Internet Use in the Station

Question: Several Web sites have been developed specifically for use by firefighters. Fire Engineering’s own Web page (www.fireengineering.com) has added a new Community section. The Community is designed for firefighters who would like to exchange information and ideas. Does you department encourage participation on these sites and allow members to go online during work hours?

There have been many advancements in the fire service over the past several decades: PASS devices, thermal imaging cameras, the incident management system, and automated external defibrillators, to name a few. They have made our jobs safer or have allowed us to give better service to our customers.

Not all of the advancements that have improved our lives have been developed with the fire service specifically (or even indirectly) in mind. Every once in awhile, something developed for the “other” people of the world (other than us brothers and sisters of the fire service) comes along and makes a huge impact on the fire service as well. The Internet comes to mind.

Web sites designed specifically for the fire service have opened up a vast amount of information relevant to firefighters of all ranks and from departments of all sizes. You can now go on the Web and “surf” for information on specific fires across the country—even those of the past, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 in New York City. Google that, and you will get dozens of references.

As you know, firefighters are at times their own worst enemy. Along with the fire department sites that can be found on the Internet are sites covering other topics. Some of them are “less than honorable.” Although it can easily be explained why a firefighter is “caught” surfing the Web looking for information on the national incident management system, we would be hard pressed to explain why a firefighter would be “caught” surfing baseball or the “Notre Dame Fighting Irish” sites or others that are even more difficult to justify.

In my old department, there were occasions where firefighters were “caught” looking at what might be considered “adult” sites. For that reason, Information Technology disabled the Internet on all “station” computers. Staff officer computers have access to the Internet, but their users are “under scrutiny.”

—John “Skip” Coleman retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering, a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board, and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer(Fire Engineering, 1997); Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000); and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department

Response: We encourage our firefighters, officers, chiefs, and staff to visit any Web site that offers an opportunity for them to do their jobs better. The site has to be job related and accessible through our city’s computer system—meaning that it isn’t a blocked site (which still would be fine if it’s appropriate).

There are so many opportunities for gaining information and insight that there should be no excuse for not doing it. If you have access to a computer, use it. I know some departments regulate who can use the computer, what they can look at, and when they can do it, but most places have made it possible for their people to use this valuable resource. I know departments that have little or no funding for training but still train their people. But some of the sites provide an incredible opportunity for obtaining valuable training information.

What Fire Engineering has done with its Community section is nothing short of incredible. Its Web site as a whole is great—with the information, simulations, radio shows, etc., but I get on the Community site and can’t get off. There are discussions, groups, forums, pictures, videos, and the ability to reach out to so many people in our business and hear so many different views. I encourage our personnel not only to go to the site and become a member but also to create a group or forum or at least participate in some of the discussions.

I’m hoping that more and more of our fire service family make these types of Web sites their morning newspaper. It’s one of the best ways to stay current and in the know, as well as become better at your job.

Gary Seidel, chief,
Hillsboro (OR) Fire Department

Response: We encourage our members to be involved in the total fire service realm, either through teaching courses, seminars, workshops; publishing articles; or viewing/commenting on topics of their expertise. Prior to writing articles for publication or posting comments on the Internet, members must obtain the chief’s approval.

The city has a strict policy on Internet usage, and employees are aware that the use of the Internet is a privilege granted to every employee to use to obtain information and resources needed to do their jobs. The city’s policy states: “The chats, newsgroups, and e-mail of the Internet give each employee individual Internet user an immense and unprecedented reach to propagate messages representing the City. Because of that power, we all must take special care to maintain the clarity, consistency, and integrity of the City’s image and posture. Anything any one employee writes in the course of acting for the City on the Internet can be taken as representing the City’s posture.”

Jeffrey Schwering, lieutenant,
Crestwood (MO) Department of Fire Services

Response: The city has a written policy on Internet use, which every department member has signed. The city’s systems manager monitors the computers. Security software has been placed on all computers in the city, to help eliminate any misuse. Members who misuse or attempt to misuse the Internet are subject to disciplinary action per our civil service rules.

All fire department personnel are encouraged to gain access to training Web sites. All members can gain valuable knowledge from spending time on these sites. Some training for our department and neighboring departments is a direct result of training issues brought to the forefront of our industry by fire service Web sites. My department has benefited from monitored Internet use in the workplace.

Steven Westcott, firefighter/EMT-P,
Perkins Township Fire Department,
Sandusky, Ohio

Response: I consider myself lucky in that not only does my department demand we train daily, but our members also expect to train daily. Whenever we get tired of repetitious topics, we turn to the Internet for new ways to improve our quality of training. Whether it’s a response to a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) report, a firefighter close call, or a current topic from a fire-based Web site, the ability to use the Internet on-duty facilitates the process of staying fresh with the issues we face daily. One of the greatest strengths we have in the fire service is the tight-knit brotherhood and willingness to take care of and protect one another, and we have to use it.

Web sites like Fire Engineering’s new Community section not only allow networking of ideas and information at its finest but also make it possible to share experiences across the United States. Remembering that we’re all in this profession together, these Web sites show the dedication everyone has to each other’s safety at its finest. Along with the halligan tool, the pickhead ax, and the pike pole, the Internet has quickly become one of the best tools a firefighter can have to match up with the challenges that lie ahead. Even if your fire department doesn’t allow Internet usage while on-duty, I still encourage putting some time into visiting these Web sites; it will be an investment with a career-long payout.

Craig H. Shelley,
fire protection advisor, Saudi Arabia

Response: Our department strongly encourages Web-based training. Currently, the fire department’s Web site maintains presentations the firefighters can reference and review. They can also be used by officers during daily training sessions, using computers attached to LCD projectors in their station training rooms. Additionally, our company offers Web-based training programs through the corporate Web site and e-learning applications. As a corporation, nonfire department employees are encouraged and required in some instances to participate in e-learning to maintain annual certifications. Our department provides work stations in areas where firefighters have access to them and can participate in Web-based training. I believe that although this type of training is the wave of the future, there needs to be a balance in the various forms of training—i.e., instructor-delivered, Web-based, and hands-on practical.

Also, firefighters may be spending too much time in front of the computer and not getting enough exercise. Physical exercise is important. Sitting at a computer work station for hours on end is not a good thing. Let’s encourage e-learning, but not at the expense of required station activities, hands-on training, physical fitness, and firehouse camaraderie.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: As in many departments, our training staff is woefully understaffed. The idea of using the Internet to augment training is one I wholeheartedly support, as would our training staff. Unfortunately, circumstances recently led to the Internet’s being taken out of all firehouses, so there is no way for companies to take advantage of training online. I have participated in online learning and found it very beneficial. I would encourage all firefighters and fire departments that have Internet capability to check out the various training sites online and to participate. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you can learn. Fire departments that do not have Internet capability should get it, especially if they are behind on training or need to supplement it. There is a world of information out there that can make our job easier, and it is just a mouse click away.

Mike Metro, deputy chief,
Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department

Response: In my division, I am implementing a program to engage my folks in the “Near Miss” Web site. My division’s training captain will initiate a conference call with all shift captains and battalion chiefs on duty that day. They will have 20 minutes to discuss a selected report and the training points attached to that report. The conference call agenda will be to discuss how this scenario could happen in our division and how we can implement strategies or increase our awareness regarding this particular hazard. This is done twice each month on all three shifts (six sessions).

Our department is hesitant about allowing anyone below the rank of battalion chief Internet access, although most have access to our department intranet. (We have had problems with folks poking around Web sites they should not be looking at during working hours.)

We have designed a “button” on our intranet site that links directly to the “Near Miss” Web site. In this way, all of our captains can view the Web site during the conference call, maneuver the Web site during the call, and have an increased awareness of the tools contained there so they can not only share the “report of the week” but also use it on a more regular basis for station drills.

Brian Zaitz, firefighter/paramedic,
Metro West (MO) Fire Protection District

Response: We encourage firefighter participation in online classes and fire service Web sites in an effort to stay up-to-date on changes to the fire service. The Internet provides a great avenue to share views and new ideas with firefighters from not only across the nation but also literally across the world. We use this tool, the Internet, to share what works and learn ways to be safer, more efficient firefighters. Our employees are allowed to log onto the Internet during work hours for the purpose of training and research. They are asked to investigate new topics that they see as important and are encouraged to share their findings with the crew and develop any subsequent training they feel would be beneficial to the department.

We also ask crew members to look at NIOSH reports and line-of-duty death (LODD) reports online. This is done to remember our fallen brethren and also to learn so their deaths are not in vain. It is critical that we not only recognize our mistakes but also learn from them. It is essential that the fire service continue to evolve and grow. We must learn from each other, and the Internet and Web sites such as Fire Engineering’s provide a great means of information transfer and knowledge growth.

