Thursday, May 30, 2013

Communication is the key

Last December, stranded in the Seattle Airport waiting for a delayed flight, I was absorbed by the local news coverage of a shooting at the Clackamas Mall in Portland. One of the things I noticed in the video from the news helicopters was what appeared to be excellent staging and triage set up by the fire & rescue and police personnel. I wondered if we would be as organized here in Lincoln if something like this happened.

Back in Lincoln, I blogged about an impression from the TV in the airport bar that caught my attention. I made this post at about 5:30 AM on Friday, December 14, 2012. Later that morning, the police chief, fire chief, 911 center manager and I gathered for our weekly joint meeting. One of the discussion items was my desire for our public safety agencies to plan and execute a training exercise this spring focused on an active shooter event. I wanted to both assess and improve our ability to get life-saving care to patients in an emergent incident when seconds count, and when the situation is still somewhat unsettled.

Little did we know as we met that Friday to lay the groundwork for this exercise, that at the same time a mass murder was underway at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was a bizarre coincidence. As we left our meeting, I heard the first early reports on the AM radio in my car.

The joint training exercise we first discussed last December was held yesterday at Kloefkorn Elementary School here in Lincoln.  It was a full-scale event, with about 50 first responders participating from LPD, LF&R and the 911 Center, along with several volunteers and Lincoln Public Schools personnel, especially the staff at Kloefkorn.  We learned a lot from this exercise. The hot wash immediately afterwards was productive, and as the more complete after action review takes place, I have no doubt that what we learned will help us in the future--not only in the event of an unthinkable crisis like this scenario, but also in the smaller emergencies we deal with on a daily basis.

My personal take-away was this: communication is the key. Police and fire personnel have got to work hand-in-glove in uncertain circumstances. Sharing information quickly and thoroughly is vital. We need to do all we can to assure that everyone is aware of the situation on the ground in a dynamic event that is unfolding rapidly, so that we can determine when it is reasonably safe to extricate victims and get medical care to the patients'side.

Thanks to everyone who participated and helped.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Yes, I can elaborate

A comment yesterday asked if I could elaborate on Lincoln Fire & Rescue's use of an "alternate response vehicle": a smaller, lighter vehicle like a pickup equipped with basic tools and medical equipment. This topic was in the news yesterday. After a couple of years as Public Safety Director, I now feel that I can do so.

The trend towards deploying these kinds of vehicles is not unique to Lincoln. It is going on nationwide, as more and more fire departments are beginning to respond to the changing nature of the work and the imperative of adapting to the new reality in municipal services, which simply put is this: the account is not unlimited, and no one is running for office on a platform of  "I will raise your taxes, so government can continue to do what it knows is in your best interest."

About 76% of all the incidents that Lincoln Fire & Rescue rolls on are medical emergencies. Not only do they not require a huge and expensive fire truck or fire engine burning diesel fuel at 4 MPG, in some ways driving one of these large vehicles is an impediment to an urgent response, rather than an advantage. Sending a truck or engine to a "man down, nature unknown" call (something that happens hundreds of times annually), or to a broken tibia at a softball complex, is akin to sending a SWAT team to a noise disturbance call, based on the theory that it could be a gang war, rather than a loud party. I am sold on the need for a fairly sizable contingent of firefighters and paramedics for medical emergencies, but the type of vehicle they arrive in is for the most part irrelevant to the outcome.

Firefighters have an exceptional ability to think about, plan for, and train for every possible contingency. It is both a worthwhile skill, and an Achilles heel at the same time (isn't that true of most talents?) But in reality, the chance of a fire company catching a call that requires the big rig while on the way back from the senior center or ball field is quite remote. With the exception of rescue calls, almost all medical emergencies can be dealt with sans the engine or truck. For the rare contingency where more or different resources are  needed, every firefighter and every rig is equipped with a radio, and there are a few dozen colleagues ready to spring into action at an instant's notice.

The checkbook isn't unlimited, and the ARV is a reasonable response to reality. Early on in my new role as PSD, I overheard a firefighter make a remark that I have now heard repeatedly, both at LF&R and at other agencies: "Firefighting: 200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress." While not entirely true, I must admit that firefighting is more change-averse than most professions, and it cannot continue on a trajectory like this for long.

Adapt or wither. The choice is clear.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Future trajectory

I was the keynote speaker this week at a technology summit hosted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police in conjunction with their annual Law Enforcement Information Management conference. My job was to set the stage for the conference by describing the path of technology in policing: where have we come from, where are we today, and where might we be headed.

