Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dark and stormy night

Overnight yesterday, Lincoln had two severe thunderstorms that passed through the City, the first about 2030 hours, the second about 0130 hours. Between 3 and 4 inches of rain fell in a relatively short period of time. Good thing we've got the open channel of the Antelope Valley project, rather than the old box culvert that ran from just south of N Street to just north of Vine. Judging from the debris line I noticed during the pre-dawn bike ride, there is no doubt in my mind that O Street would have been underwater, and a good amount of urban flood damage would have occurred.

The dark and stormy conditions made for a busy night for police and fire, with downed limbs, alarm trips, and lightning strikes that kept the City hopping. Props to the cops, firefighters, and 911 employees who weathered the storm.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

W2 not quite that large

The June 20th edition of the Lincoln Journal Star contained a letter to the editor from Michael James urging Mayor Buetler and I to work towards reducing the compensation of firefighters. I welcome advice and input, but I would like to clarify some information in his letter. Mr. Smith stated that the average firefighter's compensation was over $77,000, and that for the Emergency Services Division the average was over$100,000.

That sounded implausible to me, particularly since the entire budget of Lincoln Fire and Rescue this year is $27,230,616 and the department has 301 employees. Dividing the later in to the former yields $90,467  per employee, and that would include the pro-rated per-employee cost of maintaining 16 facilities, over 25 apparatus, a sizable amount of equipment, quite a bit of diesel fuel, and all the other operating costs involved in an urban fire and rescue department.

I pulled a spreadsheet of every employee's end-of-the-year pay for 2010. This was total pay, which would include salary, overtime, holiday pay, and so forth--the bottom dollar on the final pay stub.  The average firefighter, from chief to rookie, was paid $70,139 last year.  That includes all the firefighters regardless of assignment--paramedics, fire apparatus operators, battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, the works  Take out the top brass, and the average drops into the high 60's

While 70K is certainly a nice salary in Lincoln, the impression that the average firefighter is pushing 80-100K is a bit over they  top. Maybe the author was referring not to salary, but to the "total cost of ownership" which includes insurance premiums, worker's compensation costs, and so forth. These non-salary expenses of employees are there in every single job to varying degrees, public or private sector.  Rest assured, though, that the average pay on a firefighter's W2 was way under the figures quoted by Mr. James

Firefighters don't make the rules on their compensation.  It is senseless to fault the union that represents them for trying to get the best deal possible for its members: that's what a union is supposed to do, and it is neither sinister nor un-American.  In fact, playing politics is as American as apple pie.  People and groups of all manner use the political process to pursue what they perceive as their best interests and to try to get officials elected who see things the same way. They do so with varying degrees of success, and on occasion, he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.  Welcome to democracy.

It bears noting that the City doesn't make the rules on compensation either.  In Nebraska, the ultimate arbiter of public employee pay is the Commission of Industrial Relations, a creation of the State Legislature functioning under State statutes that establish the principal of comparability. The City effectively must pay its employees the same as similar jobs in similar cities as determined by the Commission. Suggesting that firefighters are overpaid and urging the Mayor and I to reduce their compensation is certainly Mr. James' prerogative, but right now, the rules of the game are set by State law.

I want citizens to have accurate information about firefighters' pay. They will have to decide for themselves whether they think that is too much, and if so, the remedy will need to start with a majority of Nebraska's State senators. They tweaked the law a little bit in the last legislative session, but it will be a while before we see what, if any, impact these changes have.

My interest is in having the best employees we can afford with the money the citizens are willing to pay for the service.  If there was no collective bargaining, we'd probably pay exactly like the non-union employers in the private sector: enough to attract and retain the type of employee that we feel we need to deliver the quality of services we desire, and to prevent them from jumping ship to our competitors who would work equally hard to lure the best ones away. Maybe the package necessary to do that would be lower, maybe not.

I can find hundreds of people who would be willing to serve as firefighter-paramedics or police officers for less than the women and men who hold those jobs now.  I'm not so sure we would be happy with the result.  I do not think that it is in the public interest for LF&R to become the place where paramedics cut their teeth before moving on to greener pastures as soon as they've got training and experience at our expense, and some of the folks who've offered to be police officers for reduced prices raise the hair on the back of my neck (which, by the way, is one of the few places on my head it is still located.)

