Madison, WI – The Madison Fire Department has completed installation of a high-tech video conferencing system developed by SBC Ameritech that will reportedly change the way the fire department responds to crises, trains it firefighters and communicates internally and with the city of Madison.
The system was designed and implemented by SBC Ameritech and is one of the first to be incorporated into a fire department in the United States. The Madison Fire Department plans to use the system as a means to connect not only with the city of Madison, but with a national network of experts and other fire departments that are considering similar video systems.
“We have made some tremendous advances in video conferencing technology, making this system an integrated tool that will not only transform the fire department’s daily operations, but create unlimited opportunities for future applications,” said Randall Pickering, director of sales for SBC Ameritech. “…Because the system is portable, the fire department can incorporate it into their daily operations with ease.”
Using Video Conferencing to Respond to A Crisis
When the first plane hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the Madison Police Department and the Madison Fire Department immediately set up an Emergency Operating Center to manage the crisis. Within 45 minutes, members of the city’s emergency management teams were receiving large volumes of reports and inquiries from national news outlets, the public and each other.
“It was very hard to coordinate information coming into our Emergency Operating Center and disseminating that information to each other and the public,” said Debra H. Amesqua, fire chief, Madison Fire Department. “We struggled as we attempted to verify the accuracy of information that was coming in while communicating with our various departments and the general public. The same information had to be communicated multiple times.”
While the fire department was already planning its video conferencing network, the system had not yet been installed. Instead, the city relied on the use of cell phones, e-mail and the local news to disseminate information and coordinate its efforts.
“Now that we have our video network in place, our response to crises will be very different,” said Amesqua.
According to Amesqua, the video conferencing system creates a homeland defense system in which the city of Madison is able to play an active role.
“We can now use the system to loop directly into the White House to receive information first-hand,” explains Amesqua. “We can then disseminate that information to our various fire houses across the city instantly. As a result, you have accurate information coming from one source that is communicated in real time to our network of fire houses that are all linked into the system.”
The system would also allow the fire department to tap into a national network of experts for information on issues ranging from hazardous chemicals to crowd control.
“It revolutionizes the way we respond to a crisis and communicate internally and with the residents of Madison,” said Amesqua.
Enhancing Training Methods With New Technology
“Firefighter training is an intense and complex process,” said Jim Keiken, division chief, Madison Fire Department. “Training takes place every day of the week and as firefighting techniques continue to get more technical, so does the training.”
Typically, training for firefighters occurs on a rotating schedule in which firefighters are brought to a central location for a session on a specific subject. The training takes place in shifts and is a continual process, as firefighters need to receive constant training to maintain technical certifications.
“Our new video conferencing system is going to transform the way we offer our training programs,” said Keiken.
The new system offers the Madison Fire Department the following benefits:
- Enhanced safety – because the system allows training to be offered at the fire house, firefighters do not have to leave the fire station for training sessions, ensuring that all firefighters are on call and able to respond to emergencies within their territories.
- Reduced costs – the fire department can run training programs from a central location less frequently, resulting in lowered training costs for the city and a more convenient system of training for the firefighters.
- Access to experts – using the video conferencing system, the Madison Fire Department can offer outside experts who are conferenced into the fire department from around the country to talk about specific issues relating to their area of expertise, further enhancing the firefighters’ training.
- Library of training sessions – the fire department also plans to tape and archive its training sessions allowing fire fighters to review specific firefighting methods at their leisure.
Improved Communication Through Video
The video conferencing system will also enhance the way the fire department communicates internally by ensuring the information is consistent and disseminated in real time.
“Previously, I have relied on e-mail and other methods to communicate with the 12 Fire Department facilities firehouses that make up our department,” said Amesqua. “Now, I can communicate to each firehouse first-hand and in real time with information that is communicated in a much more personal manner.”
“We designed the system with an added level of flexibility that allows the fire department to communicate with everyone at the same time or a select group of fire houses,” explained Pickering.
“Ultimately, the system allows the fire department to respond to issues in real time using a very convenient system of personal interaction.” Madison’s new video conferencing system will also enhance community outreach activities, as the fire department can deliver workshops on prevention techniques and fire safety education in entirely new ways.
“We’re looking at ways to partner with schools in Madison to offer virtual tours of our fire houses and teach fire safety from the floor of the firehouse,” said Amesqua. “We’re also exploring opportunities to take cameras into real life situations to later be broadcast over the system and used as an educational tool for both our fire fighters and the public.”
A Connected Future
The Madison Fire Department continues to explore new ways to use its video conferencing system both now and in the future. Fire department officials are discussing plans to link fire departments across the country on one system to enhance communication and share best practices. There are also plans to connect the Madison Fire Department to local hospitals, schools, universities and other community resources. Ultimately, the Madison Fire Department is moving toward a scenario in which all of the City of Madison’s emergency response units are linked into one system.
“It’s a model we’d like to see adapted by emergency service units across the country,” said Amesqua. “With each week that goes by, we’re coming up with a new idea of ways to use the system. It’s an exciting time for us and the City of Madison.”