by John Baker
Ever wonder why that siren disturbed your television watching, or where that fire truck that just passed was heading?
Now residents of Redwood City, and San Mateo County as a whole, can find out with the click of a mouse.
A revolutionary website, originally designed for fire professionals but with plenty to offer for the public, is opening a new view into public safety on the Peninsula. The website, www.firedispatch.com, has been hailed as a fine public relations tool for local fire departments, and it does it without any public funding.
Public visitors to FireDispatch.com are shown a list of active fire incidents in San Mateo County, along with which units have responded, and have the option of listening to fire department radio broadcasts through their computer.
"I think it gives the people out there some real insight as to what our job is about, because I don't think people really understand it," said Redwood City Fire Department Battalion Chief Jim Varner. "All you hear about is the big fire every couple months or something, and it's just day in and day out."
What's more important, fire officials say, is that the website helps firefighters do their jobs more efficiently. Official users can check statistics, get maps and test their computer systems through the site.
"It is a very valuable tool," said Redwood City Fire Marshall Louis Vella. "It's a tool where if you want to check on something there and then, you don't have to go through somebody else to get that information."
Daryl Jones, a former police officer who lives in the Emerald Hills area above Redwood City, is the president of FireDispatch.com. Jones runs a business providing technical communications services for public safety agencies, and got the idea to start FireDispatch.com based on ideas from local fire chiefs using equipment and information he has set up as part of his "day job."
The website has been online since early 2000 and has generated more than 10 million page views since last March, according to website statistics. Radio signals and computer dispatching commands are encoded directly at 911 dispatch centers in South San Francisco and at the Hall of Justice in downtown Redwood City, then transmitted to FireDispatch.com's office in San Carlos.
Besides the public portion of the site, authorized fire department personnel can send alpha-numeric pages to other fire personnel, administer dispatching computers remotely, get a more-detailed fire unit status than what the public can see, sign up for overtime and many other functions.
"(What the public can see) is just the tip of the iceberg," Jones said. "It was really never intended as a business. It started out as something really for the fire departments to meet an operational need."
The system was set up in response to San Mateo County's fire-paramedic program, which also required greater inter-agency cooperation.
"One of the things (fire departments) had to do was agree to drop boundaries," Jones said. "Just because, say, you're in Millbrae, doesn't mean you're going to get a Millbrae engine. You're going to get whatever engine makes sense."
With FireDispatch.com, fire department units assigned to calls in other jurisdictions can get detailed maps and statistics for areas they do not usually protect and can even, through handheld Internet devices, open and close the doors of fire stations they have been moved up to cover.
"It just fills so many needs," Varner said. "We do some quick down and dirty records analysis that typically could easily take us a day or two with our (information technology) department. There's on-the-fly reports we can do in just a couple minutes - you're able to query the whole database of all the calls from anywhere.
"If I want to know how many structure fires we've had since the first of the year, I can find that out in 20 seconds."
The service also works with handheld personal data assistants such as the Palm Pilot and WAP-enabled cellular telephones. Listening to radio broadcasts on home computers requires the free Windows Media Player, compatible with both Macintosh and Microsoft-based computer systems.
The exact address of medical calls is not provided on the website, but most other information about a fire department's activity is available online.
"There's nothing really confidential about the information from (a fire department's) perspective," Jones said. "If a citizen walks into the front counter of the fire department and asks for the information, they're obligated by law to provide it."
Besides San Mateo County, FireDispatch.com also can display information from Santa Cruz County and the San Ramon Valley. Jones said FireDispatch.com will soon have two small out-of-state departments online, and he is working to sign up some big-city departments as well.
Although a business, Jones said FireDispatch.com is not in it for the money. The website does have small banner ads, but does not charge vendors for them, instead trading space for mentions on other websites.
"Even though we've never made a dime, we reserve the right to," Jones said. "On the other hand, if we never make any money, that's probably all right too. Our primary goal is to make this a pro-fire site."
That goal is apparently being met.
"I think it's a pretty powerful use of the new technology and I think it's going to do good things for us in the future," Varner said.
Reprinted with permission.
Redwood City Almanac