Monday, June 20, 2011

Good things in small places

Kevin Sands is the police chief in Waverly, Virginia. He heads a department of seven in his small town. Waverly is a far more typical police force than Lincoln. In the United States, 90% of police agencies employ fewer than 50 officers, and half employ less than 10.

I met Chief Sands and his sergeant, Willie Richards, in San Diego last week, where I was unveiling our new location-based services application to a national audience of police technologists. Waverly and Lincoln shared a conference session. I presented about P3i, then Kevin and Willie followed with a presentation about how they are using Apple iPads to bring some great information technology to their small force.

Just as I have found a lot of uses for my iPad at work, so has the Waverly Police Department, and they've leveraged the applications very well, equipping their officers with some resources that would be the envy of big-city cops. Kevin had a nice set of Keynote slides demonstrating a variety of applications they are using for everything from language translation to report writing. Willie has hand crafted some very clever vehicle mounts with an articulating arm, by grafting together parts from a couple of sources.

I was impressed, as were others. There is a tendency to look towards large agencies for innovation and in research in policing.  I am convinced, however, that lots of great ideas bubble up in small agencies which have a key advantage over the big cities: they are more agile. Small agencies, though facing plenty of challenges, can often turn on a dime and implement innovative ideas quickly and well. By comparison, the big agency has a tougher time responding to change or opportunity.

There is probably a sweet spot at the nexus between large-enough-to-have-resources and small-enough-to-be-nimble. That's a good place to look for innovative and creative work, but don't ever count out the small places like Waverly, Virginia.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Proactive Police Patrol information

Proactive Police Patrol information (P3i) is a location-based services application that we have developed and deployed at the Lincoln Police Department  in collaboration with the University of Nebraska and with funding from the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice.)

Last fall, the University was awarded a grant to develop and study this technology.  I am the co-principal investigator on this project, and I posted a teaser about it last September.  Within two weeks, there was actually a functioning version of the application. In the ensuing months, it has been through many more iterations, as our collaborators at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering have continued to enhance and improve P3i. Deployment began on May 4, and P3i is now in the hands of 60 Lincoln Police officers, who are using the application on four different devices: iPhones, iPads, Motorola Xoom tablets, and Droid2 smart phones. There will 15 more around the end of the month, when a version of the application that can be used on our regular mobile data computers (Panasonic Toughbooks) should be ready.

P3i works the same way many other location-based services apps.  It's a map-based application that displays the "police points of interest" around you, based on your current coordinates. The map moves with you as you walk or drive, and the points simply stream towards you as the map scrolls. If you are using it on a smartphone, when you pull it out of your pocket, its already centered on your location.  The points of interest represent the locations of recent crimes, the addresses of parolees, registered sex offenders, people with arrest warrants and so forth.  These data are updated daily. We use very similar data in our internal mapping applications, so the process was already in place to automatically gather and geocode these data from our reporting systems for display in a geographic framework.  With P3i, we have moved these data to the street as a location-based service. Just as you might use Google Maps or Bing on a smartphone to search for a restaurant, then click the icon to bring up a photo, a link to its website, and a button to launch Streetview, you can do all the same things in P3i.  Rather than the restaurant, though, it's the sex offender who lives in the corner house, or the guy in apartment 201 with an arrest warrant that you might not have known about without this technology.

The early word on P3i is encouraging.   I've been in this business long enough that I think I am familiar with  sound of sucking-up-to-the-chief.  The reaction I've been hearing from officers is something quite different.  UNL's Public Policy Center is in the process of conducting research, though, to shed some light on how this technology impacts policing and police officers.  At the end of the day, I am pretty confident we will have data that reflects on efficiency and effectiveness, not just anecdotes (although we've already got a bag-full of those, too).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Location-based services

A location based service (LBS) is a data service delivered to a mobile device using information about the device's current location.  If you use a smartphone, you've almost certainly used a location-based service.  A common example would be a weather application.  You click the icon to open the application, and it returns the weather conditions.  You don't have input "Lincoln, NE" or "68508" because the phone already knows where you are, and reported those coordinates to the app, so it could deliver the information that is relevant to your current location.

Many mobile devices these days are location aware. There are a few different ways a gadget can figure out it's location. First, if it is a phone or has a wireless air card, the cell phone signal includes some location data. Your cellular carrier knows what tower the phone is communicating with and where that is located, and in some circumstances your location can be triangulated even more precisely because your cell signal is pinging multiple sites. Second, if the device uses WiFi to connect to the Internet, WPS (wireless positioning systems) could be used to determine it's location. WPS providers maintain large databases of the locations of Inteternet access points. Finally, the current crop of smatphones, many tablets, and a sack full of other gadgets now have integrated GPS, hence the ability to determine latitude and longitude by the signals of global positioning satellites.

