Put Mailing List For Fund Raising In Microcomputer
Microcomputers are relatively simple to use, but here’s a tip: When a fire department implements a computer application, it is important to have access to individuals who know about the fire service and also understand microcomputer systems.
Volunteer fire departments have an extra (and low-cost) advantage if one of their members either works with computers or has enough interest to become the department “expert.” After reading several books on microcomputers, getting familiar with terminology, talking to microcomputer owners and sales people, he will be able to do a credible job of separating the overly optimistic and expensive proposals from the practical and affordable ones.
A crawling start
The Long Ridge Fire Company in Stamford, Conn., is off to a crawling start as a microcomputer user. One of our members had a TRS-80 Model I system at home. Since he had owned the system for six months before joining the fire company, he was immediately appointed the computer expert to help the fire company make use of microcomputer technology.
In Stamford, fire protection is provided by a paid fire department in the downtown area and by five volunteer fire companies. Long Ridge is one, operating out of two firehouses. We serve about 2700 structures which are mostly residential.
The first thing we did was to make a list of the jobs we were doing which might lend themselves to computer application. All involved records systems. When computerized, they are called data bases and can be sorted in many ways to provide information not so easily available with handwritten paper records. The list included:
- Keeping track of our emergency calls and doing various analyses on that data.
- Printing mailing labels for our annual fund drive.
- An alarm system data base containing type of alarm, location and company address.
- A data base for our fire marshal’s records.
- A data base for handling our street list, showing intersecting streets and water location by type (hydrant, stream or pond).
- A data base to contain survey data provided by district residents on room locations for children, invalids or where hazardous materials are stored.
- A membership data base containing member status, training received, training due, etc.
Group participation required
The expert cannot work alone. Officers and members must participate in meetings throughout the changeover cycle. It is only by hearing from a large number of affected people and being responsive to their needs that a useful system will evolve.
Having started the list, we next arranged it in priority order. A good rule for first-time users is “keep it simple.” Therefore, the most important application may not be the very first one to be tackled.
We decided to do the mailing list first. Later we plan to return to the more complex jobs.
The right software
The first task was to find the software capable of directing our particular microcomputer to not only handle the mailing list, but also the other applications on our list. The decision was made after several weeks of checking, demonstrations and consideration. Don’t rush this important step.
Our expert selected a $100 data base software program from a mail-order house. The price was reasonable. Even if you have access to a capable programmer, it is generally not feasible to have your own software tailor-made. It takes an incredible number of hours.
You can save money with mail order, but you sacrifice “support,” which is the extra how-to advice a retail computer store stands ready to supply when you buy there. When we needed advice about a small problem, the mail-order personnel weren’t able to help, suggesting only that we call the author.
The author requested that we return the software for inspection. That’s reasonable. But it took six months of letters and long-distance calls before the software was returned and working as advertised. The problems turned out to be a combination of system bugs, or errors, and lack of expertise on our part.
It’s true that for most software you may never need author or dealer support of any kind. In such cases, the lower price of mail-order software is desirable. Your expert will just have to investigate enough to be aware of the differences so he can make an educated decision based on trading off these factors.
Data base terms
Setting up a data base mailing list involves terms like character, field, record and file. (See also Fire Engineering, July 1982, page 28.)
A character is any single letter or space or number. A single character can be a code for longer words or it can spell out a name.
A field is a group of characters, such as a name or a street or a zip code. All the characters in a field stay together when a computer sorts information.
A record is a collection of data made up of related fields, such as all the address data for a resident. Three fields of a record could report name, address (street and number) and city-state-zip combination.
A file is a collection of all related records, such as a mailing list or personnel data list. The Long Ridge mailing list file contains 2700 records.
The use of a data base is influenced by the user’s specifications of the application, the capability of the hardware and software, cost limitations and more.
For example, the computer available to Long Ridge had two disk drives for storing a total of 160,000 characters of data, less what the software uses for its instructions. This defines the limitations on the size of any file. If each name and address record on our mail list totaled 100 characters, it would take 270,000 characters of storage. Too much. But if each took only 50 characters, or 135,000 total, the File would be within the capability of the hardware.
Our software was limited to 20 fields per record. That’s plenty for a mailing list, but a complete personnel and training file may require more.
A fire department always has the option of buying more disk drives for storage or more versatile software, but they are more expensive. The main idea is to make use of the most computer power for the least number of dollars.
Long Ridge specified that it wanted to be able to sort its mail list by zip code, by last name and first initials, and by street and number. The three Fields— name, address and city-state-zip combination—mentioned earlier wouldn’t allow this, so six separate Fields had to be used: last name, initials, street, number, city-state, and zip code. If street name and house number were included in the same field, the computer could not sort both. All of the Oak Street houses would be together but not sorted in numerical order. That’s what the separate house number field does.
Each last name was limited to 20 characters. A few names are longer than this—and we will have to write them out in longhand rather than mail them something with an incomplete name—but if we allowed 25 characters for last name, an extra 13,500 characters would have been used for the file (5 extra characters each X 2700 mames). Even if most names are shorter, the software reserves the full 20 or 25 characters for each name in storage.
The point here is that some trade-offs must often be made. This is why it is so important for continuous conversation among all the people working on or responsible for a computer application. Everyone must understand the tradeoffs.
Before the list is entered into the computer, the accuracy of the data must be verified. This is not just a spelling check, but must identify people who have moved in or out since any master paper list was compiled. This takes hours but is necessary for valid data.
After keying in the names, all must be proofread for typing errors.
Because some of the information on the list came from personal surveys, we wanted to protect it as confidential. The software allows this by the use of a password. Only a few people have the password, and the mail list will not run without the password. It is not a good idea, however, for only one person to have the password. If he becomes unavailable for any reason, the computerized list is useless.
Be warned: All the data on a disk can be wiped out in a second if it is not cared for properly. Accidents do happen. And nothing is more frustrating. It is absolutely necessary, then, for copies to be made of all data base disks and stored in a safe place.
We finally printed a set of mailing labels and used them on our fund drive. Throughout the year, the file must be updated as people continue to move, but next year the mail list will almost be as simple as pushing a button.
We are planning the addition of data to the data base so dispatchers can instantly get extra information about any address—without taking time to go through some paper-filled filing cabinet—for relay to the emergency scene. We will not have to start over as if the dispatching project represented a separate project. Instead, we just take the same data file, add only what is needed and take it from there.