San Diego fire department makes plans for a scintillating IT upgrade

San Diego's Fire-Rescue Department is getting ready to deploy 200 Panasonic ToughBook notebook PCs in the city's fire engines.

Courtesy of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

San Diego is famous as a hub of technology innovation, but not so its fire department. The city's Fire-Rescue Department still runs its data network over an MS-DOS platform on 15-year-old dumb terminals.

'In many instances, those lovely dinosaurs are in firehouse museums,' said Susan Infantino, communications manager for the department. 'In our case, they are still installed in our first-line apparatus.'

The department is currently using Motorola mobile data terminals that run on an 800-MHz backbone network. The department knew it needed to update its technology, 'but each budget year it would get pushed off,' Infantino said. It's taken quite an effort, but the department is finally getting a new mobile data network.

Tracy Jarman, the department's deputy chief, laid the foundation for modernizing the system about five years ago, Infantino said. The city's IT and Communications Department told the fire department that the 800-MHz backbone network could fall apart at any time.

'We were in a desperate situation,' Infantino said. 'We didn't want to wake up one morning and find out the current technology has failed.'

Back burner

Last November, the city put a measure on the ballot to increase the transit occupancy tax, which would fund the mobile data upgrade, Infantino said. The election followed the largest wildfire in California history. It broke out in San Diego County in late October and caused 14 deaths, 113 injuries and $32.5 million in damage.

If ever a ballot measure to increase funding for new technology for firefighters would pass, it would be after a horrific fire, no?

No. 'We needed 66 percent of the vote to pass, and we got 61 percent,' Infantino said.
The city had to figure out another way to fund the project, Infantino said. Help soon arrived in the form of an Urban Area Security Initiative grant from the Homeland Security Department. The grants help urban areas improve security and preparedness to prevent, respond to and recover from acts of terrorism.

The fire department is getting set to deploy a new mobile communications system using VisiNet Mobile computer-aided dispatch tools from TriTech Software Systems of San Diego.

The project is still 'very much in the development stage,' Infantino said. Switching over to VisiNet Mobile will free up the 800-MHz channel for dedicated voice communications, she said.
The new computers will run under Microsoft Windows 2000.

With the old system, the department couldn't change the functionality of screens, Infantino said. The new system will be programmed using Microsoft's .Net platform. One of the reasons the department chose .Net is that it is flexible, letting them change screens easily, Infantino said. VisiNet Mobile also will work with the city's existing dispatch system.

The department will install Panasonic ToughBook notebook PCs in the fire engines. Using the VisiNet Mobile system, firefighters and battalion chiefs will be able to access incident details, history, caution notes, hydrant information and hazardous materials records.

Another low-technology anachronism was the department's navigation system. Firefighters still used a paper map book to navigate around the city from fire to fire. Although San Diego has a comprehensive geographic information system, the department had no means of getting it out to the fire engines. Now it has.

The department will trade in its paper maps for an ArcInfo mapping system from ESRI of Redlands, Calif., that will be ported to notebooks in the fire engines.

The city's dispatch system will have live routing from a Global Positioning System that will give directions to the unit with a click of a button, Infantino said.

The new system will have about 200 users, including firefighters, emergency medical services workers and battalion chiefs.

Each notebook installed in a vehicle will be mounted on a platform with a swing arm, so it can be pushed to the side when not in use.

Unfortunately, it took a disaster like the Cedar fire for people to recognize the department's urgent need for better technology. 'Just like Sept. 11 put a focus on homeland security, the Cedar fire put a focus on the fire department's mission,' Infantino said.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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