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First responders rely on improved Wi-Fi to fight fires and save lives

First responders implement improved Wi-Fi to enhance how they share critical information in times of medical emergencies and natural disasters.

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An old-school technology guy, Eric Prosser, IT officer of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, realized early in his career that innovation happens when people talk, more so than when they develop new devices and applications. He is mindful of that lifelong mantra as the fire department begins implementing a new report management system and considers an improved Wi-Fi designed to enhance critical network communications technology and information sharing among all the emergency responders in the region.

Beyond improving communications technology and making vendors and developers talk to one another, Prosser spends his time pushing the capabilities of bandwidth and trying to move copious amounts of data over networks to aid first responders who fight wildfires in California. All of this, according to Prosser, can be done via improved Wi-Fi when it is properly implemented. And when he isn't busy with that, he's rocking out to his favorite playlist to blow off steam. We caught up with Prosser to learn more about the fire department's initiatives.

Editor's note: This interview was edited for clarity and length.

What's on your plate at the moment in terms of technology projects?

Eric Prosser, IT officer, Santa Clara County Fire DepartmentEric Prosser

Eric Prosser: We're looking at a report management system [RMS] that's probably going to be the biggest player over the next year and a half. We must adhere to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, which populates incidents as they come through our 911 centers. All of our firefighters on a firetruck can populate these records via technology on hand without having to wait for a computer located at a desk. Whether an incident is a medical emergency or an actual fire, we capture this information for accountability purposes for the customers we serve, [the public], and for accreditation purposes as a department.

A report management system hosts all of this data and can also pass this data onto other partnering systems. One of the major benefits we have is passing emergency medical services [EMS] information. As we triage an incident, we collect information on a patient via an electronic patient care record [ePCR]. The patient may need to be transferred to an ambulance, and the information we've collected follows them, either in the cloud or through the report management system. Once the patient arrives at the hospital, the ePCR information continues to follow them. All of this is important, as every single person involved in helping that patient is always up-to-speed on what was done, what took place and what care, drugs, etc., were provided. All of this data is vital as we operate in a world that needs data in near real time.

Why is capturing the EMS information important?

Prosser: About 80% of our calls are EMS-related. We can, through the report management system, capture the ePCR via an application. It's designed to be speedy; it uploads into the cloud and then syncs with the ambulance company and the receiving hospital. All the information is at the hospital before the patient arrives.

While this seems simple, there is a lot of coordination that must occur with vendors and products that feed the RMS. For example, 12-lead monitors that are hooked up to a patient record provide the status of the patient's heart. This information is retrieved automatically from our record system and passed along with the patient. Being a doctor at the hospital and having that first initial read of what was happening on scene gives them a better capability to diagnose and treat. Information is hypercritical in today's world when we talk about saving lives, and seconds mean all the difference.

Greater bandwidth is the bigger push right now. People talk about big data, but unfortunately it's another buzzword, like the cloud.

What's your biggest challenge?

Prosser: The big thing is we want everything to talk. We're one of a few accredited organizations. We're proud of that, but it's a lot of work to be accredited. What comes with that is tracking. Tracking is key. It's my job to make sure everything talks and to make sure our vendors talk.

My biggest challenge is coordinating people and vendors. If you asked anyone in the IT industry, I bet that's where it's at. Most people are focused on their jobs, on their narrow slice. That's when you have to get them in the room, make them realize they all have to work together to solve the problem at hand.

As we look at this RMS, we have to coordinate all our 911 folks and our vendors, and then we have to get the right people in the room.

Is that what you saw yourself doing in IT, organizing people?

Prosser: I graduated from Chico State [in California]; I was in the second class of graduating MIS programmers. It's kind of like you were a consultant, but you're in IT. Everything I learned in my classes was managing information, but yet you're managing customers. It created a real-world sample for me. This is when PCs were just starting to take off. We went to local vendors and solved some of their problems. We were working in teams and everyone was online. I was dealing with people in different time zones. That's where my whole career has been.

Is networking your passion?

Prosser: Technology in general is my passion. I eat this stuff up. What's amazing is I can carry on a conversation with you, and our conversation is going over data lines. It travels, and we actually do this in near real time. I call it 3D digital voice. Sometimes it sounds so clear; it's super weird. I can do that with someone on the other side of the world near instantaneously, and that's insane. And networking makes that happen.

If you rewind to the early '90s, I was in the Windows world. I wasn't necessarily designing the network; it was more managing the tools on the network. When I worked for [University of California, Davis], we knew when the breaks were happening, and all the students were out of class. All of a sudden, our firewall hits went way up because the students were all trying to hack into the system. Apparently they had nothing better to do when they got out of class.

What's going to be a priority in the next few years?

Prosser: Greater bandwidth is the bigger push right now. People talk about big data, but unfortunately it's another buzzword, like the cloud. It can be a lot of different things depending on who you talk to. In my industry, we're pushing a lot of graphics because we do a lot of maps. And the maps have layers -- where fire hydrants are, the floors of buildings, etc. We're dealing with a lot of wildfires in the state of California, too. When our people are deployed, they're using tablets with a GPS that can plot where they are. We can have an outline of where the fire is, where the fire chief is and where his people are. In the past it was radios, a base camp, and people relaying locations. Now our people can draw the fire line and upload it directly to media.

So there's a lot of data. The other side is going to be improved Wi-Fi: Can I do something wirelessly, and how secure is it? Bandwidth speeds on Wi-Fi -- dipping into it in the beginning is expensive. We're doing it in our field. I'm on a team called Firescope; we set policies and standards for firefighters. We're looking at wireless connectivity now. But you have to get the right people in the room and test it.

On a lighter, more personal note, what music is on your playlist?

Prosser: It's a band called MercyMe, and it's a song called 'Happy Dance.' It's me to a T. There's a movie coming out based on the lead guy. The song is very catchy and kind of my personality. I goof off a lot. You gotta have a good time.

Next Steps

Transmitting voice vs. data

Understanding bandwidth

Wi-Fi helps track devices

This was last published in September 2017

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