Microcomputer Can Improve Management Information Flow
The pressure is on. Budget cuts and citizen demands for ever-increasing levels of service have brought new pressures to fire service managers. City hall’s “what-do-you-need” attitude has been replaced by “Show me the data” and “Prove it.” Producing quality management data is a difficult task. Processing forms and typing reports is time-consuming, especially with personnel shortages. But there is a solution—and it may be as close as the nearest computer store. I’m talking about a “tool” called data base software for microcomputers.
Microcomputer technology has advanced to the point that it is possible for a small city to purchase a $4000 microcomputer system that will provide necessary management information and operational analysis, as well as word processing and budget assistance.
In order to describe the system, some definitions will be necessary. For the purpose of this article “hardware” will refer to any piece of microcomputer equipment that is, well . . . hard. “Software” will refer to a set of instructions that program a computer to perform desired tasks. Software is generally stored on magnetic disks that can be placed in microcomputer’s disk drive for reading into the computer. (See also Fire Engineering, January and February 1982.)
The management information software described here may work on a number of microcomputers, but I use a 48K Apple II Plus computer, two disk drives, a 12-inch green phosphor (for easy reading) monitor screen and a printer. The total cost is about $3200.
The Apple II Plus is one of the most common brands of microcomputer. The “48K” designation refers to the microcomputer’s memory capacity—in this case, its ability to absorb and electronically store 48,000 characters of information. The 48K is considered a good working minimum. Memories of 32K or less are barely adequate for use with disk drives and are of limited use in the fire service.
While the microcomputer stores 48K of memory electronically, a single disk drive will provide rapid access to an additional 140K of memory stored on a disk. A second disk drive allows the computer to use another 140K. With only one disk drive, some programs require the user to swap additional disks in and out. This is a somewhat time-consuming way to access a large amount of data.
A printer converts computer-stored data into printed paper reports called hard copy. There are essentially two types of printers, dot matrix and typewriter quality.
Dot matrix printers form letters with dots. In less-desirable dot matrix printers, there may be too much space between the dots. Dot matrix printers are fast and relatively inexpensive.
Typewriter-quality printers are slow. While you can expect a low-cost dot matrix printer to type at 80 to 120 characters per second, a typewriterquality printer may type as little as eight characters per second. This is roughly the difference of 45 seconds vs. eight minutes for typing a full single page.
Data base software
Microcomputer advertisements may clain that one microcomputer is superior to another, but in practical application, differences in software quality and availability are more significant to the user. Commercial software exists because not all microcomputer users have the time or the inclination to become computer programmers. If you don’t want to learn programming, the effectiveness of your microcomputer system will be totally dependent on the commercial software you buy.
Although there are several data-base software packages available, this article will focus on a $200 package called DB Master. DB Master, like other database software, will program your microcomputer to enter, store, manipulate and report data, whether incident reports, personnel records, maintenance records, etc. Let’s examine each process. It is in the manipulation ability where microcomputers leave manual record-keeping systems especially far behind.
One of the first functions of the software is to allow the user to design a report form that will be used to enter data. A simple form may look like this:
Type of Incident:—
Minutes to the scene:-
Total Mins, of Incident:-
The form above contains six items of information called fields. DB Master has the ability to design more complex forms. In fact, forms may contain as many as 100 fields.
Shorthand coding is used to reduce the amount of memory required to store information. Here’s an example for a form that has been completed after an incident. A completed form is called a record.
Incident Number: 01436 Type of Incident: R Unit Assigned: E45 Minutes to the scene: 05 Census Tract: 567542 Total Mins, of Incident: 044 Using the form, you have entered the information that on run 01436, Engine Company 45 took five minutes responding to a cooking fire (code R) in census tract 567542, and remained on the call for 44 minutes.
Data typed onto the microcomputer’s keyboard and displayed on the monitor is stored on a disk when the user determines that the information is accurate. It’s interesting to note that the above example only stores the information the user has entered in each field. Consequently, the data stored for our ficticious example used only 20 bytes of memory. For simplicity, let’s say that a byte is the same as a character. Since a single disk will store 120K (140K total less 20K occupied by program instructions), each disk will handle over 6000 records. One file, a collection of similar records (i.e. fire incident report file), may use scores of data-storing disks. The result is a potential for a rather large data base for each file.