There are tons of LBS applications available for the new generation of smart phones and tablet computers that are taking the mobile computing world by storm, and these kinds of apps have widely adopted by consumers.  This is how tens of thousands of people will find restaurants, bus stops, dry cleaners, and nearby ATMs today.  It is remarkable how quickly LBS apps have become integrated into the daily life of so many people. The increased computing power of mobile devices, the falling price of GPS receivers, and the proliferation of broadband data services has changed the landscape of mobile computing dramatically.

Location-based services have tremendous potential in criminal policing, emergency services, and community corrections.  I have a feeling that we're on the verge of something significant in these fields.  More on that later this week.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Among my new duties as public safety director, I am now responsible for the Emergency Communications Center (more commonly known as 911), previously a division of the City of Lincoln Finance Department.  Yesterday, I finally got to spend a significant chunk of time with its manager, Julie Righter.  Julie tagged along with me to make a presentation at a conference in Kearney, and the half-day commute provided us with a good long uninterrupted meeting.   I highly recommend a road trip when you really need to concentrate without distractions.

The field of emergency communications is not entirely foreign territory to me, but I needed more than just a refresher.  There is a new language to be learned, and among the conversation in the front seat yesterday were Zetrons, Embers, site controllers, Orion MapStar, Vela, enunciators, Paracletes, logging recorders, consoles, modules, fire picks, CAD picks, trunking, conventional, and interoperability.  I now know that you can have a Bluetree and a Bluetooth, but they are not the same thing, and neither is blue.  I learned that OpenSky has nothing to do with open sky, and that PlantCML is related to Magic XL, but they are more like cousins than immediate relatives.

The communications center has more acronyms than Carter has little liver pills.  I could probably now score over 70% on GETC, NEMA (not to be confused with NENA), LEOP, FEMA, MSAG, QI/QA, EMD, ESD (I, II, and III, no less), NIMS, IDT, CALEA, PSSI, APCO, PSAP, PSCSAM, and (my favorite) TERT.  Would you really want to be known as a TERT?

It was quite a vocabulary lesson, as Julie briefed me for a few hours on current projects, future projects, and the many issues she and her staff are juggling.  The one that really caught my attention, though, was Next Generation 911, also known as NextGen911, and in its shortest form, NG911, essentially an initiative to update the nation's 911 infrastructure to adapt to the wireless mobile technology a growing number of citizens employ as their weapon of choice for communications.

You've got a century of development and history in emergency communications based on land line telephones and private radio networks under your belt.  Now suddenly everyone wants to use such things as email and text messaging to contact their local emergency services providers, with an audio file, video clip, and set of images attached!  On the 911 end, the technology is all adapted for the phone call and radio dispatch. NG911 is the collection of protocols, training, software, hardware, network, and other stuff needed to move emergency communications into position to respond to the new reality of how the world communicates.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


One of the nice things I've discovered is that Lincoln Fire & Rescue pushes out a lot of information through automated database reports.  I'm all over push technology for keeping people informed.  Yesterday morning, I got an email with a document attached that was a summary of the preceding day's activity: seven fire calls, 55 medicals, 9 others (including one intriguingly labelled "odor.")  At the bottom of the Monday list, however, was a listing of 105 inspections. I knew just a little about it, but I was surprised by the number, and learned a little more.

Fire companies from each station go on a periodic basis to the businesses and commercial establishments in their response area.  They update the emergency contact information; look over the fire protection systems, hallways, stairwells, alarm panels, exits, elevators, emergency lighting, and so forth.  This information is collected on a check sheet form, and updated to a database. Any problems are either immediately remediated or referred to fire inspectors for follow up.

It is good fire prevention work, and it's an excellent way to update information that can be very valuable in an emergency.  The police department uses this data, too.  Once a week, at 0700 on Mondays, the file is uploaded from LF&R's database to LPD's records management system, so it is available to police officers and employees.  It is especially helpful in finding the keyholder in the wee hours of the morning when a break-in has been discovered, a door is found unsecured, or some other problem comes to light that requires the presence of a person in authority over the premises.

