July 7, 2010 By Russell Nichols
Whenever there's an incident, residents in California's San Ramon Valley want information fast. Richard Price, chief of the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District, knows this because visitors always flood the live dispatch section of the district's website, FireDepartment.org.
"Traffic to our website really spikes," he said. "We know there is interest in what's causing the smoke or where the sirens are coming from. We wanted to take that information and put it in the field."
Now, mobile technology will give residents an on-the-go glimpse into the district's 911 dispatch center. Touted as the first of its kind, the FireDepartment.org iPhone app arrived this week as a tool for users to have real-time access to information about emergencies and disasters in the San Francisco Bay Area community without needing a desktop computer.
"The idea was to have that functionality on a mobile platform where it would be more useful," Price said. "This is a consumer version."
Users can view active incidents and pinpoint locations on an interactive map. They can access a log of recent incidents and a photo gallery of significant events. The app allows for customization as well. For example, users can choose to be notified of incidents by category, or listen to live emergency radio communications using their handheld devices.
The new app gives users access to public information like they've never had it before, Price said. If a resident is stuck in traffic, or sees smoke or hears a fire truck, he or she needs only to tap the app to find out what's going on and where.
The district, Price added, also will use the app to communicate with its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) members and to share pertinent data during disasters.
"That's how we'll be communicating with them when normal command and control avenues aren't available," he said. "It does provide some transparency."
The app was built at a low cost. The district, Price said, brought on students from the College of Informatics at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) for iPhone engineering and programming services. The district's service area encompasses approximately 155 square miles and serves a population of 167,500. Even if you don't live in the San Ramon Valley, Price said, you can still listen to the live actions of dispatchers, firefighters and paramedics.
"In the future we think there will be far more people in the mobile environment than the desktop environment," Price said. "We can push information directly to a phone now."
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