Sorting the data is easy
This is where things begin to get really interesting. Using our example, the microcomputer can be asked:
Total number of runs for any unit Total number of incidents by type Total service minutes for fire incidents
Total service minutes for designated units
Average response time to fire incidents
Average response time for designated units
Average response time for designated census tracts
Answers to each of these questions can be calculated in seconds and displayed on the microcomputer’s monitor. These questions are possible from the six fields we set up for the report. Imagine the questions and manipulations that would be possible if we set up a report form with 60 fields.
While data can be manipulated to provide some interesting information, it’s the reporting feature that combines information and puts it into hard copy. DB Master will allow the user to design written reports and store report formats on disks. Here are some examples:
Every department keeps some kind of operations report with a listing of incidents in run-number order and also with headings across the page for type of incident, unit assigned, response time, location by census tract and total minutes of the incident. But when that report is kept only on paper, it cannot be sorted easily for other information, such as operations reports for individual companies—unless each company kept its own laborious handwritten run reports. Even then, you cannot easily sort for census tract information.
With data base software, remember that you can design any report you want, as long as the information is part of the record you set up at the beginning.
An individual company utilization report could have headings for unit number, number of each type of incident and total minutes by type. A company response time report could automatically list the average response time for each unit. A summary could be requested weekly, monthly or at the end of a year—and be available in seconds.
Another summary report could show activity in any census tract, with totals for the types of emergencies, average response times and total service times for the tract. If a trend of too many wood stove fires was developing in a particular area, you could catch it quickly with this kind of report.
All of this information could be compiled from the 20 characters of data entered into the computer for each incident record.
In addition to the reports described above, the user would be allowed to design approximately 20 additional reporting formats that would be stored on disk.
This is where printing time can become critical. Long reports generated on a dot matrix printer at 120 characters per second are completed quickly. Similar reports printed on a low-cost typewriter-quality printer may require an increase in the overtime budget.
Even more information
Fire incident analysis using only a form containing six fields and 20 bytes can be a bit limiting. Most fire service managers are likely to need additional information. A practical form design might contain 25 fields and approximately 200 bytes of information. All but essential items of information should be eliminated, and coding should be used whenever possible in order to save time and disk space. It is much better to let one coded character (R) represent a cooking fire than to spell it out each time.
Fire incident analysis is only one of several files that can be created with DB Master. Separate files can be developed for EMS operational analysis, personnel records, training records, fire department inventories, vehicle maintenance or any type of record system that requires periodic reporting. Since one $200 copy of DB Master will produce an unlimited number of files, the system becomes extremely cost effective.
DB Master has some additional features that may prove valuable. One feature is that DB Master files are password protected. Each file is protected with three levels of password. Level 1 passwords only allow the user the ability to read the files. Nothing can be altered with a level 1 password. Level 2 passwords allow the user to read and enter information. Level 3 passwords, the highest level, allow the user to read, write and change passwords.
DB Master’s ability to compute statistical averages is uncommon, as is its ability to provide standard deviations and computed fields. Data compaction allows numeric fields to be stored in less than one byte per character. This reduces the amount of memory occupied by each record. DB Master will even provide hard copy printouts of records as soon as they are entered.
While versatile and inexpensive, the microcomputer system described in this article may not be the best system for your fire department. To evaluate your particular needs, do a little homework.
- Determine how your fire department will use a microcomputer.
- Determine the quantity of information to be stored in your largest file.
- Research available data base software with the features you will need.
- Then select a microcomputer that will operate the software you have chosen.
Spend some time in your local computer store, eavesdrop on conversations and don’t be afraid to embarrass yourself by asking “dumb” questions. Computer store owners get them daily, and are glad to answer them.
Specific information on microcomputer applications in the fire service is available through a monthly newsletter called ON-LINE Resource Bulletin. Sample copies are available by sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope to ON-LINE Resource Bulletin, P.O. Box 140, Emmitsburg, Md. 21727.