Category Archives: Seattle Fire Dept

– 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 Tech Thanksgiving

A Technology Thanksgiving Feast

As many of us sit down to the average American Thanksgiving 3000 calorie meal tomorrow, we’ll be in uncertain and frightening times. But I’m also counting my technology blessings, and here are a few:

1.  I’m thankful for the generosity of the people of Seattle. We’ve asked a lot of them over the years, and they have consistently voted to tax themselves to give our city and region an improved quality of life, for examples:

•   A completely re-built and remodeled Seattle Public Library system, a beautiful central library and 26 branches, including wi-fi in every branch and 1000 computers for public use, all financed with a $196 million levy. This week we have a wonderful new City Librarian in Susan Hildreth, coming to us from the California State Library.

•   A new light-rail line from downtown to the airport, set to open in 2009,  and a just-passed bond $17.9 billion measure to extend that line by 34 miles over the next 20 years

•   A $167 million fire facility levy which, although strapped for cash in times of rising costs, has already seen us build a new state-of-the-high-tech-art emergency operations center and fire alarm center  , a new fireboat and a joint training facility. The technology systems supporting Seattle Fire help them achieve an average four minute response time to calls, and you can even see those calls in real-time on our website.

•   Note: although I’ve highlighted the investments above, Seattle voters also have approved housing levies, parks levies and funding for other projects to improve our quality of life.

2.  I’m thankful for wonderful, dedicated, employees in the City of Seattle and especially those 600 folks who run our information technology across multiple departments. Throw out your old ideas about clock-watching government bureaucrats pushing paper from the in-box to the out-box. These high-tech folks run the electronic mail systems and internal phone network and electronic payment systems and customer service systems which make our City government a truly 24 hour-a-day, 7 day-a-week business. And we have some unique twists such as an online directory of almost all employees to help customers cut through the organization – not many other companies or governments have that: . I’ve blogged before about how diligently and competently these folks respond to disasters large and small, e.g. the 108 degree data center, , Dial Tone comes from God , and Nervous System of a City Government .

3.  I’m thankful for an award-winning City of Seattle web portal http://www.seattle.gov , twice winning the top city web portal from the Center for Digital government . And also for the Seattle Channel, winner of both Emmys and back-to-back 2007 and 2008 excellence in government programming awards from NATOA

4.  Finally, I’m thankful for great and supportive leadership such as Mayor Greg Nickels who recognizes the efficiency and effectiveness which technology brings to City government by proposing significant technology improvements even in the upcoming lean budget years. And Seattle’s City Council supported that vision by passing the technology portions of his 2009-10 budget with few changes – and those changes were improvements such as a Technology Matching Fund increase and a Citizen Engagement Portal.

Of course this sounds self-serving, because Greg’s my boss and the Council holds the purse strings. But there are hard, solid, initiatives in this budget: a new customer relationship management system, an Outlook/Exchange replacement for an aging e-mail system, an electronic parking guidance system, outage and asset management systems for Seattle City Light, and much more.

5. And, in terms of leadership, we techies can also turn to the federal government and see a new President who knows the importance of broadband and technology to the economy and to making the Federal Government more effective and in touch with people. Everyone in the United States can rejoice and give thanks for that.

You may think I’m a bit Pollyannaish in this blog, and I am, because it is a time to give thanks. But I promise my next blog will be a bit different, as I give you my Recipe for making Technology Turkeys.

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Filed under budget, government operations, NATOA, seattle channel, Seattle City Light, Seattle Fire Dept

– Talk Groups will keep You Safe

Public Safety Radio - Click for more info

Public Safety Radio - click for more

The Truth may make you Free, but it is the Talk Groups which keep you Safe.

What the hell is a “talk group”?
Well, it is not the senior citizens who gather at the corner café or feedstore (are my Iowa roots showing?) to discuss the issues of the day? Nope – talk groups are the fundamental element of a public safety voice radio system.
Seattle has five police precincts.  One of them – West – got really busy at about 2:00 PM today.  A bank robbery occurred at the Bank of America branch in the center of downtown. And the West Precinct “talk group” was filled the voices of dozens of police officers and FBI responding, surrounding the building and searching for the suspect, which they’d caught by 2:30.  (Coincidently, at 2:09 PM, an automobile rescue was dispatched to 7700 16th Ave SW, with eight fire units plus police units dispatched – get more details on the City’s website here).

When police and fire departments first started using radio for dispatch and operations in the 1920s, one radio “frequency” was allocated for each precinct or task, such as the West Police Precinct, or a large-scale medic incident such as the auto rescue.  We all know what a radio frequency is – “tune to KJR 950 on your radio dial” – 950 kilohertz that is, although most folks don’t know the “kilohertz” part (and the geeks reading this can get a better explanation in Wikipedia)  .
Public safety departments were assigned similar frequencies.
Using radio for dispatching and operations is really really useful.  So everyone  tarted using it!   Buses and water utilities and taxis and just about any other operation with a mobile workforce.  And, with the advent of cell phones and then wireless data communications such as those offered by the cell phone companies, or wi-fi, the available frequencies rapidly were allocated.  In dense urban areas like Seattle, virtually every kilohertz of radio spectrum is allocated to something, or reserved by FCC for a future use.
In fact, the transition to digital TV which is occurring on February 19, 2009 (see the explanation here) is all about freeing more frequencies for other uses. The FCC has also taken TV stations 70 to 83 (UHF) off the air to free frequencies.

In Seattle, however, we only have about 28 radio frequencies for all City government uses. Yet we have hundreds of police and firefighters and utility workers and others on the street at any given time.  Plus public safety officers from many other jurisdictions come to Seattle to transport prisoners or attend court.  How can we stretch 28 frequencies to cover all those uses?
The answer: “talk groups”. Plus a bit of technology.

