The Internet and the Fire Service

I first came across the Internet in 1995 and after designing the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department's website, it was very apparent to me that the Internet would have a significant influence on the fire service and public safety.

In 1995, when the Charlottesville Fire Department's website was posted on the World Wide Web (WWW), the Internet was still in its infancy and there were less than 100 fire service websites on the net.

Realizing the potential of the Internet, I wrote the first fire service article on the Internet for Firehouse Magazine (The Internet: A Global Fire Service, June 1996). Following that, I was asked to serve as a contributing editor for Firehouse on technology- related articles.

After observing the development of the Internet and other related applications such as e-mail and file transfers, I had numerous discussions with Firehouse Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner and Associate Publisher Jeff Barrington about the implementation of e-mail and a website for Firehouse Magazine.

While Harvey and Jeff were in full agreement, it wasn't until late 1998 or early 1999 that the corporate approval had come for e-mail, to be followed by the website -- later to become Firehouse.com. E-mail made it easier to communicate with the staff at Firehouse, send articles and upload graphics. Shortly thereafter, I was given the green light to bring a concept for a Firehouse Magazine website.

I had started a column in Firehouse Magazine called "Hot Spots on the Web," which became one of the first interactive features of Firehouse.com. Working that column I had run across the Hyattsville, MD, Fire Department website and was so impressed with it that I called Dave Iannone on the phone one Friday afternoon. I vividly remember that conversation as I introduced myself and asked, "How would you like to do a website for Firehouse Magazine?"

Dave thought I was joking, laughed and then asked me if I was serious. After a long pause and time for thought, he asked me what I was looking for and when did I need it. I explained that I needed a website with the look and feel of Firehouse Magazine and the deadline was by Monday morning (remember this was on Friday afternoon). Dave then said, "No thanks" and our conversation ended.

Several hours later, I received another call from Dave, and his first words were, "Go to this URL...." I turned my computer on, went to the website and to my surprise I saw the then current cover of the magazine in a website design. The concept of Firehouse.com was born.

From our very conversation, Dave's vision for the website was to be something far more than I ever imagined. While the initial investment in the site was frugal, that never stopped Dave from creating the ultimate fire service website. In 1999, I had the honor of writing the introductory article, "Firehouse Launches The Premier Emergency Service Website!" and the beginning of Dave Iannone's vision became real.

At that time, the Internet was still in its infancy for the emergency service community and as I recall, the number of fire service websites had grown from less than 100 in 1995, to over 5,000 in 1999 and over 30,000 in 2009. And referring back to my original article, the Internet has truly realized the concept of a global fire service with approximately 3,000 international fire service websites listed on Firehouse.com today. In 1999, the 'Net' enabled cell phone was an emerging technology (according to Hobbes Internet Timeline) whereas today these devices permeate the mobile wireless market.

In general, websites were fairly static with simple graphics, basic links and sometimes an e-mail address and were accessible via a low speed telephone modem. For the most part, websites were a simple way to establish an Internet presence and a way to tell about a company/organization with pertinent location and contact information. Websites quickly began to evolve with more interactive features such as chat rooms and forums and Firehouse.com provided some of the first and most comprehensive forums for the emergency service community.

The first graphics that appeared on websites were static but not long after, animated images made their debut and dramatically changed the appearance from a simple picture to a website with movement and motion. New software applications would make it possible to easily create animated images that could produce banner message board graphics.

When it came to audio, websites first used simple audio "wav" files in the form of beeps or short sound effects. Larger audio files, high resolution graphics and video would be prohibitive until such time that connection speeds were sufficient.

Once telephone modems reached 56 kilobytes per second, speed and new software applications were developed, streaming audio and video files moved the fire service websites into a different medium. Websites became a means of streaming live radio transmissions via the internet. Through Real Audio, I was able to link a radio scanner to a server through our local internet provider and stream our fire department's radio traffic live which could be monitored from anywhere in the world. Today there are many departments that continue to do just that, where you can listen to their live radio transmissions. This year, most internet users are accessing the web via some sort of high speed connection, such as DSL, T1, fiber, etc..

The Y2K hysteria came and went without incident and without fanfare. In 2000, I was able to work with a local media company and develop an interactive tour that would let a website visitor seemingly walk from room to room and through a panoramic view, look around the room with a 360-degree view all through the control of a mouse. Taking that same technology, I was able to create a thermal image camera simulation and provide the ability for people browsing the web to "search" a room and locate the firefighter lying on the floor.

Early on, web search engines like Webcrawler and Lycos were the means to search for items of interest, but as search engines like Google, Yahoo and others emerged, internet searches became much more efficient and made finding items much more definitive and faster.

As the Internet was clearly not a fad and websites became an expectation: local, state and federal governments began to establish websites making a vast amount of information in the form of documents, reports and programs, including grants, available immediately at everyone's desktop. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy were no exception. One website that I am particularly proud is that of SAFECOM where a vast amount of interoperable communications information presently resides and is used to guide public safety organizations.

FEMA posted preparation information, the USFA posted fire safety information and on duty death information, and the NFA offered program information, online courses and a portal into the Learning Resource Center. The NFA also offers the online Degrees at a Distance program.

Websites specific to fire service effectiveness and safety include the International Association of Fire Chiefs which also now features IAFC TV., the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Volunteer Fire Service, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Everyone Goes Home website, the National Fire Academy Alumni Association and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council to name a few.

As the evolution continues, today's websites are much more sophisticated and internet browsers using Flash and Shockwave technology enable access to enhanced content from many sources in the form of live entertainment, including radio and television. NBC even provides full vintage 'Emergency' television episodes for free on their website. Additionally, websites like Firehouse.com offer podcasts -- taped audio interviews and programs -- and live webinars which provide the ability for renowned speakers to reach thousands of people around the world over the internet.

The evolution of the Internet is huge and it is not possible to fully list all but here are a few quick references and examples to some of the most significant: Interactive training, online newsletters, geographic information systems global positioning systems, listservs which provide notification of information generally by subscribing (Emergency Email Wireless Network, Webwiser Chemical Search, the National Hurricane Center, situational awareness, multiple website viewing, Voice over IP and Radio over IP, Sytech Corporation and RSS feeds.

An entirely new frontier (and will follow-up with another article) for public safety is that of the online social networking. Websites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Linked-In, Plaxo, Skype and FirefigherNation which are designed to link people of similar personal or business communities.

According to Internet World Stats, in 2009 an estimated 1.4 billion people access the internet for information in one form or another. Contrasting that to 1999 when Firehouse.com launched, there were an estimated 248 million worldwide users.

In summary, there is very little that you cannot find on the internet and if you cannot find it today, stay tuned as someone is probably working on that very idea. Reflecting on the past and looking forward to the future, I am confident that Firehouse.com will continue to evolve and remain the leading emergency service website in the world.

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CHARLES WERNER, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a 34-year-veteran of the career and volunteer fire service and serves as chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Charles serves on Virginia's Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, the International Association of Fire Chief's Communications Committee (IAFC), the Digital Problem Working Group Chair and the IAFC Technology Advisory Council Chair. He also serves as the SAFECOM Executive Committee Chair and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board. He has received a number of awards, including Fire Chief Magazine's National Career Fire Chief of the Year, the Richard DeMello Award by the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council and is the only three time recipient of the Virginia Governor's Award for Fire Service Excellence. To read Charles' complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Charles by e-mail at wernerc@charlottesville.org.

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