waivers from the FCC to use that spectrum in their local areas to immediately create networks for their use.  

And why is the spectrum required?   These new wireless networks hold promise that cops in police vehicles can see videos of crimes in progress as they race to crime scenes, or rapidly access building plans, images and video.  Have a peek at a  report prepared by PTI and APCO here for more uses.  

According to Admiral Barnett, those waivers may be granted later this year so we can get started building the network.  The FCC is very interested in public-private partnerships to build the networks because many jurisdictions don’t have funds to construct such networks for themselves.  Luckily, commercial cell phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T, and companies like Motorola and Alcatel-Lucent have signed on in support of this plan, and are developing new networks including  LTE (long term evolution) for not only their own networks but also for public safety use.   This means public safety agencies could use a network built and funded by taxpayers (more resilient, better priority, less costly) for most of their work, but could roam only the commercial carriers’ networks when necessary.   This is in stark contrast to today’s networks, where police/fire radios are incompatible with the cell phone networks.  The best of both worlds!

It looks like the FCC will encourage these partnerships in its plan. 

The FCC also knows that funding will be required to construct these networks.   Admiral Barnett understands funding is required not just to build the networks, but to operate them.  Besides public-private partnerships, the FCC is floating the idea of an Emergency Response Interoperability Center (ERIC) to pushing forward on a national public safety wireless network.  We’ll hear more about this on February 10th.

Finally, Barnett said  “next generation 911” will also be recognized in the national broadband plan.   Right now, the only way to get information to a 911 center is to … well … telephone 911!    But many citizens’ cell phones have the capability to do text messages, take photos and video.   Yet 911 centers have little or no capability to accept such media, which can be critical to rapidly apprehending perpetrators and rendering aid to victims.   We higher-speed land line fiber optic networking between 911 centers and other public safety and government facilities too, and I hope that will be in the Plan.

Twenty years ago, very few people knew of the Internet or Web.   Now it is an indispensible part of most people’s lives and a vital component of our HomeCity security and public safety.  But we need more network SPEED, both wired and wireless.  The National Broadband Plan could be, with a bit of vision by the FCC, a roadmap to the future of the nation.

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– 1999, an Odd Odyssey

The Year 2000 Bug

It was just ten short years ago that many of us were preparing to celebrate New Year’s Eve – by working all night!

Anyone over 30 probably still remembers all the information technology work that went into preparing for Year 2000.

I’m going to dredge (!?) up some of my memories in the next few paragraphs, but if you have memories or stories of that frightening December 31, 1999, evening, I invite you to leave them as a comment to this blog entry.

For many of us in Seattle, 1999 was not a good year.

First of all, we had madly been reviewing and fixing our information technology applications and programs and systems for Y2K bugs.

But no one really knew what would happen.  Would buses and trains stop dead due to bugs in their microchips?  Would the electrical grid fail?  Would 911 stop working?

The City of Seattle, like any organization using IT, had very real problems – we knew the accounting/financial database – called SFMS for Seattle Financial Management System – was not ready for Y2K, so we replaced it with an entirely new system.  We also patched up the water utility’s and electrical utility’s billing systems, since another project to replace them was in progress. (That system, now called CCSS for the Consolidated Customer Service System, was implemented in 2001, a year late and $14 million over budget, which is a different story).

The City’s Chief Technology Officer was Lynn Jacobs, and in 1998 she had spread the alarm about Y2K, galvanizing the Mayor, City Council and most departments into action looking for their Y2K bugs.  But by October, 1999, Jacobs had largely checked out due to personal issues, rarely coming to work and exerting virtually no leadership.  So Mayor Schell replaced her with Marty Chakoian, who was, not coincidently, leading the City’s Y2K efforts. There was plenty of consternation among the IT leadership in the City government.

But the outside world was in chaos in 1999 too.

The Seattle Times ran a whole series of articles about the electrical grid and 911 systems and other critical functions, and how we were preparing them for Y2K. Gee, they even talked about potential water systems’ issues with Y2K, even though Seattle’s water reservoirs are high up in the mountains and the basic rule of water and wastewater is “s___ flows downhill” (The s___ stands for “stuff”, of course).

And we had the WTO riots in Seattle in November; Seattle sure appeared to be the anarchy capital of North America, if not the world.

Then on Dec. 14, 1999, a 32-year-old Algerian named Ahmed Ressam was arrested in Port Angeles, Washington, coming across the border from Canada with 100 pounds of powerful explosives in the trunk of his car.  Was he headed to Seattle to detonate the explosives at the base of the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve?  We couldn’t take a chance, so Mayor Paul Schell cancelled the grand New Year’s celebration planned there.

For most of us tech types, and a lot of other folks, it didn’t make any difference, anyway.  We had already planned to be at work instead of celebrating on December 31st.

The City’s Emergency Operations Center was open.  At that time, the EOC was in a crowded basement of Fire Station #2 in the Denny Regrade (it has since been replaced with a $30 million modern facility).  Nevertheless, senior officials from every department hunkered down to see in the millennium in that basement.

My own Department of Information Technology was all of 5 months old – we were created as a separate department on August 1, 1999. Our operations center was in an old stock brokerage (Foster and Marshall) building at 2nd and Columbia, which is now home to the United Way of Seattle. That building was home to the telecommunications division, including the service desk – the rest of the department was in the Dexter Horton building next door. [The Dexter Horton building turned out to be much worse off in the earthquake of 2001, when virtually everyone working there was forced to leave it for a couple weeks due to building damage, but again that’s another story.]

City of Seattle IT Staff celebrate Year 2000

On December 31, 1999, we had a whole team of folks who celebrated the beginning of the third millennium* together, watching a quiet, uneventful Seattle 20th Century night turn into a quiet, uneventful and sleepy 21st century* morning.

Was it uneventful due to all our diligency and preparations, or was there never really any problem in the first place?  I don’t know, but I do know I’ll celebrate the end of the decade of the naughts tonight with a bit more enjoyment and a lot less trepidation.


*Note: Yes, yes, I do understand the real beginning of the 3rd millennium and the 21st century is January 1,2001. See article here. But, gee, popular culture doesn’t count the years that way, so I took a little tech-journalism-geek liberties with dates in writing this article.

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