Business inspections are a valuable activity with many benefits, and a great example of proactive work that serves a good purpose.  The next step up is the pre-plan, a topic for a future post.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Maybe Maverick needs Goose

Chief Jim Peschong announced his intention to team up some officers in two-person patrol cars this summer. It's an idea the LPD management staff has kicked around for a couple of years, and tested out on an ad-hoc basis. Jim intends a more systematic implementation.

Collecting data and information will be the key to evaluation, along with a "dosage" (number of units, length of time)that is sufficient to provide a fair test. I'm all about trying things out and seeing how they work. Adapting to change is an imperative. Unless it requires a huge capital investment, or presents an unacceptable risk of failure, you can always revert if it doesn't pan out.

Managers of my age all learned in school that the two-person patrol unit was less efficient than single-officer patrol, and that there was no significant advantage in safety. A progressive police manager just accepted the consensus of the experts that single was better than double. In reality, though, that consensus is based on an awfully skinny body of research evidence, mostly from the 1970's, and all before two major developments: :five-dollar-a-gallon gas, and the in-car computer (include video system, multi-function lighting systems, ALPR, trunked radio, and smartphone in the techno-gadget group.)

Maybe the math has changed, now that the V-8 is becoming an anachronism and the front seat is turning into a cockpit and command post. Maybe in the information age Maverick needs Goose, and the two of them can operate more effectively together as a team than as a pair flying solo. Certainly worth considering.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Pack Rat

The annual retirees' luncheon at LPD was hosted yesterday by the department's current management staff.  The turnout was great, with over 60 in attendance.  I enjoyed hobnobbing with some of my former colleagues and supervisors from the mist, all of whom are much smarter today then they were back then--just like your mom and dad get a lot smarter when you have kids of your own.

I was among the attendees with a speaking role, and I told them about my new job, and briefed them on an innovative technology we have created and are now testing at LPD.  Many of them remember Lincoln's last stretch with a public safety director, from 1954 to 1970, and they all remember the pre-technology days of onion skin, carbon paper, staple-pulling, and a file cabinet full of mug shots in Records. They are pretty amazed at what's at an officer's fingertips today.

Among those in attendance was the Grand Forks, ND police chief, John Packett, who was a lieutenant at LPD when he left in the mid-1980's for an interesting succession of management jobs before landing in Grand Forks.  I hadn't seen him in years.  Back during his LPD days, he was the sergeant of my motorcycle squad, and the guy who taught me to ride an Electra Glide. I'd never ridden a motorcycle of any kind before, but I drove a yellow '71 VW, and familiarity with a stick shift was apparently sufficient to mark me as a pre-qualified candidate.  "Same thing," he told me, "except the clutch and shifter are in a different place." I promptly crashed into a fence on the maiden run down the empty midway at the State Fairgrounds.

Sgt. Packett's squad, of course, referred to itself as the Six Pack, and we all had nicknames: Pack Rat, Danko, Butch, Furb, Din-Din, Frenchie. Back then, everyone had a nickname, and fifteen tickets for the shift was considered a reasonable "goal."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Reality check

Saturday, Tonja and I went to the farmer's market downtown.  As the market was winding down, we slipped into Lazlo's for lunch, and took a couple stools at the bar.  Another couple doing the same thing came in several minutes later, and sat down to our left, with one stool between us.

There was a newspaper on the counter, and the man started sipping his black pepper porter, reading the Saturday news and commenting to his wife:

"Well, the mayor's appointing Tom Casady to be a Public Safety Director.  Just what we need: another bloated bureaucrat with a six figure salary.  Casady says he hopes to reduce overlap and redundancy. Apparently he doesn't understand that he IS the redundancy."

A Lazlo's employee we've known for years came by and congratulated me on the promotion.  I figured for sure our fellow diners would pick up on that, but they did not, and he continued to hold forth on the matter.  We finished up our lavosh and headed out, mildly amused.  In retrospect, I should have had the bartender bring him another beer, then tipped my hat and waved as we went out the door--better yet, two beers, just to be redundant.

Not really sure I disagree with him, though, and I'm glad I heard his candid perspective. If I turn out to be nothing more than another layer of management, then this will be a really bad idea that should be abandoned.  I'm going to do my best, though, to try to add some genuine value to the management of these three agencies, and to do so in a manner that saves money in excess of what my services add to the costs.  You can hold me to that, and you can bet your bottom dollar I will know the score.