Firefighting In Cyberspace

Surfing the Net. The World Wide Web. URLs. Servers, Gopher, Veronica and Archie.

Those are cryptic terms that you can hear almost anywhere these days. The Internet is big news a worldwide collection of computers that the average person can access and root around in. Want to know something about America's space program? Find it on the Net. Interested in football? Look on the Net. Want to know why all the hair is falling off of your basset hound's ears? Surf the Net.

The Internet was originally developed by the federal government and has since fallen into the hands of ordinary folk like you and me. Today, businesses and individuals alike can not only "surf the Net" but they can now create their own sites for others to visit. Through the use of the World Wide Web (one of the many fingers of the Internet), anyone can create a place for others to find. The Web, or WWW, has in a sense taken on a life of its own.

The Web is the most graphic and easiest area of the Net to deal with. As such it is growing, well, like a wildfire. Many government agencies, businesses, publications, sports teams, TV networks and universities, to name a few, have Web sites. And now, so does the Clark County, NV, Fire Department (CCFD).

The department, located in the heart of the Las Vegas Valley, is the biggest fire department in Nevada. The first county fire department in the United States to earn an ISO Class 1 rating, the CCFD continually tries to be on the cutting edge of the fire service. Computers are in the future and we had better make friends of them. With that thought in mind, the CCFD set out to start firefighting in cyberspace.

An odd-looking bit of information. Odd, yes, but that text string is the key to accessing our department's Web site. Once there, you can visit a number of places. Take a look at the county's "super station," Station 18. A three-story monster that houses two engines, a truck, two paramedic rescue units, a hose wagon and a battalion chief (of course, this doesn't include the 30,000-plus-square-foot office area). You can learn about the tragic MGM Grand hotel fire and see how a fire department in the middle of the desert rehabs when the temperature is 115 degrees.

The "grand opening" of the site was on Oct. 1, 1995, planned to coincide with Fire Prevention Month. For the month of October, the site was jampacked with fire prevention information. The site will have a prevention area every month; however, for October, the entire site was devoted to spreading the word of fire safety and fire prevention.

Getting your fire department on the Net can be a simple project that can be accomplished in a week or two, or could take as long as a year or more. Everything depends on the resources from which you can draw at the time you decide to make the leap. After our department started to address the idea of putting a site on the World Wide Web, we found that we had almost all of the resources necessary at our fingertips.

The path your fire department travels to get into cyberspace is determined by many factors. If your department has no computers and no computer-literate members, you may find that you have a lot of work ahead of you. Or, your department may not only have the computers and the personnel needed to make a site a reality, it may even already have Internet access. At that level, your department could have a site on the Web in a couple of days.

To start out on the Net, you don't need a full-time Internet connection with a dedicated computer to establish your Web site. You might be better off to rent Web space disk space that holds Web information and supplies it to the Internet from a commercial provider, generally an Internet service provider (ISP).

If you've browsed the Web, you probably have everything you need to publish a "home page." Besides a computer, you'll need text-handling software, Internet access and a knowledge of "HTML" a language you use to format the information you want to put on the Web. Several books on HTML are available and you can also download HTML information from the World Wide Web itself. Another way to create HTML documents is through the use of an HTML editor.

As far as your choice of computer goes, you can go with an Apple Macintosh or IBM platform. In our case, we are an IBM house but our Web site was created using a Mac. In addition to the computer itself, a color scanner is nice to have, and depending on how you're going to access the Net you will also need a very fast modem. The software used included a very basic word processor for creating the HTML documents and Photoshop for working with the graphics.

For those who plan to use a Macintosh, your software needs will include a Telnet terminal emulation utility, an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) Utility and a Web Browser. Many of these software requirements will be identical in an IBM setup. When in doubt, ask questions or read a book.

After creating all of the HTML document and creating your graphics, you are ready to put your site up. Now you just need the access. If you have access already, call your Web Master or contact technical support. How and where you put the site will vary depending on the type of access you have. Are you accessing the Net through a local service? Are you connected through a server or modem? There are too many variables to cover all of the options here.

An important issue is the need to have someone with at least intermediate computer knowledge. This is not an undertaking for a fire department that just purchased its first computer and is still reading the manuals. Just the act of getting on the Net is an intermediate-level task. Writing all the HTML documents and creating the graphics, uploading files, dealing with servers and such are to much for a beginner.

Another suggestion for any fire department considering getting on the Web is to find someone who knows the Internet and ask a lot of questions. Now is not the time to be shy. Also, there are loads of good books out there; pick one and read it.

Only time can tell whether the CCFD's Web site will have an effect on our efforts to provide a safe community. One thing is sure as the Internet grows and the popularity of the World Wide Web blossoms, our message will be seen by more and more people every day. At the very least, the site is one more weapon we can use in our fight against fire.

Paul Youdelis is a captain in the Clark County, NV, Fire Department. He has been in firefighting for 17 years, eight of them with Clark County.