Monday, September 15, 2014

Somewhat alarming

Any police officer or firefighter knows that we go on a lot of burglar alarms and fire alarms, but that relatively few of those turn out to be actual burglaries or actual fires. Around the country in recent years, cities have worked to reduce the number of false alarms they respond to, and particularly what I call chronic false alarms: places that have many repeats, usually due to faulty equipment or faulty training. I've blogged about these efforts on many occasions in the past.

One of the reasons we have been interested in reducing unnecessary false alarms is to conserve resources, but another important reason (even more so, to me) is safety. Responding to alarms is dangerous. Driving Code 3 (lights and siren) exposes both the responders and the motoring public to heightened risk. A few times every week, I walk by the photos of three Lincoln police officers and at least two firefighters who were killed in traffic crashes during emergency driving. Nationwide, the risk of traffic fatalities is among the biggest threats to police officers and firefighters.

It isn't just the police officers and firefighters who are at heightened risk, either. There has been a lot of concern around the country in recent years about fatal traffic crashes in which emergency vehicles have collided with motorists. I can recall two fatal accidents of this type in Lincoln during my career, although there may we one or more that I'm not recollecting.

Last Wednesday, at Lincoln Fire & Rescue's weekly management staff meeting, our chief officers were discussing this. While this was underway, I used our GIS analytic software, FireView Dashboard, to run a query in our incident data for all calls that were originally dispatched as fire alarms, and the subset that actually turned out to be fires. In the preceding 365 days, we had responded to 1,327 fire alarms. Of those, 16 turned out to be actual fires. Of the actual fires, half were "cooking fires confined to container." Only one of the 16 fires caused any property loss whatsoever, $1,500 damage at a sorority house, when smoke activated a sprinkler head.

On the one hand, any one of those calls originally dispatched as a fire alarm could turn out to be the Real McCoy. On the other hand, we sent a lot of engines and trucks on Code 3 runs knowing that the chances were small:1.2% to be precise. It's a matter of weighing the risk. Is the risk we are trying to mitigate (an incident that has people or property in peril) greater than the risk we are creating by a fire engine and ladder truck running with lights and sirens to the other 98.8%?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Watch and learn

I had a speaking engagement yesterday morning with a business association. One of the topics that came up was the proliferation of panhandlers in Lincoln. The attendees told me stories about annoying and aggressive panhandlers. Some of what they described was completely legal, some illegal.

Illegal panhandling is a difficult offense to prove without a direct witness, and the simple fact of the matter is that arresting offenders for "aggressive panhandling" or other similar violations usually just does not solve the problem. The small fine, coupled with credit for time served, means that in many cases the illegal panhandler is right back out doing the same thing tomorrow.

I have blogged about it for years, spoken about it to the media many times, mentioned it several times on my radio interviews, and talked about it to numerous civic groups and individuals over the years. The message seems not to be sinking in.

The only solution is to convince citizens--whose instincts are entirely pure--not to give money to panhandlers, ever. Give your money to Centerpointe, Friendship Home, St. Monica's, the People's City Mission, Gathering Place, Matt Talbot Kitchen, the Center for People in Need, the Barnabas Project--whatever. But do not give it to a panhandler with a cardboard sign. Ever. 

I urge you to Google the words "panhandler" and "scam". Click the "videos" link. Watch numerous news stories from around the country, and learn that things are not always what they seem. Do not give money to panhandlers. You are enabling, not helping, and often simply being scammed.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Judgement proof

You can't squeeze blood from a turnip. It's an old idiom, which means no matter how hard you try, you cannot realize potential where none exists in the first place. The most common use revolves around money: if someone has none, your efforts to collect on a debt are fruitless.

Last week, the victim of a theft contacted me. The catalytic converter on her son's vehicle had been cut off by thieves in the high school parking lot, in broad daylight. On the same day, several other catalytic converter thefts occurred. Officers alerted the local scrap dealers, and Thursday morning two defendants attempting to sell the stolen converters, were apprehended. They were lodged in jail for felony theft, where they currently repose.

The victim wanted to know if there was any way for her to follow the progress of the case online, because she intended to file a civil suit against the thieves at the conclusion. I provided her with the URL to the County Attorney's criminal case search site, where she will be able to track the upcoming judicial steps through to the final disposition. I also dispensed some advice, telling her that there was a very remote chance she would ever see a dime from these two criminals, both of whom have served two prior prison terms for felony convictions, and have extensive criminal records. Don't get your hopes up.

Here is why it is so unlikely. People who are out cutting catalytic converters off cars on weekday mornings are unlikely to be employed, to own homes, to have savings accounts or investments. Even if you sue and win a judgement--which will cost you money--you will then face the challenge of executing the judgement, which will cost even more money.

When I was Sheriff, and responsible for writs of execution, I occasionally had to break the bad news to a plaintiff that there was simply nothing worth levying against. Bank accounts that can be seized are great. Wages that can be garnished are good, although there several exemptions and also a limit on the amount you can garnish (15% of weekly wages for a head of houshold, 25% otherwise). Personal property, however, is a decidedly mixed bag.

