“eGovernment” And The Fire Service

Electronic government, better known as "eGovernment" or "eGov," is a concept that is changing the face of public service interaction. This concept has spread around the globe. Every level of government - local, regional, state and national - has embraced this new way of linking services with its people through electronic or online connectivity. While the implementation is not globally seamless, the effect is remarkable, with no end in sight.

The objectives listed by the United Kingdom's Centre for e-Government are to enhance and spread the use of e-Government techniques and expertise for the benefit of citizens. But what is eGovernment and what impact will it have on the fire service?

It is perhaps best defined by the Centre for e-Government as, "The introduction of electronic methods of improving the way government performs its business. This is the government equivalent of e-commerce. Its potential is huge as it can enable cost-effective seven-day, 24-hour services. In short, it is the next revolution in government and governance where these functions get closer to the people."

Underway in California is a program called, "A Statewide Technology Initiative," designed to close the digital divide and create an eGovernment framework for the state. This initiative outlines the various components and the level to which they are found.

This change is picking up momentum and the fire service must continue to move in the direction of eGovernment. It has become a public expectation and the public's knowledge of "e"-related functions continues to expand.

It is no longer acceptable to be without a web presence. A web presence provides immediate information to the public, such as how citizens can most effectively contact a fire-rescue representative, what programs are offered, online requests, online fire safety information, volunteer recruitment opportunities, fund raising and much more. Many free website offers are available and it can all be accomplished at no cost to a fire or rescue department. Just do it!

This "e" philosophy is also affecting fire departments around the country in another way. The Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department is in the midst of such a transformation in its city. The City Council approved the adoption of a philosophy that states, "Charlottesville, a Connected Community." This philosophy also embraces the development of a citywide eGovernment infrastructure. Twenty-one communities in the Mercer, WA, area are working regionally to develop an effective shared eGovernment infrastructure. On the national level, President Bush recently announced the enhanced White House website (www.whitehouse.gov) and its enhanced audio and multilingual content.

The Internet is filled with eGov-related websites and examples, too numerous to list. Almost every city and town has employed or considered the eGov approach in one way or another.

This electronic or online movement begins to create a "snowball" effect with the evolution of more new functions. One example involves the integration of information systems (sometimes known as enterprise systems or integrated systems projects). This model takes existing information systems and integrates, interfaces or creates a collective information source called a data warehouse. A data warehouse becomes the mammoth information repository (for multiple agencies) from which statistical reports, in-depth analysis and geographical information applications/reports are applied or produced.

This is where it becomes critical for emergency service agencies. Does your department or agency have records-management software, personnel databases, daily-staffing software, training databases, or hydrant- or vehicle-maintenance databases? This new integration phenomenon will immediately focus on how a department's existing data will be integrated, interfaced or in some cases replaced. While this may seem severe, if you are not well prepared to defend the importance and have knowledge of how this information can be best utilized, that may be the outcome. The key is to be ready. First, establish an electronic data inventory that lists all of your separate systems. Then define:

  • Software application.
  • Vendor name.
  • How it is used.
  • System or file administrator.
  • Other systems that it interfaces.
  • Who it impacts.
  • Tell how it could be better or what you would like to see as a result.
  • How can other agencies' involvement help.

This "e" awareness and involvement are necessary regardless of whether your department is career, combination or volunteer. When this integration phase begins, it will evaluate the relevance and importance of these files and systems as they relate to the larger project. This may also open a door of opportunity. Presently, fire department information systems are typically limited to their own statistical data. The ability to develop individual information layers (fire layer, crime layer, EMS layer, etc.) that can be laid over one another can produce dramatic map pictures illustrating a much larger problem than ever imagined through the use of geographical information systems.

While preparation is important, this is only the surface of what will come next. Someone from your department will (more than likely) be expected to help interface existing systems, development of a new system and/or help the department transition from the old. Now is the time to plan a strategy to anticipate this staffing assignment.

Fire departments that have no formal link with local government should consider contacting the agency heading such a project to see how they can be involved. More than likely, they will welcome the link to such a vital service and the benefits to the department will be very worthwhile.

If your department is involved in an eGov project or other technology program, please e-mail me at techzone@firehousemail.com.

Charles Werner, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 24-year veteran and deputy chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He is a member of the Firehouse.com webteam and recently became the editor of the new Firehouse.com Technology Zone. Werner serves on the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Technology/Communications Task Force and is chair of the State Fire Chiefs Association of Virginia (SFCAV) Technology Committee. He is the webmaster for the SFCAV, the National Fire Academy Alumni Association, the National Fire Service Incident Management System Consortium and the International Association of Wildland Fire.