The Internet has become a part of our daily lives. It seems that almost everywhere you look today there is a website address (http://www.cstone.net/firedept). What is the Internet, where did it come from and what does it mean to the fire service?
Before we can really understand what "Internet" means, we must define it. The Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW) are often thought synonymous yet they are quite different. The Internet is a vast networking of various computer systems and programs. The WWW is a small, but probably the best known, part of the Internet.
A Brief History
While most of the public thinks the Internet was born in 1994, let's take a look back. The Internet was believed to be born out of the building of a U.S. Department of Defense computer network known as Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). The project explored packet switching in the hope of keeping the Defense computers operational during a nuclear war. This system was challenged to operate under the most adverse conditions (while some system segments were destroyed or jammed). In addition, this communications network could not be developed with a traditional hierarchic pyramid if it were to survive a holocaust.
To accomplish the feat of allowing independent and non-standardized computer systems to communicate modem to modem it was necessary to develop a set of rules, called protocols, to translate data into a common tongue and to move information. This set of protocols became known as TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. When was the Internet born? Last year, many groups celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Internet but this by no means "officializes" its birth date. Others would suggest that the Internet was really born as a result of the TCP/IP standards, which occurred in 1973. In any case, we know that the Internet is over 20 years old and well on its way of opening countless new doors for everyone.
In recent years, the number of users on the Internet has increased by approximately 20 percent per month faster than any other communication scheme, including cellular telephones and fax machines, but growth which, at least for quite a while, was largely unnoticed by the public. This, of course, is no longer true. The Internet has gone prime-time. The Internet today also connects to Telnet, Archie, Gopher and ftp programs. Estimates of the size of the Internet range from 10 million to 40 million users worldwide. No one really knows exactly how large it is or is becoming, and there is no practical way to find out.
The Internet & The Fire Service
Now that we have provided an overview, it's time to become aware of what resources are out there for the fire service and how they may be used.
The most useful part of the Internet for the fire service is the World Wide Web. The Web offers a vast array of resources. There are links to numerous fire departments around the world as well as to agencies and organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Fire Academy, American Red Cross, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), International Association of Arson Investigators (IAAI), National Weather Service and many emergency service link pages. This provides instantaneous access to a large volume of information disaster preparation, hurricane preparation, research data, manufacturer information, statistical data even up-to-date hurricane tracking maps from various weather services.
You can also download information, pictures, graphics and software programs for free. Many "freeware" (free to download and distribute) programs are equivalent or better than commercial software sold in stores. The Web is also a place where your department can "strut its stuff," provide safety information to the community and even be interactive. Your website can be simple and relatively maintenance free or more complicated and require constant updates. The choice is made by each department.
This is just the beginning. Other ancillary programs which also work off of an Internet connection include Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Internet telephone applications, video teleconferencing and E-mail, to list a few.
IRC lets people on the Internet type "real-time" back and forth from anywhere in the world and set up "conference" meetings with counterparts anywhere in the world. Four fire departments in Virginia (Charlottesville, Hopewell, Williamsburg and York County) have created a STAR (Support Technology And Resource) team to support and enhance one another's technical accomplishments. The team has been recruited by the Virginia Department of Fire Programs to assist it in a number of technology areas, including website, paging network and computers. Projects are jointly worked on via IRC where documents and programs are revised, reviewed and sent between the departments via the Internet in seconds. This results in a great time savings and no long distance bills even though most departments are over an hour away from each other.
Imagine the potential of sharing fire service information, setting up on-line forums and receiving immediate input from fire service members all around the world. The IRC works on channels which may be set up by anyone and may be public, private or by invitation only. The mechanisms are in place where User groups or teams may work on any desired project worldwide via the IRC.
Internet telephone programs are now available on the Internet. This enables you to talk "real-time" to people anywhere in the world while incurring no long distance bills. All that you need to utilize this program are a computer with sufficient memory, a fast modem and a sound card.
New Internet telephone programs include Internet Phone, Digiphone, Webphone and Internet Global Phone Project. Voice is sent digitally, then reconverted back to voice once reaching its destination. Like the IRC, it works on the worldwide computer connections. These programs may be run in the background of others (depending on memory) and used simultaneously. For example, you may be working on IRC and talking on an Internet telephone program simultaneously.
Video teleconferencing, another technology in its infancy, allows you to see, hear and talk to people by use of the Internet. However, the video quality is still somewhat slow because of transfer speed and bandwidth. This requires a computer with adequate memory, sound card, video camera and microphone. Such programs as CU-SeeMe (Cornell University), VIDCALL and others are working on continued development. The potential for this is great as it will allow for video teleconferencing all around the world with the recurring theme "no long distance bills."
The four Virginia departments are exploring video teleconferencing as a means of providing emergency planning information in time of disaster. This would be particularly important in reaching key leaders in the community who are not able to be away from their offices. The information could be accessed as it is being provided in a planning session via the Internet.
E-mail, or electronic mail, is perhaps the most widely used aspect of the Internet. It has become one of the fastest growing methods of communication. In a matter of seconds, a message, information or even files can be sent to another person anywhere in the world. E-mail is easy to use and a cost-effective and fast way of sending information.
There are many other programs too numerous to list, but here are a few interesting subjects to explore: Real Audio, Streamworks (Xing) and Virtual Reality Modeling (VMRL). Access to the Internet can be achieved through an existing on-line service like Compuserve, America On Line (AOL), Genie or Prodigy or through a direct Internet service provider. Monthly charges are dependent on the service and locality. In some cases, access and website are made available to non-profit organizations like fire departments and EMS agencies through colleges and universities.
The Internet's successes have been a result of its environment of sharing. Similar successes may be realized by the fire service, if we open our minds and tap into the exciting global resources within our reach.
Charles Werner is a battalion captain in the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department and works with communications and technology. He is also on the Technology Team and acts as the Internet facilitator. Ken Elliot is a member of the York County, VA, Fire Department, Tim Webb is with the Hopewell, VA, Fire Department and Charles White is with the Williamsburg, VA, Fire Department. Visit the Charlottesville Fire Department home page at http://www.cstone.net/firedept