Tech Infiltrates Local Government, Offering Safety and Efficiencies

From the latest in fire safety gear to procurement management and infrastructure repair, technology is increasingly finding its place in the daily operations of local government.

by Whitney Downard, The Meridian Star / March 4, 2019
Shutterstock/Arisha Ray Singh

(TNS) — From city firefighters to county business systems to caring for infrastructure, technology is advancing for local government agencies.

For the Meridian Fire Department, new technology reduces risks, making the department safer for firefighters and Meridian residents alike.

Tools include masks for firefighters, who have their own camera feed in the lower righthand corner. Unlike normal cameras, this camera can be programed to detect hot or cold spots, giving firefighters visuals they need.

Ricky Leister, the city’s fire chief, explained that the hot spot could help firefighters pinpoint the source of the fire or the most dangerous parts of the building.

“I used to tell them to ‘paint the picture’ using their hands,” Leister said, demonstrating the training technique he’d used for years. “So if they find a window they know if things get bad they have an escape.”

During a rescue mission, a firefighter could use cold spots to identify people trapped inside the home because, during a fire, a person will be the coldest part of a room, Leister said.

“I may not see (someone) clearly because they’re under the covers,” Leister said. But with the cold spot tracker, “I can see that something’s there and dial in on that.”

The department currently has 64 of the advanced masks for its 84-person department, buying small batches of masks to spread out costs and turnover.

“They can walk in and they’ve got the use of their hands,” Leister said.

The newest line of masks has the ability to broadcast the video feed to an outside monitor and could possibly include a rechargeable version.

A handheld version gives more detail, which firefighters outside can use to pinpoint a fire from the exterior.

“It helps us see the fire without having to tear out the walls,” Deputy Chief Jason Collier said.

Another exciting tool for the department almost looks like an early-model cell phone with a small screen endlessly updating several groups of numbers.

Despite its appearance, the five gas detectors must be routinely calibrated and cared for to ensure accurate readings. Beyond measuring oxygen, hydrogen sulfide or carbon monoxide, the device operates as a photo ionization detector that detects volatile organic compounds and measures the lower explosive limit of the surrounding air.

“This will be useful if we’re called to a house where people are getting sick,” Collier said. “We had a call about an underground gas tank next to a house where the underground storage tank was leaking and leaking vapors up into the house… this would have detected that.”

The department’s two detectors have a pump that cycles air and can add a hose to measure air elsewhere. If the oxygen level goes below 19.5 percent, the device will buzz and flash to alert investigators about the air quality.

“We are continuing to push for the latest technology that we can get,” Leister said. “This is cutting edge.”

Leister, with nearly three decades of experience, said that even the attitudes of firefighters had changed, making safety a bigger priority.

“You used to be looked down on for wearing an air pack,” Leister said. “Now you don’t come off of the truck without one.”

For the next big purchase, Leister said he wanted to expand the department’s ability to use thermal imaging to assess a fire before entry.

“The next big thing I want to get into is drones,” Leister said. “We like to do a 360 (view) before we plan an attack or enter a home… with a drone, we can see all of it.”

Seeing the entire building, including walk-out basements or unknown hazards, would go a long way to safer, more precise entries.

Funding remains the biggest obstacle.

“For any of us, it’s not a lack of want,” Leister said. “Our job when we’re working is inherently dangerous.”

To reduce that risk, each fire apparatus has its own thermal imaging camera, in addition to the helmets.

“I think most of the guys have really bought in with the direction we want to go,” Leister said. “These are just some of the things (Collier) and I have been up to.”

Lauderdale County

Many improvements introduced for Lauderdale County have fine tuned decades-old processes, including a new time clock system, mandatory direct deposit and online bidding.

“A lot of things we’re bringing to the table are how the business community has been doing things for a long time,” Chris Lafferty, the county administrator, said.

While state code requires that counties advertise for bids in the local newspaper, Lauderdale County has also started listing open bids online and sending materials electronically.

“Which also allows the vendor to be more efficient,” Lafferty said. “And we’ve implemented a policy where we encourage vendors to allow us to pay them electronically… it’s making our process more efficient in how we pay our bills.”

Having an online time clock eases the process for administrators who calculate hours worked toward a certain grant, such as county law enforcement officers whose pay is supplemented by a DUI grant or some with the emergency management agency working on a natural disaster, Lafferty said.

“It’s just making us more effective and efficient,” Lafferty said. “And it cuts down on administrative labor.”

Future technology for the county could include a push alert to cellphones for weather warnings that are Lauderdale County specific and come from the Lauderdale Emergency Management Agency, Lafferty said.

One program Lafferty highlighted included Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) improvements, anticipated to roll out later this year. Updates to the program will allow law enforcement officers in the county and city to look up address information and licenses plates from their car.

Some programs, already offered by the county, just need better exposure, such as paying a car tag fee online or Justice Court fines, Lafferty said.

Caring for roads, bridges

One county investment has changed years of processes, revolutionizing the way the government cares for the hundreds of miles of roads.

“(Civil Link) took an assessment of all our roads and the road conditions and ultimately ranked those on a scale from one to ten,” Rush Mayatt, the county road manager, said. “With that they also provided a cost estimate and recommended surface treatment to correct those issues.”

Mayatt said that counties used to have a reactive road protocol, fixing only the worst roads after a few calls from concerned residents.

“For the longest time, county government – really statewide – has used the mentality that we overlay to fix it,” Mayatt said. “A lot of times, roads don’t need that and maybe, simply, it can just be saved to protect it and increase the life of the road.”

Overlay can be very costly, Mayatt said. Alternative fixes, such as sealing, can be a way to improve road conditions for a period of time at a lower cost.

“That’s the main focus: cost savings and to provide better roads for all of Lauderdale County,” Mayatt said.

Rather than focusing solely on roads in the worst conditions, Mayatt said that improving decent roads, or even bridges, can stretch county money for longer periods of time.

“For a long time, we took care of the (bridges) that failed,” Mayatt said. “There were no preventative measures put in place and that’s the wrong mentality.”

The system, implemented last year, hasn’t yet been analyzed for cost savings, but Mayatt said that other Mississippi counties have already calculated their savings.

“Rankin County is one of the few other counties that implemented this, they adopted a five-year plan on top of it,” Mayatt said. “And they went from being able to treat around 39 miles of road to over 100 miles of road with the same amount of money. Nothing changed with the amount of money that the road and bridge department was taking it was just a better use of the funds.”

Mayatt said that he wanted to make the data from Civil Link publicly available, so residents could see road conditions across the county.

“It’s very difficult for citizens to look at the bigger picture. It’s just human nature, myself included. The most important road is the one that I traveled on or that I live on,” Mayatt said. “Everyone wants to know when their road is going to get overlay and well, the truth is, your road might not even be in that bad of a condition.”

©2019 The Meridian Star (Meridian, Miss.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.