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The program’s first telephone hot line was started in the mid-1990s. It was a simple voicemail box that did not ring to anyone in particular. Messages were retrieved daily, usually in the morning by Fire Marshal’s Office personnel. A member who emptied the mailbox would record the information on request forms and then send those requests via departmental mail to the closest firehouse. The fire company would execute the installation after contacting the occupant.
There were limitations to this system. The mailbox held only 40 messages, so that when it became full (a frequent occurrence after a fire death or large fire) no one could leave a request until it was emptied. Another limitation was that those who retrieved the requests worked regular office hours. If a request was left after 5 P.M. on a Friday, it wasn’t retrieved until 8 A.M. Monday or Tuesday, if it were a holiday weekend. Sometimes, it took a week to get requests to the members responsible for installations. Companies then had the challenge of contacting the people making the requests (many did not leave phone numbers) and consequently made fruitless visits to addresses in order to install smoke alarms. The lag time was staggering and sometimes no alarms were installed.
While the original hotline was good “for its time,” surely technological advances since the mid-1990s could help us. The impetus for improving the program was the reception of a $100,000 grant for 10-year lithium battery smoke alarms from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This was in addition to a $50,000 grant from an anonymous donor.
Initially, during a brain-storming session, someone suggested having citizens call the 911 system, but that was quickly dismissed. That “dismissed suggestion,” however, led us to something that was sitting there all along – 311.
Baltimore was the first municipality in the nation to implement a 311 number, in 1996. Soon, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the use of the number nationwide. Originally, Baltimore’s 311 system was used only for non-emergency police matters. In 2001, Mayor Martin O’Malley launched the current One Call Center, expanding 311’s use to all city services. Now, citizens can call 311 to have a pothole filled, a streetlight lamp replaced, to report a traffic signal that is not working or for almost any other complaint a citizen can make to local government.
For our program, a citizen calls 311 between 7 A.M. and 7 P.M. to request a smoke alarm. The 311 operator asks the citizen a few questions. The first question asked is, “Are you or another adult going to be home for the next two hours?” If the answer is no, the person is asked to call back when he or she has two hours available. If the answer is “yes,” the operator moves on to substantive questions yielding information helpful to the installers. The caller is left with a “Service Request” (SR) number that can be tracked by the citizen on any computer. This applies mainly to citizen complaints that cannot be completed in two hours.
The 311 center sends an email to Fire Communications, which then dispatches the closest company non-emergency response to complete the installation. Once the install is complete, the fire officer calls Fire Communications to report that the install is complete, how many alarms were installed and on what levels. The dispatcher at Fire Communications then closes out the SR.
There is a “circuit-breaker” provision built in. If the fire department is experiencing an unusual amount of emergency services – i.e. a multiple-alarm fire or natural disaster – the program will be temporarily halted until the demand on the system lessens. Since its inception, we “tripped” that circuit breaker only once, in the aftermath of a rare 5.0 earthquake.
To train firefighters on the program, we drafted a new standard operating procedure (SOP), created a 45-minute training module that we delivered in person at battalion training and a firefighter’s guidebook to public education called Fighting Fire With Facts (modeled after the Mississippi State Fire Marshal’s similar guidebook) and even shot a 50-minute video detailing proper and improper methods for performing home visits and installing smoke alarms. Our partners at Johns Hopkins helped us in the development of our training materials.