I began with the adoption of the telephone beginning in the late 1890s (including a slide showing my key ring), proceeded through fingerprint examination, the automobile, two way radio, speed radar, polygraph, computer database, NLETS, 911 systems, cellular telephones, DNA testing, mobile data computers, smartphones, CCTV and more--all in an hour.  Here was one of my final slides, identifying several continuing trends I see in public safety technology:

As the summit continued, we had a great discussion of a variety of issues that confront us as the pace of technology inevitably moves us further and faster down the road.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Oklahoma City

Several dozen Lincoln Fire & Rescue employees are in the Oklahoma City area assisting in aftermath or Monday's devastating tornado strikes in The suburbs of Newcastle and Moore. The firefighters are part of Nebraska Task Force One, one of 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams in the United States.

These teams, hosted by local agencies like Lincoln Fire & Rescue, are funded and equipped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and are called upon for a rapid response to disasters in exchange for the training, equipment, and capability FEMA provides.  These are a tremendous local resource should the need ever occur locally here in Lincoln.

USAR teams have specialized expertise in search and rescue operations where structural collapse has occurred and/or still threatens.  Although the team is composed largely of firefighters and firefighter/paramedics, it also includes medical personnel, structural engineers, and canine teams.

This is a real opportunity to help the local emergency responders in the Oklahoma City area with trained and equipped professionals with both expertise and experience.  We should all be proud in Lincoln for being able to make this Commitment.  You can read more about Nebraska Task Force One here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Good news of the week

It looks like water restrictions in Lincoln, which I expected to go into effect quite early this year, are not going to be needed just yet.  That's certainly good news for the police, who shouldered the brunt of the workload (and the criticism) last year--hardly what one ordinarily considers to be the job of the police.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

BAC calculator

The National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation this week that states consider dropping the legal limit for driving while intoxicated from a blood alcohol level of .08% to .05% was big news all over the country.  I spotted an article in our local press today:

"That's about one drink for a woman weighing 120 pounds, two for a 160-pound man. A "drink" means 12 ounces of beer, four ounces of wine"

I don't claim to be the world's foremost expert, but I immediately recognized that something important was omitted here. The missing ingredient is time.  It takes time to drink, and BAC is basically a math problem between the amount of ethanol, body mass, and time.  Basically, your body can't metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink (about a half ounce of pure ethanol) every hour, so if you consume a drink every hour over a period of time, your BAC slowly starts to build up. If you drink faster than one per hour, the concentration of alcohol builds up more quickly. It has nothing to do with tolerance, it's just math. 

If the 160 lb. man drank two 12 oz. standard American beers evenly during his first hour of drinking, he would be at about .025% to .035% at the end of that hour--not .05%. It is however, true that the third beer in hour one might put him over .05% at the end of an hour--it would be close. If he drank four in hour one, he'd be getting perilously close to the current legal limit of .08%, as he would with six in three hours. Throttle back to five Buds during a three hour televised football game, though, and he is still comfortably below .08%. Since he has slowed his consumption, his liver is dealing a bit more effectively with his mouth, though still not at equilibrium. 

My favorite online blood alcohol calculator is the Drink Wheel, from Intoximeters, Inc.--the company that manufactured the gas chromatographs I was trained to use a long time ago. The flame ionization detector and the Poropak Q column are still on the tip of my 37 degree Celsius tongue, 38 years later.  It's called the drink wheel because long before the PC and decades before the Internet, the drink wheel was a circular contraption made of two discs of card stock that you could rotate around to select weight, beverage, and time to produce an estimate. Sure wish I had saved one of those gizmos. We used to hand them out right and left.

It is, however, only an estimate.  Govern yourself accordingly, and err on the side of caution.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Not entirely unusual

A youtube video of a dust-up at bar break in Lincoln last Saturday night (which was actually 2:23 AM Sunday morning) was getting a bit of attention from the media yesterday.  The video shows a couple of small fights, a few women exchanging blows, a couple of people stumbling drunk in the street and sidewalk, and a group of police officers, calmly and professionally trying to disperse the crowd.

As he leaves the area, the videographer warns a couple pedestrians headed the opposite direction to be careful "There's a #@!&+ riot going on over there!" Well, not exactly, but certainly a tense street scene that was expertly handled by the officers, with no one being hurt, and without the police action becoming the flashpoint for an even bigger brouhaha.

Many people who have seen it are somewhat shocked by the scene, but Assistant Chief Brian Jackson and I were remarking how typical it really is.  The scuffle may be a little larger than usual, but these kinds of scenes occur from time to time at bar break in similar areas all over the world. I've blogged about this problem on several past occasions.  In Lincoln, this occurs at 14th & O Streets, where the bars that cater to the young, hard drinking crowd are congregated.  Keeping your cool when surrounded by this kind of behavior is not an easy task. Well done, officers.