Let's say your defendant owns a nice four year old Ford F150. It's value in the Kelly Blue Book is $11,300. The chances are good that there is a loan against it, and sometimes the loan balance is greater than the value. Even if its not, the loan eats into the equity, and the lender gets first crack at the proceeds. To levy against it, you'll have to pay the sheriff's fees in advance, which includes the statutory fees for serving the process, the cost of the tow and storage for at least 30 days, the cost of advertising for four weeks (required by law) and the cost of the appraisal. These fees will easily add up to a few hundred dollars. You might not break even.

How about the defendant's Naugahyde livingroom set, collection of classic vinyl LPs, fancy hookah, 50-inch LCD TV, $100 acid-washed jeans, and that Coach purse she carries? You'd be surprised how little such stuff is actually worth at a sheriff's sale, Beyond that, the law provides for several exemptions from levy. These include the debtor's immediate personal possessions, his or her wearing apparel, and $1,500 worth of household effects. It also includes "tools of the trade" needed for his or her occupation up to a value of $2,400, which can include one motor vehicle. Finally, there is another $2,500 exemption for personal property of the defendant's choice.

By the time you make it through these exemptions, and pay the sheriff in advance for the cost of moving, storing, appraising, and selling whatever remains, the chances are high that you will be upside down, and victimized yet again. Someone who is completely insolvent, or who has such a small net worth that they are a turnip from which you cannot squeeze blood is known as "judgement proof." I'm afraid that this would describe the vast, vast majority of catalytic converter thieves.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Added Manhattan

A relaxing holiday weekend was a nice respite after a somewhat hectic week of local politics revolving around the proposal to place a public safety bond issue on the ballot for Lincoln voters sometime in the not-too-distant future. The good news is that despite the dust-up, a consensus seems to have emerged that the proposal to replace our radio system and to spread out our fire & rescue services is sound.

I was taken to task on my blog and in the comments on some of the news stories for a number of things: not moving more assertively to make the case for more police and more firefighters; being too assertive in doing so. I'm used to catching it from both directions, but one commenter made a good point that I should clarify, noting that the radio system serves not only public safety users, but several other City agencies: the Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Building and Safety and Health Departments.

This is quite true, although in some circumstances (like Saturday), the Public Works, Building and Safety, and Health Departments really are part of the public safety team. Nonetheless, you wouldn't ordinarily think of these operations as public safety. They are on the same radio system as a matter of practicality. It made no financial sense for several city agencies to operate and maintain separate radio systems, so back in 1987 we planned a single system to serve all the City agencies' radio needs. While it is a multi-user, I still think it's fair to characterize the system as a public safety radio network, since 85% of the actual use is by the public safety agencies.

Thursday, searching for a way of describing the City's growth since we last added a fire station in 1997, I decided to use a nearby 'burg that many Lincoln residents are familiar with from our days in the Big 8: Manhattan, Kansas. We've grown by 22 square miles and 57,000 people since 1997, and that's about the size of Manhattan. The City of Manhattan, of course, has a fire department--with five fire stations. It does not, however, have a police department. Rather, it is served by the Riley County Police Department, a countywide agency unique in our part of the United States, although common in some parts of the east and northwest.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Found on ebay

At Monday's city council meeting, I was explaining some of the vulnerabilities of our aging radio system, which was born in 1987. We have a number of components that are no longer manufactured, are now obsolete, but are still important to our system. They have names like IEA, GETC and IMC, but the one I choose as my example for the city council was the site manager, a computer.

Public safety radio systems have used computers to control major functions for decades now, and the site manager is one of several our system uses. The site manager controls various functions, chief among which is access: it decides which radios are able to operate on the system, and excludes those that are not authorized.

Our site manager is a DEC MicroVAX 3100-90. This model was released in 1993, the same year Sleepless in Seattle was released. It was installed in 1997, replacing an earlier VAX model. The manufacturer, DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) folded when it was acquired by Compaq in 1998, which also went away, acquired by Hewlett Packard in 2002.

The MicroVAX 3100-90 has a 72 MHz processor. My iPhone has a 1.3 GHz processor. Thus the processor in my phone is 18 times faster than the site manager. The MicroVAX has 128 MB of memory, compared to 1 GB for my phone. If the site manager were to fail, we would be scrambling to find a replacement. Could we quickly find a hardware platform upon which we could install the operating system and application software to take over the function?

During my testimony Monday, I told the council members that while they had been debating other issues on the agenda, I found a DEC MicroVAX 3100 for sale on eBay for $74.95. I wasn't joking. It was in the vintage computer section. My point was emphasize that we have stretched some of our public safety radio infrastructure a long, long way.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Picture this

Sometimes a picture makes a point more succinctly than several paragraphs of text, or several minutes of speech. Last night the City Council was discussing a proposed bond issue to replace our public safety radio system and to spread our existing  fire & rescue resources out to four new stations in better locations. I was trying to inform the city council of the benefit or relocating the fire & rescue resources. Essentially, the bigger footprint reduces the number of address outside our reach in four minutes by 66%.

