As was so tragically underlined this week by the loss of 19 firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., firefighters have a very dangerous job to do. Many departments are increasingly turning to mobile technology to simplify procedures and equip staff with the most up-to-date information to help them do their jobs in the field.
With just under 7,000 residents, the Town of Longboat Key is a small island off the west coast of Florida, incorporated less than 60 years ago. But despite its size and remote location, its IT staff thinks big when it comes to technology.
Longboat Key IT Director Kathi Pletzke, pictured at left, also holds the title of CCIO – Certified Chief Information Officer. The extra “C” comes as a result of her completion of a two-year program at the John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at Florida State University. She’s spent nearly 17 years with Longboat Key, and as the city’s top IT official, is also an active member of the Florida Local Government Information Systems Association (FLGISA).
In 2012, Longboat Key was recognized by FLGISA for an application it developed in house to serve the needs of town fire staff. In a scenario likely familiar to many IT officials, Pletzke explained that city staff came back from an industry trade show convinced they needed a particular vendor solution to help staff do their jobs more efficiently.
Working closely with fire staff, however, Pletzke challenged each of them to answer a fundamental question: ‘What is the basic problem we’re trying to solve?’ She followed that discussion with a suggestion that the professional IT staff of Longboat Key could develop a tool that would address those needs more effectively than an outside vendor could.
The result was a three-pronged, cloud-hosted solution simply called the Fire App. Custom built using internal resources, the app is accessible to Longboat Key Fire Rescue staff via their iPad devices in the field.
The app’s fire pre-planning function allows fire inspectors to access key data on the town’s multi-family and commercial structures. Hazard diagrams feature things like hydrant locations, internal and external property maps, and building characteristics that prove helpful in the event of an incident at that location, like locations of fire alarm panels and sprinkler heads.
“In the future, if they have to respond to a fire, and get a 75-foot ladder truck into this high-rise building, they are presented with a map on their iPad and they can see a picture of how they might maneuver that ladder truck in there,” Pletzke explained.
The app also offers a fire inspection module that simplifies the inspection process for staff charged with visiting all Longboat Key businesses on an 18-month rotation. Inspectors can now complete the process in the field. The app makes the inspection process totally paperless, creating a PDF file documenting the inspection that gets emailed to stakeholders, including property managers and business owners.
The third element of the app replaces hard copy log books formerly maintained at each fire station where crews documented vehicle checks, training, station visits, staffing levels and more. The electronic logging process creates a database that lends itself to streamlined record and stat-keeping.
Longboat Key’s fire app has attracted attention from other Florida agencies, helped by the “Best Application Serving a Public Organization’s Business Needs” award from FLGISA in 2012, and a 2013 Laureate award from Computerworld Magazine.
Pletzke has demonstrated the app for several cities, including Boca Raton, Fl., and Longwood, Fl., as well as independent fire agencies and local airport authorities. Many have said they’d like to purchase the app for their own use. Why, after all, shouldn’t a city profit from the sale of internally-developed software to another government agency?
Pletzke explained that making that case to city officials thus far has been a tough sell. Given the general acceptance of the cloud and its growing viability for technology solutions, selling the app to other agencies is technically possible, but Software-as-a-Service is not a core city service.
“What’s important in a city is police, public safety, turning your water on, water coming out of the faucet and flushing your toilets,” she said. “That's what you think of that a city provides for you. That's what's important.”
Other concerns that have surfaced include whether providing the software for another city would take away from city IT staff time. Spending town resources, compensated or not, on maintenance and upgrades of another agency’s software is hard to justify as well.
"So the bottom line is we always get to the point of considering how to provide this solution to other cities without it impacting Longboat Key IT staff time in supporting it. There are several options to address these concerns, however the concept seems to get tied up around the spokes in that area,” Pletzke said.
Ideally for Pletzke, the town would sell the software to a vendor, and have them take it from there – handling all sales and support with a royalty to Longboat Key for each sale. Whether she is able to realize her vision and share this innovation with other municipalities remains to be seen.
Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.