Friday, May 10, 2013

PowerPoint fatigue

I'm a little exhausted with lengthy PowerPoint presentations filled with annoying animations and transitions, too many slides, small fonts and lots of words.  In fact, I'm a little tired of computer presentations generally.  I point the finger in the mirror, because I've been as guilty as anyone. These days, my Keynote and PowerPoint presentations are shorter and contain fewer words than ever, and I've finally learned to ease up on the trickery in favor of subtle animation.

In fact, of late I have increasingly forgone the projector and computer entirely, and just talked at more events. Such was the case yesterday at Leadership Lincoln, where I was asked to present for about 35 minutes about public safety issues to a group of about 30 movers and shakers who are the fellows in the current class.  Rather than a collection of groovy slides, I handed out a sheet of paper with a few conversation starters, and let the audience decide what they wanted to have me elaborate on or explain.  I think my blog is evidence that I could do this for a long, long time before I drew a complete blank, but here's the little list I used yesterday.

  • Of all the incidents handled by Lincoln Fire & Rescue, 76% are medical emergencies.
  • Only about half of our ambulance billings are actually paid. 
  • Lincoln is a great place to have a heart attack.  From the time our paramedics are at a patient’s side until the time blood flow to the heart is restored at a hospital is 67.9 minutes. The national standard is 90 minutes—but that is from the time the patient arrives at the hospital.
  • Lincoln hasn't added a fire station since 1996. Since that time, we've added 50,000 citizens.
  • 8,469 addresses in Lincoln are more than 4 minutes in travel time from a fire station.
  • Lincoln Fire & Rescue is one of 28 Urban Search and Rescue Teams in the United States.
  • There are 733 Gang members and 31 gangs known to LPD as of noon.
  • Yesterday, among the 345 incidents handled by LPD were 22 traffic crashes, 6 assaults, 4 sexual assaults, 6 missing persons, 52 disturbances, 8 mental health emergencies, and 10 child abuse/neglect cases.
  • There were 1,194 false fire alarms in Lincoln last year, and 2,384 false burglar alarms:  35 false alarms were at a single restaurant, but they were beat out by one other facility….
  • Lincoln has 320 police officers, and is the smallest police department per capita in the State, 1.22 officers per 1,000 population.  The national average is 2.4 officers per 1,000. If we were the same size per capita as Omaha, we would need to add 172 officers.  To be the same size per capita as Grand Island, we would need to add 91.
  • Google this:  “Lincoln police” GIS

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Marathon weekend

The 36th Lincoln marathon and half-marathon this past Sunday was quite a scene.  I've enjoyed the event in many capacities over the years: as a half marathon runner a few times, a police officer directing traffic several years, a aid station volunteer a couple times, and as a spectator on every other occasion.  It's always been a top-notch experience.  Lincoln's marathon is run on a flat, fast course. It gets tons of community support and spectators line vast stretches of the course, with lots of encouragement, refreshment, and entertainment. As a result, it has grown phenomenally in recent years.  Capped at 10,000 entrants, this year's race was sold out within minutes of registration opening back in December.

Two years ago, Mayor Chris Beutler asked his department directors to come to our next weekly meeting with some outside-the-box ideas on how we could either reduce City expenses or increase economic activity.  I brought three ideas to the table: mothball Pershing Auditorium, reduce the number of streetlights burning all night, and repave the Boosalis trail along Lincoln's stretch of Nebraska Highway 2. My idea was to boost the width of the trail to eliminate one the bottlenecks during the marathon that clog the course, so we could up the number of participants.

I'm sure I wasn't the first or only person with that idea, but it is gratifying that it is now going to happen.  The marathon is a fantastic event for Lincoln, and creates a huge amount of economic activity, the subject of this article in yesterday's Lincoln Journal Star. Ramping the Lincoln marathon and half marathon up to 12,500 next year, and maybe even 15,000 thereafter will be a good thing, although it will also require more more logistics, and more emergency services.

The public safety team was meeting to consider the implications of the bombing at the Boston Marathon within a matter of minutes of its occurrence on April 15th.  The enhanced security efforts at this years' Lincoln marathon were considerable, and some of these will undoubtedly be incorporated into future events.  Hats off to Capt. Fehringer and his staff who did the bulk of the work coordinating the public safety response, but we got a big boost from some specialized military resources and from the Nebraska State Patrol's helicopter. Thanks to the police officers, firefighters, national guardsmen, troopers, soldiers, dispatchers, and volunteers who implemented the plan flawlessly.