Mike Newbury, captain,
St. Louis (MO) Fire Department

Response: In my department (I am an airport ARFF shift captain), only officers have Internet access; the rank-and-file firefighters are discouraged from using it. I do not understand why, especially since the organization (the airport) filters everything. I can use Internet firefighter training sites. As for my brothers and sisters back in the city on the structural side, Internet access was not set up for the individual firehouses, but that does not stop individual firehouses from setting up their own Internet access with a service provider and paying for it out of pocket.

The new chief reportedly intends to remedy this situation and bring us up to speed. I hope he does, because I have used multiple firefighter sites such as (obviously) Fire Engineeringand ARFF working group for training purposes and used forums to bounce ideas off other firefighters; I think it is a good thing.

However, firefighters being mischievous, someone may go to a site that should not be viewed while on duty, online, and on a department computer. The organization should set up filters that allow e-mail access and browsing of sites pertaining to the fire service or other sites that are safe and filter out any site that would get the mischievous into trouble. This can be done—and is done—in business all the time.

The information that can be gleaned from NIOSH reports or firefighter training sites when properly used is excellent training material. Additionally, firefighter “shop talk” blogs are also sources of information that lead to training opportunities. I’ve always believed that the more high-quality training we do, the better firefighters we become. So with filtering devices available to keep us out of trouble, why not give access and use on-line training sources?

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department

Response: Our department strongly encourages our members to use the Internet for work-related information. This is the best source for up-to-the-minute information. Our city uses filtering software to fend off abuse. We can “unlock” certain sites at the request of one of our employees. As an example, YouTube is a great source of raw video, and we are using some of it in our academy. It is generally blocked because of its high-bandwidth consumption. Using the Internet also helps those who are “afraid” of computers to get adjusted to them. All of our basic National Incident Management System (NIMS) training was done on the computer. We decided early on to embrace the computer and the Internet for job and educational enhancement.

Brett Graves, lieutenant,
Pontiac (IL) Fire Department

Response: Our department allows and encourages our members to use the many fire service-related resources on the Internet. Resources such as the new Community section of fireengineering.com are great for getting new ideas and interacting with other members of the fire service.

Richard Wilson, lieutenant,
Bartlett (IL) Fire District

Response: My department requires us to complete the assigned daily tasks first. After the training, rig checks, house duties, shopping, and weekly duties, firefighters are encouraged to seek out ways to improve their knowledge. On my shift at roll call, I pick a topic from the “Firefighters Close Calls” training board to spark interaction with my shift. In March 2008, we reviewed at roll call forcible entry through garage doors; within six hours, we had to use the procedures we had just discussed. I will on occasion pick topics from fire service-related sites to aid in setting up drills.

Occasionally, the Station 1 lieutenant and I will muster up a drill from what the firefighters have requested or had experienced or would like to try out. This training is on top of our daily training schedule, time permitting. My battalion chief, if he is not busy in meetings, is also brought into the training loop with the members, so he can see how the training is unfolding. The chief and assistant chiefs like to see the firefighters exercise their minds as well as the equipment. Some department policies have been changed because of knowledge gained from articles written. The fire service is ever changing, and we need to be in the front of these changes, or someone can get hurt.

James Cleveland, assistant chief,
Prichard/Murray (ID) Volunteer Fire Department

Response: As a small all-volunteer department, “during work hours” for us means “while at the station.” We encourage our personnel to get involved with the outside fire service through different Web sites and have had some success with online training for our volunteers. Although we have technical challenges, we prefer that our personnel use these opportunities.

Currently, only dial-up Internet is available at the station, which is in a rural area. We are trying to get satellite Internet to make it more available to our personnel. Because our agency is so rural, traveling to training is time consuming and expensive. Quality online training and interaction with other firefighters are time- and cost-effective means of providing educational opportunities to our personnel.

Ed Herrmann, captain,
Boynton Beach (FL) Fire Rescue

Response:The Internet has become a significant tool in our department’s training scheme. We have monthly required training on a contracted Web site covering all aspects of the job. Department members also share news clips, updates, and YouTube video of job-related information via attachments in departmental e-mail. For instance, I have sent out several recommendations and links to several of the Fire Engineering Webcasts.