Motorola developed a technology called “trunked radio”.  Essentially no radio frequency is ever used every second of the time.  Even during the bank robbery downtown this afternoon, with dozens of officers listening and talking, there were long gaps between transmissions.  Part of this is good training and “radio discipline” by the cops.  Motorola’s system allows each transmission to use any available frequency, not just one.  In this fashion, dozens or hundreds of “talk groups” (like West Police Precinct) can use the same 28 frequencies, all at the same time, without interference and with plenty of spare capacity. Indeed, during most days, there are over 60,000 individual radio transmissions on the Seattle network, but rarely are more than half the 28 available frequencies in use.

The interesting part: this is 1980s technology!  It is 20 years old!  Indeed, these radio systems are based, in part, on the Motorola 6809 chip, developed 30 years ago in 1978, and also used in wonderful machines like the Tandy “Color Computer”.

Are these systems getting old?  You bet, and they’ll need replacing soon.  But for right now, Seattle’s Public Safety Radio system is up and working 99.999% of the time (that is only minutes of downtime a year), a credit not just to solid technology but good maintenance and fast response to problems by the City’s Comm Shop (part of my Department of Information Techology).

This technology – and talk groups like “West Precinct” – help police officers and firefighters keep Seattle safe.

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Filed under radio, Seattle DoIT, Seattle Fire Dept, Seattle Police

– Blogging from a Hospital Bed

Original post:  6 June 2008

I’ve had a few days of enforced rest after splintering my right humerous at the elbow in a bicycling accident on my commute home Tuesday June 3rd.   Of course that painful experience has led to a few insights (for me, at least) about bicycling, medicine and technology.  You’ll find those in an essay on Medicine, Technology and Bicycles elsewhere on the site.   Oh, and I’ve got a very new and personal appreciation for the 911 technologies I wrote about on May 18th in the entry Dedication to a Safer Seattle!

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Filed under bicycling, Seattle Fire Dept

– Two Seattle 911 Centers?

Click to see calls to Seattle 911

Click to see calls to Seattle 911

Original post:  18 May 2008
We’ve opened a new fire alarm center (FAC) in Seattle – see yesterday’s blog entry.  This center accepts 911 calls for medical emergencies and fires – anything handled by the Seattle Fire Department.   There is a separate 911 center elsewhere in the City for 911 calls for police service and police dispatching.   How do we manage two separate centers?   The answer:  all 911 calls go to police first, and then, if the situation requires the fire department, the caller is “hot transfered” to the FAC.   “Hot transfer” means the police 911 call-taker stays on the line until the fire call-taker picks up the call.
Gee, this seems quite inefficient – we have two separate groups of folks answering 911 calls, two separate buildings, two separate telephone systems, two separate computer systems to enter the information (“computer-aided dispatch”) and so forth.   Isn’t this much more costly for Seattle taxpayers?
A long time ago, I thought so.   Many cities (e.g. Chicago) have a single 911 center where dispatchers and call takers for all three disciplines (police, fire, emergency medical) work.
But the philosophies and requirements have changed, largely after the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 and that event in New York City / the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.   Now almost every City has a backup 911 center – a separate physical location with a whole set of separate systems.   In most cities, this separate location just sits, unused, most days of the year.  It is only activated for testing and during those very rare occasions where some event makes the primary 911 center unusable.   Such events occur more often than one might think – they could include white power (anthrax) scares or power failures (including failure of backup systems), as well as disasters.
In Seattle we’ve chosen a different – and, in my opinion – wiser route.   Both our 911 centers are active and in use every day, 24 hours a day.   We KNOW all the backup systems work because they are constantly in use – we don’t just test the backup center once a year.   Once again Seattle leads – becoming the City most prepared to deal with a disaster.

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– Dedication to a Safer Seattle

City of Seattle's new Fire and Emergency Ops Centers

City of Seattle's new Fire and Emergency Ops Centers

Original Post:  17 May 2008
I was privileged today to participate in the dedication of the City of Seattle’s new Fire Alarm Center, Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Fire Station #10.   The City is committed to building or remodeling all its fire stations, funded by a levy passed by Seattle voters in 2003 (more information here).  
This building – and the people who work in it – are dedicated to managing and mitigating disasters.   These disasters could be personal ones – a heart attack (Seattle’s long been known as the “best place to have a heart attack“!?) or an injury from a car accident or a house fire, as all calls to 911 in Seattle for medical emergencies and fires will be accepted and dispatched here.  Or the disaster couple be a regional one such as an earthquake or a terrorist event or a trip by the Seattle Mariners to the World Series.  Well, that wouldn’t be a disaster, exactly, but because of the security needs, we’d activate the EOC.
I’m especially proud of this facility, as over 120 employees of the Department of Information Technology (DoIT) and IT employees from the Fire and Police Departments worked to put $7 million in communications and technology into the building.   This includes, for example, connections at Fire Dispatch consoles and every EOC table to the King County public safety trunked radio network.  There’s also a state-of-the-art 96 way video switch for accepting input from traffic cameras, commercial television (CNN, Seattle broadcast stations), and video conferencing, and routing it to HDTV screens on the walls and at the desktops throughout the facility.   There is fiber and phones and links to 911 and homeland-security-military-grade secure communications.   All installed by this set of City employees in a remarkably short time – essentially over six months once the building was ready.  Helping to fulfill the Mayor’s pledge to make Seattle the City best prepared for a disaster, including the small, personal, ones.

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Filed under emergency operations, Seattle Fire Dept