P.S.  My favorite costume this year had to be the guy in the gigantic sombrero who was greeting everyone in Spanish, fitting for a race held this year on Cinqo de Mayo.  I'm sure the wind resistance from the head gear cost him several minutes!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Personal touch

I blogged last week a couple times about the police department's efforts to reduce false alarms, as a means of both using resources efficiently and improving public safety. One of the most effective tools in achieving this reduction was a redesigned municipal ordinance that increased the cost for chronic repeat false alarms. The pocketbook can be a powerful motivator. There is, however, another tool that has proven to be powerful  and one that I think is often under appreciated

Back in 2011, a home improvement store here in Lincoln had developed quite the reputation for their chronic false alarms. That year, Lincoln police officers responded to 19 false alarms at the business Apparently the escalating fines for more than 3 false alarms in a single year hadn't done the trick. But in 2012 and 2013, there has been a dramatic change. There has been one false alarm in 2013, and there were only two in all of 2012. A drop from 19 false alarms to two at a big box retailer is pretty astounding.  So, what changed?

The answer lies in the personal touch. Sgt. Ed Sheridan paid a visit to the store, and talked face-to-face with the manager. That was the turning point. I have a feeling that for some businesses the bill for excessive false alarm simply goes into the accounts payable stack along with the other monthly bills for pest control, lawn care, and garbage service. When you meet the right person and have a personal conversation, though, you can often change this dynamic.

You can let the manager know that this isn't just a matter of cost: responding to false alarms puts officers and the public at risk.You can tell the manager about your concern that repeated response to false alarms can lull police officers into a deadly sense of complacency. You can tell him or her about the police officers and firefighters right here in Lincoln who were killed during emergency driving. You can offer to speak personally to the firm's alarm company, or to make an appeal up the chain of command on the manager's behalf to a national or regional manager, if that would help get him or her the needed resources to solve the problem.

Engaging in this approach requires timely information about premises with emerging false alarm problems.  Lincoln's ordinance allows three free false alarm responses annually, before the fees kick in. We use one of our GIS applications, CrimeView Dashboard, to alert personnel in our five command areas of emergent alarm problems.  An automated query looks for addresses with three or more alarm dispatches within the past 90 days, then creates a widget that is displayed in the dashboard.  Although it appears on the dashboard automatically, you can drill into the data as far as you want with a mouse click. Here's what the false alarm widget displayed this morning for Capt. Anthony Butler and the Northwest Team officers:

This widget uses graduated symbol sizes and the number within the circle to immediately show the heavy hitters at a glance. It is a great example of using the power of geographic information systems (GIS) to deliver actionable information to police personnel.  We also have a significant problem with repeat false fire alarms. Beginning this year, these are also covered in Lincoln's ordinance. We are in the process of implementing the Omega Group's companion product for the fire service, FireView Dashboard, and I expect that repeat false alarms will be among the widgets we include on the dashboard for battalion chiefs and fire captains.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Consider the denominator

This is a follow up to my post Tuesday about the declining number of false alarms in Lincoln. A reader, Michelle, who is an alarm administrator for a Texas law enforcement agency, left a comment telling me that the industry standard for assessing false alarms in the ratio of false alarm dispatches to alarm systems. This makes sense. The denominator provides the context for comparison., just like population is used as the denominator to calculate crime rates.

There are 5,554 registered alarms in Lincoln, so last year's 2,383 false alarm calls would represent a ratio of .43. We do not know how many alarms were in operation in 2002, the year we reached our high of 4,848 false alarms. I think we can reasonably assume that there are significantly more today, because the population of Lincoln is more than 30,000 greater today, and it is also my impression that the number of alarmed premises has soared in recent years.

Lacking specific data on the number of registered alarm systems in 2002, if we just assume that the number of alarm systems was the same as in 2012 for the sake of this exercise, the ratio of false alarms to alarm systems would have been 4,848 to 5,554, or.87. If I am right about the likely increase in the number of alarmed locations in the past dozen years, that ratio would actually have been considerably higher than .87, thus the decrease in the ratio to .43 in 2012 would be even more dramatic.

From past comparisons, I already knew that false alarms in Lincoln are on the low side when population is used as the denominator.  I was curious, though, if the same would hold true using Michelle's ratio of alarms to alarm systems.  In her comment, she had mentioned the website of the False Alarm Reduction Association,, so I went there in search of any data of this type from other jurisdictions. It looks like the site has lots of resources, but most are for members only, and I wasn't quite ready to fork over $150 to get a peak right at the moment.

I did, however, find a document on FARA's site that sheds some light on how Lincoln's ratio of false alarm calls to alarms system stacks up.  It was this description of the winners of the 2011 FARA Achievement Awards.  The top award went the the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, which reduced the false alarm ratio from .42 to .35 over a three year period. One of the runner ups, the Riverside, CA Police, was recognized for a four year reduction from .69 to .41.  With Lincoln's ratio standing at .43, it appears we compare quite favorably with the award winners. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Spring delayed

It's been a cold, wet spring in Lincoln. I've lived here since 1967, and don't recall one quite like this. The flowering trees are just now starting to bloom, a month overdue. Monday, though, the temperature finally hit 80, and hope soared. Alas, here is the view out my back door this morning: