Six Insights from the Orlando Special Districts Summit
Sixty-three special district officials attended the Special Districts Summit in Orlando, Fla. – the third of five regional summits in 2019. The event offered a full slate of sessions, covering everything from improving user experience and mobilizing workforces to strengthening resiliency and attracting talent. Here are some takeaways from the event:
Think differently about service delivery. Third parties increasingly are the front door to government services – and forward-thinking special districts should work with them to improve citizen experience, said e.Republic Chief Innovation Officer Dustin Haisler.
Haisler, in a keynote speech on future readiness, said a growing number of citizens access government services through platforms like Amazon Alexa or Google Home instead of traditional public sector websites. He also pointed to the emergence of private companies like California-based YoGov, which helps citizens get expedited DMV services in more than 20 states. The firm even provides “concierges” who will wait in line for citizens at the DMV office.
“These organizations aren’t owned by government, but they’re becoming interfaces with government, whether agencies like it or not,” he said.
Haisler added that special districts should work with these new entities within appropriate policy frameworks.
“Build your technology platforms and plumbing to support these third parties -- don’t see them as a threat,” he said. “Work with them, not against them -- and make it as easy as possible for people to access you.”
Make technology a people business. When Scott Minter joined the Lake Apopka Natural Gas District a few years ago as director of information systems, one of his first moves was to engage with staff members to understand how they worked. Riding along with field crews and chatting with warehouse staff helped Minter gain insights and build relationships that ultimately supported the launch of modernization initiatives.
He described his experiences and lessons learned during a summit panel on moving from paper to digital. For instance, he said, spending time with a warehouse supervisor revealed a time-consuming, manual inventory process. Minter worked with the supervisor to pilot and then fully implement digital inventory forms that cut the district’s volume of inventory write-offs nearly in half.
“Letting the warehouse supervisor tell me about her job was important," he told summit attendees. ” I found an opportunity to start small and prove value. We’re a mature organization and there’s resistance to change. I had to build trust with some key players."
Those initial wins led to more projects, including integration of the district’s mapping and work-order systems. Minter now is replacing the district’s ERP technology.
“After people saw results,” he said, “they started asking how we could do more.”
Look for innovative alternatives. The Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District found an innovative solution to a long-running challenge for firefighters: improving radio coverage inside buildings. Public safety radio systems typically struggle to provide adequate indoor coverage, making it difficult for firefighters to use portable radios once they enter a structure.
To combat the problem, the district installed radio repeaters on its fire trucks, paid for by a fee on new construction. The truck-mounted technology strengthens the radio signal inside a structure when firefighters arrive at the scene of an emergency, said district Technology Director Jim Kauffman, who spoke on the summit’s workforce mobility panel.
The repeaters aren’t only effective, said Kauffman, they’re a less expensive way for building owners to meet Florida’s Fire Prevention Code. The code requires owners to install costly fixed public safety radio enhancement systems in new buildings. As an alternative, they may make a one-time payment into the district’s radio enhancement fund, which pays for the repeaters.
“It’s much cheaper for businesses to help us fund repeaters than to install new equipment in their buildings,” said Kauffman.
Consider FirstNet now. Bruce Moeller, former fire chief and city manager of Sunrise, Fla., urged special district leaders to join FirstNet, the dedicated national communications network for first responders, to ensure they can reliably communicate during a disaster.
Moeller, who dealt with Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina as a city official, recalled that large swathes of Broward County went dark in 1992 when Andrew wiped out communications infrastructure. As a result, first responders lost situational awareness.
“The hardest hit areas could not communicate,”he said. “First responders weren’t going to these areas because people weren’t calling for help.”
Special districts, which are designated as first responders under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) framework, must implement resilient communications capabilities before an emergency occurs.
“It won’t be just cities and counites that respond,” he said, ”you’ll have to do something.”
Take advantage of free cyber resiliency reviews. Klint Walker, a cybersecurity advisor with the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), warned that aging software that operates elevators, badge access systems, and heating and air conditioning systems often is an entry way for cyber crooks.
“Bad guys look for old equipment to get into operating systems and then into your IT systems,“ he warned summit attendees.
CISA offers free Cyber Resiliency Reviews to help special districts address these and other vulnerabilities. The 8-hour onsite reviews evaluate an organization’s operational resiliency and cybersecurity practices across 10 domains, including asset management, incident management, vulnerability management, situational awareness and training. The reviews help special districts understand their current security posture compared to similar organizations and produce an actionable list of recommendations.
He encouraged districts to take advantage of the reviews and other services offered through CISA’s Cybersecurity Advisor Program.
“We’re the nation’s risk managers,” he said. “We offer a plethora of services available free of charge, paid for by your tax dollars.”
Use paper to make an impact. Many special districts are working diligently to eliminate paper, but there’s still one task where hard copy trumps digital. Two Florida fire chiefs told summit attendees that hand-written notes remain one of their most powerful tools for acknowledging good work, showing gratitude and engaging staff members.
Kingman Schuldt, chief of the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District, said he writes 10 to 20 notes a month acknowledging everything from professional accomplishments to birthdays, weddings and childbirth.
“I can send an immediate email commendation through our performance management system,” said Schuldt, “but that doesn’t eliminate the need for handwritten notes.”
Chief Matthew Love of the Ft. Meyers Beach Fire Control District takes a similar approach. He routinely pens thank you notes to firefighters who work significant amounts of overtime – and sometimes to their spouses, too, for putting up with the inconvenience.
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