Telepresence keeps two cities’ firefighters connected, trained

Telepresence keeps two cities’ firefighters connected, trained

The fire departments in two of Illinois’ largest cities have a history of collaborating on training, but because firefighters had to travel to on-site training sessions, critical personnel often had to be away from their fire stations while they learned. And that put residents at risk.

“The story I like to tell is pretty simple: I want my firefighters to be the best-trained in the country, but if I’m having a heart attack, I want them in my driveway in 45 seconds,” said Ted Beck, CTO for Aurora, Ill., the second largest city in the state. “Often those goals conflict.”

To resolve that conflict, he deployed Cisco videoconferencing technology at 22 fire stations in Aurora and neighboring Naperville, the state’s fifth largest city. Now, firefighters are in frequent contact every day.

“Once per shift all the fire stations call each other to do a morning or a shift briefing for what’s going on for that day,” Beck said. “So the system is literally used daily, multiple times a day.” If firefighters have questions for an individual station, they can choose it from a list on their screen.  So while there are a number of group conversations taking place, “there’s a portion of one-to-one conversations that are happening.”

What’s more, official training sessions are recorded and archived so that any firefighters who missed them can watch at another time.

“The decision to align the two municipal training programs through a shared service philosophy helped position the city for success,” said Daniel Stewart, senior justice adviser for Cisco Connected Justice, in an email. “With today’s training room software, you can have multiple fire departments join a class simultaneously and bring them back together in a multipoint telepresence meeting to compare the responses….. This capability helps teams to learn from each other and simultaneously train their sister departments on best practices.”

Such interaction was not possible six years ago. Aurora’s city government buildings, which now number 52, span a 46-square-mile area that suffered from poor network and bandwidth quality that made videoconferencing impossible, Beck said. In 2011, the city launched the first iteration of the firefighter training system using Cisco TelePresence, a group of products that create an “in-person” experience for physically separated people. Specifically, the city deployed Cisco TelePresence SX20 Quick Sets, Cisco TelePresence CX60s, TelePresence Chassis and Cisco Jabber.

Beck uses telepresence to communicate with his own staff, too. “I literally have half my staff in City Hall and half in the police department, and when we meet and do our planning exercises, we also utilize that telepresence system so that I don’t have half my group constantly in their cars traveling,” he said.

The city’s engineers also use it to contact their counterparts nationwide for help on various projects.

For construction projects, the engineering staff often consults with specialists from across the country. “They have begun to use telepresence to be able to extend their reach and be able to have face-to-face conversations with engineers that are not based in Illinois,” Beck said.

“Telepresence is mostly a one-touch call process by which two or more fire departments can join together for ad hoc meetings, trainings and/or disaster planning meetings,” Stewart explained. “This nimble and flexible process extends beyond the training rooms and right to the field through seamless mobile integration, utilizing the Jabber soft clients on smart devices and WebEx/collaboration meeting room solutions.”

Use of telepresence was made possible by previous investments that Aurora officials made in a city-owned and -managed fiber-optic network, which replaced the various carriers that had been handling connectivity. The original fiber-optic network was lit in 2008, and the city is paying off the third round of improvements today.

“We were in a situation where we were paying a large sum of money to different carriers to connect the different city buildings, and we were looking for a way to not only contain that cost, but to have equal functionality to every city building,” Beck said. “That was our initial nut to crack, if you will. We were paying a fortune, [yet] we literally had buildings that were either poorly connected or not connected. We even ... had buildings that weren’t connected if it rained.”

Consolidating the previous equipment and providers into the Cisco network allowed the city to save $485,000 annually – and to achieve a quick return on investment.

“We spent roughly $7 million on the original fiber-optic network,” Beck said. “We forecasted an ROI of 10 years.… We have actually paid off the original investment in a little over two years.”

Right now, Aurora is not using the cloud for its video capabilities, “but that is absolutely our next step,” Beck said. He’s also looking to expand the system to support school districts and telemedicine, putting endpoints in hospitals and nursing schools. The issue now is one of funding, not technology, he added.

“I feel pretty solid that we’re making our internal IT resources much more efficient” through the videoconferencing system, Beck said. “Our feedback has been very, very good – that it is straightforward and easy.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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