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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Let the voters decide

Mayor Beutler has decided to ask the City Council to place a $29.5 million dollar bond issue before the voters this fall, to fund replacement/modernization of our public safety 911 radio system, and the first phase of the fire station optimization plan.

I've described the fire station plan, and the joint police /fire station in previous posts, and next week, I will explain the radio system issue we need to deal with.

The dollar amount of this proposed bond issue is nothing to snarf at, but to put this in perspective, it falls somewhere between the cost of an elementary school and a middle school, and Lincoln has one of each in the pipeline.

A public safety bond issue will let the voters decide whether they believe these projects are a worthwhile investment for Lincoln's future.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Week gone by

Hectic stuff has kept me from my blog for several days, but here's a few things I'm thinking about this week. I'll just consider this four posts in one.

Once again, a residential fire that displaces many, puts the residents and firefighters at risk, and results in major property damage proves to be the result of careless smoking. This is getting old, and I haven't even noted all of these cases on my blog. I continue to believe that one of the significant factors in the declining rate of residential fires per capita in the United States is the smoking rates, which demonstrate a very similar trend.

I'm teaching police recruits this week in the academy, my standard course on information resources. This is a class of six; three men and three women. They have interesting and diverse backgrounds and experiences. My time with new firefighters, dispatchers, and police officers is always enjoyable to me. I had to take a phone call during class, about the upcoming appearance in our little town of Skrillex. The recruits were all about to bust a gut listening to my end of the conversation, as I attempted to pronounce the name. After the call ended I informed them that I am even worse at country western artists that I am at electronica/dubstep (whatever that means.)

This week's tragic fatal crash involving a motorcycle is the fourth this year. It is so sad to have a young person taken from this earth as life is just unfolding. What more can we do to reduce such collisions, arising when a vehicle executes a left turn in front of an oncoming motorcycle? A motorcycle involved in a right angle collision always loses, as did I at 24th & Holdrege on my police Harley Davidson 39 years ago, luckily with injuries that were not life-threatening.

The angst of Lincoln's Yazidis was evident on this week. Just a couple of days after the 9/11, a contingent of leaders in Lincoln's small Yazidi community came to see me, to explain that although they were from Iraq, they were not terrorists. It was quite moving, as they explained some of the history of repression their culture and religion has endured. I did some research and reading afterwards, and had a better understanding of their anxiety about whether they could be caught up in a backlash of anger arising from acts they had no responsibility for whatsoever.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Worth a read

There is a great four-chapter series this week in USA Today's online edition about the impact of mental health cases on police departments and the criminal justice system. This has been a recurring topic on my blog over the years. Highly recommended reading to get a national perspective on a tragic problem.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Good bang for the buck

Shortly before our budget hearing with the city council last Friday, the Mayor was briefed by the Finance Department about their discovery of a $275, 000 swing in the City's available annual revenue (it's actually $48,000 in the first year, and $275,000 thereafter). The Mayor's Chief of Staff contacted me, and said the Mayor wanted to use this for public safety. The Mayor wanted my advice on what the best application of these funds would be.

I suggested that we use this to get cracking on the fire station optimization plan, and specifically on jump-starting one of the four stations: a joint police/fire facility in southeast Lincoln. I think this kills two birds with one stone. It provides a fire and EMS footprint into the rapidly-growing area where we are well-beyond four minutes drive time from the closest fire station. It also provides a police facility for officers who are assigned to the southern tier of the city and currently deploy at shift change from downtown police headquarters.

A couple of years ago, I described the fire station optimization plan in detail in a three part series. I followed that series up with a description of my vision for a joint facility. Given Lincoln's geographic growth, a police station in southeast Lincoln is inevitable, and I think we now have an opportunity to set the wheels in motion. This would be a good thing, and would provide a good bang for the buck.

Our experience with the Northeast Team police station at 49th and Huntington Ave. has demonstrated some of the benefits that arise from decentralizing deployment. Less time is spent commuting to and from downtown, saving both personnel hours and fuel. One of the potential locations for the proposed joint facility is 2.6 miles closer to the center point of the Southeast Team area than headquarters, from which officers presently deploy. That's 5.2 miles and 12 minutes per officer daily, minimum. In reality, there are additional trips to and from downtown that will also be avoided, such as supply runs, evidence, and interview room access.

Moreover, the City's comprehensive plan shows significant growth south and east, which will enlarge the area considerably, and push the center-of-mass for the Southeast Team even further away from downtown. Based on that future growth area, we would eventually be saving 9.6 miles and 21:20 per officer each day.

When you do the math, here's what such a move would deliver every year, just on the police side: a savings of 1,825 officer-hours, and 62,050 miles. With our current fleet average of 13.5 MPG, that amounts 4,596 of unleaded. Looking at the future service area from the comprehensive plan, this grows to 3,244 officer-hours, 87,600 miles, and 6,489 gallons of fuel annually.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Still holds true after 112 years

Long-time readers of my blog have heard me whine from time-to-time about the size of the Lincoln Police Department: smallest per capita in Nebraska, one of the very smallest in our region and nation, getting smaller with each passing year.  Looks like this is nothing new:

Capt. Joy Citta came across a great online archive of 19th and early 20th century newspapers at the Library of Congress website, and passed the link onto me. The May 24, 1902 edition of The Courier has a nice front-page story about the Lincoln Police Department. You can access the full story here.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Different views, but same goal

There is a bit of a kerfuffle in the press this week between labor and management at Lincoln Fire & Rescue. To be clear, I'm management, so you'll be getting the management perspective here. If you want the labor perspective, it's posted here on the union's website. The issue surrounds the use of an "alternate response vehicle" (ARV) to respond to medical emergencies. I've blogged about this before, and think it's an approach worth trying, and in my view trying this  response profile carries minimal risk. Without rebutting the particulars of the union's claim here, I'd like to explain my viewpoint.

Like many cities in the United States, our fire apparatus are aging, and we are having difficulty replacing these rigs. This is the result of two factors. First, they are incredibly expensive. An engine costs $350,000 at the low end, and a half million is rather common. A ladder truck is well north of $750,000. Second, municipal governments all over the U.S. are clawing their way out of the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression. The City of Lincoln has already lost 10% of its civilian workforce, and recently we got hit with the news that we have a growing shortfall in the police/fire pension fund which needs to be addressed by a huge annual infusion of cash. There are a lot of needs out there competing for the City's tax revenue, and not a whole lot of enthusiasm for tax increases among our citizens these days.

As a result, I believe we have to look for the most efficient ways of operating. I'd like to get our fleet of fire apparatus into better shape and get on a regular replacement program, similar to what we've done at the police department, and with our ambulances. This can't happen overnight, but that's the goal we are shooting for. We've got one new engine on order, we hope to order a second later this year if revenue holds up, and in 2016 we have lease payments ending on seven engines acquired in 2006. We'd like to re-channel those payments into more apparatus replacement. If all goes well, this will be a tremendous improvement.

As we work on this process, part of management's desire is to reduce some of the wear-and-tear on the big rigs. Last year, we extinguished 502 actual fires. There are 18 front line fire apparatus staffed around the clock. We responded to 16,720 medical emergencies, and we staff 6 front line medic units.  You can do your own math. Many of those fires are minor, but some present immense threat. You've got to be prepared to handle these critical incidents, despite the low frequency. But you also have to acknowledge the reality of what you actually do on a daily basis. Overall, about 80% of our workload is medical emergencies. I'd like to think that we could have used something smaller for a good share of those medical emergencies, and that doing so might reduce operating costs somewhat, and extend the life of the engines and ladder trucks.

This is nothing new. Departments across the country are doing this, some for a long time. I wouldn't say it's commonplace, but neither is it a novelty. I don't think firefighters like these smaller vehicles as much as engines and trucks, for the most part. I can understand why. I suppose many police officers would like to have the big block V-8s back, too, rather than a six-cylinder Impala or Taurus. Nonetheless, I think you've got to consider alternatives, and that doing so increases the confidence in citizens and elected officials that you are willing try things and open to other ways of doing business. This, in turn, makes them more likely to listen to you when you describe your needs.

Last year, our inspection of Truck 8 revealed that it's ladder was out of specifications. The thickness of the aluminum had worn below tolerances. We removed this assembly, loaded it on a semi, and shipped it to the manufacturer in Ocala, Florida for repair. The out-of-spec section was replaced, and composite wear pads were installed to prevent the same problem from reoccurring. The fix cost $60,000, and the shipping was $8,000. Chief of the Logistics Division Kendall Warnock tells me that the primary source of the wear was simple vibration: as the ladder truck was driven, the sections of the ladder moved against one another slightly, wearing away the metal over time: hence, the installation of wear pads as a preventative measure.

This example is one of the reasons those of us in management are interested in reducing the driving of the big apparatus to many medical emergencies. Trucks and engines are expensive to buy, and costly to maintain. We could buy and equip an ARV for less than the cost of that repair to Truck 8's ladder. That ARV ought to last somewhere in the seven to ten year range. My sense is that we might be able to make good use of a few such vehicles, but time will tell. 

We may disagree on the best path, but ultimately labor and management want the same thing: good personnel, good training, good equipment and facilities; adequate to safely perform the job at hand, and in the quantity that our citizens are willing to support with their tax dollars.