As a fire chief, “record-setting” years are not something I look forward to. But as of June last year, fire conditions in California were already the “worst on record.” By year’s end, the 2015 wildfire season was the costliest in U.S. history since 1960, with over $1.7 billion spent to fight the blazes. In September, my department was deployed to fight the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties that ate 70,000 acres.
In California, man-made or natural disasters can happen anywhere at any time. Access to information is a matter of life and death. More now than ever, first responders need to be able to communicate with the public in real-time or we all risk being dangerously out of touch.
When the Butte fire struck, traditional landline phones couldn’t be used widely to notify residents because of how quickly the fire spread. As the fire destroyed more than 500 homes, any fleeing resident dependent on an “analog” landline was immediately out of touch.
Think about it. If a disaster were to strike, how would you reach out to friends and family? Would you call their home phone number? Or would you call their mobile phone or message them? Would you walk over to their house or would you check their status on Facebook?
Internet-based technology is becoming the standard as California’s public safety communications infrastructure switches from analog to digital, allowing police, firefighters and the public to send and receive messages, videos and data. Internet protocol networks allow for interagency communication that currently does not exist. In the event of a major catastrophe or even terrorist attack, public safety agencies need to be able to communicate with each other.
In too many places, and especially rural areas, the public safety technology in use today was rolled out in the 1960s, during the heyday of the 8-track tape. Finally, next generation 911 systems are being deployed to handle digital traffic. Advanced networks will let public safety officials route calls faster, handle spikes in volume, and improve reliability during emergencies.
In the near future we’ll see advances like firefighters downloading floor plans for burning buildings to handheld devices or defibrillators automatically calling 911. Calaveras County, which was hit hard by the Butte fire, will soon be bringing an emergency notification system online that lets residents select their preferred means of communication, including text messages and social media. This future only works when everyone is connected.
As the public safety community makes the change, we have to make sure consumers aren’t left behind. Assembly Bill 2395 by Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley) will ensure that. Over time, those who still rely on the outdated technology will become more and more disconnected. It’s fine for vinyl records, Betamaxes or DVDs to become obsolete. But for core communications services it’s completely unacceptable. A planned and orderly consumer transition can also serve as a badly-needed impetus for public safety agencies to do the work they need to do to align funding cycles, identify system requirements and make next-generation 911 a reality across California.
David Roberts is the Fire Chief in El Dorado, California.