We have access to the Internet throughout the shift with the knowledge that the content of our surfing can be monitored. Certain keywords/Web sites also trigger “surf control” and are automatically blocked. The words that can trigger this system are often comical, but it can also make life difficult when doing research for information or equipment purchases.

As for discussion-based sites, the department hasn’t set any type of formal policy. Our administration constantly encourages departmental interaction and continuing education. Since the Internet is just a different venue for these activities, I don’t see this changing.

There hasn’t been any kitchen table talk about any particular site or topic, but that could be because the issues are resolved online. It could also be that we’ve been preoccupied resolving (through discussion) the rest of the world’s problems, just like every other station in the country. Personally, I’ll be keeping an eye on Fire Engineering’s new discussion board for information to bring back to the table.

Devon J. Wells, assistant chief,
Hood River (OR) Fire Department

Response: Our department realizes the importance of technology in today’s fire service. It is a great conduit for training, networking, and building professional relationships. Our firefighters are encouraged to use the information on the Internet as much as possible and to disseminate that information to others in the department. We are looking at using the distance education technique for our staff’s annual refresher training, especially our volunteers. This allows them to get trained on their time, when it is convenient for them, and still achieve adequate results.

However, Internet use has to be monitored to ensure that the firefighters are not spending too much time on the computer or engaging in inappropriate use. Personal use of the Internet is not allowed during work hours, and the shift officers monitor use. Keeping this in mind, the firefighters understand the relevance of training and business use of the Internet and use it for their and the department’s best interest.

Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Our department encourages participation on the Web, but we do have restrictions. Surfing must be official business only. One challenge is getting sucked in—time can slip away without notice. There is so much information on the Web that we have to be careful not to waste the entire tour. Do some research, and then get out from behind the computer and into the streets. Additionally, we have to be careful with what’s out there—who’s to say what you see or read is safe, tested, etc.?

Members of our department have been using the Web for a multitude of reasons:

  • Develop training ideas—coming up with some fresh approaches, improving what we have or how we operate. Being in Alaska, we tend to be isolated. Seeing what’s happening elsewhere can be invaluable.
  • Asking members how they would fight the fire in the photos and videos if it occurred in our city.
  • Reviewing articles pertaining to supervision problems—again, how would we handle it here?
  • Reviewing other departments’ policies and standard operating guidelines has been very helpful in developing and updating our own.
  • Reading or participating in online forums offers some great ideas in all of these areas—it provides opportunities to interact and network we would otherwise never have.

The Internet can be a very useful tool, but we should be cautious to avoid the negative traps that can be associated with browsing the Web.

Skip Heflin, training officer,
Hall County (GA) Fire Service

Response: Our department encourages our members to use the Internet for training. Research and scenario-based training can be enhanced by using those types of resources, and all of our stations have Internet access. Our department has a training Web site on which our monthly training is delivered to the stations. With some of the topics we produce, there are visual aids the firefighters can follow to enhance the topic being taught. For example, when the topic is ropes and knots, we might link to an animation of a knot being tied in a rope for the firefighter to see as a demonstration. The company officer can go to the topic, open up the outline and any other preparation materials, and teach the training topic to their personnel. After completing any assigned practical exercises, each member logs on to the Web site and takes a quiz to confirm they have participated in the training session and learned the material. Some Web sites are blocked, such as some of the video Web sites that have become so popular. We try to provide access to fire-based video Web sites that display videos that can be used for training. Some of our members use various sites during their research while earning their degree through our local college.

Randall W. Hanifen, lieutenant,
West Chester (OH) Fire-Rescue

Response: Our department has embraced the latest trend in training, which is Internet-based training. We even schedule weekly drills that involve Fire Engineering’s Webcasts. Initially, we had to find a balance between streaming video sites that were beneficial to our training and those that could slow down the network if everyone is on them simultaneously, such as Internet radio.

The use of Internet-based training will increase drastically over the next years. What better way to bring the experts in the fire service to your daily firehouse drills? Even sites such as YouTube have become valuable in providing footage of actual incidents. These videos provide a way to discuss tactics and safety practices any day and time. Web sites are currently selling helmet-mounted cameras that can provide footage for critiques. The only drawback to all of this technology, as with any other technology, is its misuse, such as showing victims of incidents, etc.

With time, the fire service will find numerous ways to deliver top-notch training and education sessions without having to leave the firehouse, through use of the Internet. I would also predict that the fire service training sites will become interactive, much like the video game industry, thus strengthening the online training experience.

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