Media Can Provide A Vital Service for Your Department

March 6, 2006
Keeping up with what is going on around the world; in real-time has never been easier. All you need is a television set, radio or Internet access. It is a useful tool that should be used by all emergency responders.

Early one morning our department was dispatched to a number of houses under construction on fire on the city's north side. As the fire started, a large plume of black smoke bellowed from the blaze which could be seen from all around the Las Vegas Valley. At the same time, a number of media helicopters which were airborne to report on the morning rush hour commute could see the smoke converged on the scene to show live scenes of the beginning of the fire.

Within minutes fire units arrived on the scene and the battalion chief assigned to the call requested a second alarm for additional units. He set up command in an intersection near the blaze which was inside a newly developed subdivision which was surrounded by a concrete block wall. Subdivisions in the Las Vegas Valley are typically built with a six foot high concrete block wall around each property which limits visibility to each yard. The chief had limited visibility of the incident and had to rely on radio reports from each of his companies to build a mental picture of what the incident looked like. I was at home at the time of the dispatch, getting ready to go to the office. Typically each morning I watch the morning news to see what happened overnight in the city. At least two stations had helicopters over the scene prior to our department's arrival and you could see the fire intensify live. A few minutes later, I was dispatched on the second alarm. While in route to the incident, I could see the helicopters flying over the scene still covering the event. A few minutes later I was on scene and reported to command to get a report to rely to the media. The chief told me he had three or four houses on fire, he was not sure because he could not see the entire incident. Our battalion chief's car is built where a command desk is set up inside the rear doors of Ford Expeditions, giving the incident commander a place to work. Knowing the media was still showing the fire from above, I ran back to my PIO van and retrieved a small nine inch portable AC/DC TV set with a VCR built in and set it up in the chief's car. Within seconds, he was able to see what the fire looked like from above on three different channels. Now he had a clear view of what the incident looked like and he could make better judgments based on what he could see. For nearly an hour he was able to monitor conditions by changing back and forth between channels until the incident was brought under control. A total of five houses burned during the incident, but a number of other new homes were saved. A growing number of departments are now realizing that the media provides a vital service to the fire service: instant reports and images of events as they happen in real-time from almost any place in the world. This is extremely important in today's world, especially where terrorism is a reality. You must be in the know at all times. Because this technology is available, here is what I suggest: MONITOR THE MEDIA ALL THE TIME - In my PIO office I have nine televisions sets on all the time. Five for the local stations which has news departments, three for national news (Fox, MSNBC and CNN) and one for the weather channel. The national news networks are constantly monitoring conditions all around the world and report them almost immediately. Anytime something occurs which may have an impact on local conditions, we monitor and make notifications to certain city officials including city management, executive staff of Fire & Rescue and Emergency Management. The local stations monitor local conditions and also national networks (CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox). When the upper East Coast went dark in 2003, CBS broke in almost immediately. Within seconds I was notifying our staff of the situation. Could it be a terrorist attack with the possibility of other cities being targeted across the country? At the time we did not know, but at least it gave us a chance to know something was occurring and we started to review our procedures in case the same occurred in Las Vegas. The Weather Channel provides up-to-the-minute weather information, including radar images and current real-time weather conditions. In the Southwest where it is sunny most of the time we are not as concerned. But if you live in the Southeast during Hurricane season or the Midwest during the spring, weather conditions change by the minute and you have to monitor it. They also relay emergency information immediately over their channel. An excellent source for real-time information. I suggest that each PIO or Command Vehicle carry at least one TV which can be operated in the field. This way you can set it up at an incident and monitor what the local media is reporting. My PIO van is also equipped with four miniature TVs which I use on scene. Sometimes I drive with them on and turned up so I can listen to the programs as I am driving. In our Mobile Command Unit, I had it installed with five local TV monitors and satellite TV and Radio service. There is also an AM/FM radio in the unit so I can again monitor a number of different sources. I also carry a small pocket television in my PIO Vest and also in my personal car. Although it sounds expense, the pocket TV was purchased for only $29 at a local Radio Shack during a holiday sale. !3 inch color TVs which can be run on DC power are selling for approximately $50. We have purchased one for each of our battalion chief's units to use in case the media is overhead with helicopters. Since they were issued, they have been used a number of times. This is especially useful during a high profile incident. Using the media this way is like having your own remote cameras all over the world to monitor conditions without the expense. Another good source of media information is via radio. There are basically three different types of radio you can use; the standard AM/FM radio you receive locally, satellite subscription radio which can be heard coast to coast and streaming audio via the Internet. Every area of the country has radio service in or near their community. There are a number of different types of radios you can use to listen in, table top, portable or car radio. A new type of radio which is gaining in popularity is satellite subscription radio. Currently there are two satellite networks: XM Satellite Radio or Sirius Satellite Radio. Both carry a number of TV news networks including FOX, USA Today, CNN and others. You don't have a picture, but you can listen to what is going on. XM has a new channel. 247 (which stands for 24 hours / 7 days a week). This is constantly updated with up to the minute national disaster and weather information. You can listen to the Weather Channel on Satellite radio also. Although the car radio is the most popular type of satellite radio, lately there are new portable satellite radios that you can carry with you in your pocket. Some newer models are less than $150. Lastly there is streaming audio via the Internet. Now you can listen to radio stations from across the country and the world. This can also provide you with important information. I use the website: With just the name of a city and state, you can get a list of all the radio stations in that city along with website information and some have direct connect links so you can listen live to the radio. How can this be useful? Let's say an earthquake occurred in Southern California. Here in Las Vegas we would be concerned because all the fuel that is used in Southern Nevada is supplied by underground pipes from Southern California. If these pipes are damaged, it could affect the amount of available fuel. Also if damage is great enough, people will most likely evacuate north along the Interstate to Las Vegas. By listening to reports we could have over three hours to prepare for an influx of people evacuating, giving us time to prepare shelters, notify highway patrol and the like. Damage reports from the media may give us an insight that our resources might be requested to assist in the earthquake area. Another new resource is satellite TV for mobile applications. Newer satellite dishes will automatically locate and lock on to the satellite so you do not lose it while driving. A newer satellite antenna is now available that is flat, it rest on the roof of your auto and you can watch TV while the vehicle is in motion. Satellite TV is extremely useful for command units in remote locations for incidents such as wildland fires, train derailments or natural disasters. There is even talk of a new cellular phone that will have TV built in. The bottom line is there are many resources available that give firefighters information in real time whether you are in your own backyard or on the other side of the world. Take advantage of this resource, it can be extremely useful. Keeping up with what is going on around the world; in real-time has never been easier. All you need is a television set, radio or Internet access. It is a useful tool that should be used by all emergency responders. And thanks to the media for providing such a service at practically no cost to our departments.

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