Heat of the Moment

In an effort to take the burden off overworked dispatchers, Seattle and San Antonio are putting information about emergency incidents on the Web in real time.

by / May 6, 2001
Public curiosity often follows the wail of a siren: "Whats wrong?" "Is someone I know in trouble?" Sometimes, the desire to know results in calls to the local dispatch center, which clog phone lines and distract overworked dispatchers just when they are most needed to deal with the emergency.

San Antonio, like several other cities nationwide, has come up with an online solution. The city has a Web site that offers their more than 1.1 million residents realtime information on police and fire department activities, as well as traffic congestion that could result from such activities.

In Seattle and surrounding King County, more than 3.5 million people can access the citys Web site to get a realtime rundown of each situation to which the fire department responds.

In both cases, residents are better informed -- resulting in a decreased number of calls to the dispatch center. In addition, both cities can utilize their Web sites for incident management purposes. If there appears to be a pattern of fires or crime in a particular area at a particular time of day, additional personnel can be housed at the nearest station or precinct to quickly respond to calls.

"[Because] our systems ... track where these incidents occur, we have been able to roughly predict where incidents will happen and reallocate resources to be in a position to handle them," said Nancy Dean, assistant manager of Information Services of San Antonio.

"It gives a heads up to internal resources," added Leonard Roberts, the Seattle Fire Departments MIS director. "Depending on the nature of an incident, we may end up sending in additional resources, including mobilizing our support services, such as the people responsible for the tanks and hoses. It allows those people in the organization to get a heads up on a situation that might escalate."

Pressing the Issue

Dean said she also visits the San Antonio site for personal reasons, viewing it regularly to decide the best way to get to and from work. She recalled a time that she was at a trade show demonstrating the citys Web site and a radio station was across the aisle. Along came rush hour and the radio personalities did a traffic report on the air. Dean called up the page to compare its traffic information with the radio stations traffic information and found that the on-air personalities, and the press in general, were behind the pace.

The irony was that this specific part of the Web site was developed primarily to keep television and radio stations tuned in to what was going on during the busiest traffic times of the day.

The rationale for creating the site in Seattle was the same -- to aid the media.

"What happens, particularly since cell phones have become so ubiquitous and pervasive throughout society, is a larger volume of calls are coming in and the media is more in tune to those incidents," Roberts said. "Theyll call and ask questions ... because they have scanners and they hear it, and nobody is sitting there writing down every incident."

The citys public information officer could get 20 to 30 telephone calls in a matter of minutes, and sometimes all of them are for one situation, Roberts said.

The site has also proven useful for non-media users. Roberts said hes heard of people working in tall office buildings in Seattle who find it useful to keep the page up during the day. If something happens on another floor, the quickest way to learn about it is through the Internet, especially if the public information officer isnt able to take a call at the time.

Mixed Reactions

Dean and Roberts said reactions from residents in their cities have mostly been positive, although Roberts said some people expressed concern about privacy and whether individual rights had been violated. The Seattle site lists specific addresses, such as 1234 Main St., whereas its typical to see the incident listed in newspapers, especially community newspapers, as the "1200 block of Main Street."

"Now that were using a new method and means of presenting that information, there seems to be a perception by people that its different information," Roberts said. "But I think were going to see -- as the Internet becomes a growing platform for communication -- this as a growing issue. Weve put this information out for years via different means.

"I understand that one of the best ways to support the organization is to provide information that is useful in a timely manner," he added. "This is part of our strategic plan, and it fits in with our overall philosophy."