Pink polygons are the current four minute travel time coverage, and the new coverage area after we move to the four new locations. Dark gray background is the current city limits. Yellow dots are the 9,783 addresses inside the city, but more than four minutes from a station. This is a nice use for an animated .gif, even though the argument failed to carry the day.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Not like a carton of cottage cheese

Why do we need to update the radio system? What will happen if we don't? These are valid questions. It's a pretty big expense, after all--probably more than an elementary school, but less than a middle school. Experience with prior radio systems, beginning in 1933 (see page 9) suggests that the life span is around 25 years, and the core of the current system dates to the late 1980's.

It is not like a carton of cottage cheese, however--it doesn't have an expiration date, and you probably won't open the lid tomorrow and be tipped off by a bad odor. The current system (EDACS) is no longer sold or manufactured, and support is ending soon. It might keep working just fine for quite some time, but with every passing week, we are increasingly susceptible to failures, and it will become more and more difficult to recover from those quickly.

Think of it as a 1989 Honda Accord. It's 25 years old, it has 272,313 miles on the odometer. It has had regular maintenance such as oil changes, tune ups, and filters. It has been in the shop twice for body work following fender-benders. It had a leaky head gasket replaced on warranty in 1992, a valve job sometime during the Clinton administration. It's had a new exhaust system, alternator, struts and shocks, ball joints, two timing belts, and few batteries as and several sets of tires over the past couple of decades. Thanks to regular wax jobs, a garage, and some seat covers from JC Whitney, it doesn't look bad at all. I't has been a reliable and economical car, and it still gets you to work every day.

The old Honda is a perfectly good grocery getter, but would you really want to take it on a drive to California in order to deliver a kidney in the cooler? Might get there just fine, but a cylinder head, camshaft, piston, or transmission failure lurks at every turn, and you won't be able to stop at the local Jiffy Lube to get that replaced.

From the time we get the green light to move a radio project forward, we could be a couple years from flipping the switch. It will take a few months to develop the specifications and draft the request for proposals, a few months to solicit and evaluate responses from vendors, a couple of months to develop and get approval for a contract, several months to design and engineer the system, a few months to install the infrastructure, a couple months to train personnel and execute the transition. If we got cracking now, we might have this all accomplished by 2017...or so.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Radio communications critical

The single most important piece of equipment a police officer carries is his or her radio. It connects the officer to fellow officers, to the dispatch center, and ultimately to the citizens. Radio communications is also critical in fire & rescue work. This is how firefighters and paramedics communicate with one another, with commanders, with hospitals, and with dispatchers. The radio is almost exclusively the path by which 911 calls are dispatched to personnel in the field. Without radio communications, policing, fire fighting, and emergency medical services would revert to the late 1800s, when the call box was state of the art.

Because a public safety radio system is so important, I view it as a critical piece of municipal infrastructure, without which life in cities would be considerably different and more difficult. We generally understand that a water distribution system, sanitary sewers, electrical utilities, and roadways are vital infrastructure. Add to that list the public safety communications system.

There are around 3,000 radios on our system, dominated by the Lincoln Police Department and Lincoln Fire & Rescue, but including several other public safety agencies, such as the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office, University of Nebraska Police Department, Airport Authority Police, Lancaster County Emergency Management, Air National Guard Fire & Rescue, Nebraska State Patrol, and Lancaster County Corrections Department. Other users include the Lincoln Public Works Department, Health Department, Parks and Recreation Department, our local hospitals, and Lincoln Public Schools. About 85% of the actual usage comes from the public safety agencies, and LPD alone accounts for over half of the system usage. Millions of times every year, our police officers and firefighters are mashing the push-to-talk button on a microphone or handheld.

Our radio system, much of which dates to the late 1980s, has reached the end of its life. The technology has moved on, and EDACS trunked radio systems are no longer manufactured or sold. Vendor support for many components has ended. While some bits and pieces are still serviceable, many of the core components are on borrowed time. It has been an excellent system, and has served us very well. It still does, for the moment, but with each passing day, we grow more susceptible to failures from which recovery will be more and more difficult. The time has come to modernize.

Like any major infrastructure project, this one will require a considerable expenditure--somewhere near $20 million. That's more than an elementary school, but less than a middle school. We will need to do this about four times every century. This will be the second during my career, as I was involved when our 4-channel General Electric UHF radio system was replaced by EDACS. Now, I hope to be involved in the next transition to a P25 trunked public safety radio system. It is my highest priority for public safety in Lincoln. Mayor Beutler has asked our city council to consider a resolution to place a bond issue on the ballot this November, so the citizens of Lincoln can decide whether this is a project they can support.

It is important to realize that a radio system is much more than the radios, just as a cellular telephone network is much more than your cellphone. The guts of the network are things you never see and barely know about, but without which your phone or radio is merely an expensive brick: towers and equipment buildings, microwave links, site controllers, transmitters, fiber optic connections, cabling, antennae, the computer hardware and software that manages system, uninterrupted power supplies and back up generators, and much more. We hope to reuse as much of the equipment and facilities as is practicable, in order to keep cost down.

In this day and age, we take for granted that we can grab our cellphone, call 911, and engage an emergency response from law enforcement, fire, or EMS quickly and reliably. Fulfilling this expectation requires investing in the infrastructure that makes this possible.