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How the LAFD Keeps Us Connected: An Interview with Brian Humphrey

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Using the latest and greatest Internet tools, the Los Angeles Fire Department is setting an example for public communication and ubiquity in the information age. After being notified via text message of a "traffic collision with entrapment on Sherman Way," we paid a call to LAFD for an update on their ever-expanding Web endeavors. We caught up with veteran LAFD firefighter and public service officer Brian Humphrey during one of his 24-hour shifts in The Bunker -- an old bomb shelter under City Hall that serves as the fire department's public information dispatch center.

Photo by Dave Bullock via flickr.

LAist: We noticed that LAFD is now transmitting alerts directly to mobile devices, via Twitter. What other tools and Web applications are you currently using and why?

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Brian Humphrey: Here at LAFD Labs we're currently employing or experimenting with 80-85 Web 2.0 properties.

We've got our own YouTube channel and of course we use Google Groups alerts to send our urgent alerts not only to the media, but to those who need the information most -- the public.

We've also been experimenting with, among others, Flickr, feedblender (for RSS syndication), Gabcast, Widgetbox (where anyone can syndicate our alerts box), and Jaiku. We now have our own Tumblelog where many of these services can be easily aggregated. We're in beta with our BlogTalkRadio channel, and hope to use it more regularly to interact with the public and discuss safety issues.

So, the same info you feed to the media goes out simultaneously to your Web subscribers?

The great thing about Web 2.0 is that you don't have to depend on the media as a middle man. Our Web alerts are generated by the same one e-mail proprietary to news and paging services like 2, 5, 7, 9, CNN, KNX, etc. The public is getting it in real time and so there's more pressure on the news entities because people are calling their tipline wanting to know more about what the LAFD IS doing.

We've been feeding media advisories for more than a dozen years via helicopters equipped with text pagers. Now, hundreds of people subscribe to our Google group. And since it's easy these days to offer timely information and promote safety in a variety of formats and flavors, we do it all. Convenient shortcuts to our primary Web properties are http://lafd.org/blog, lafd.org/alert, lafd.org/twitter lafd.org/photos, and lafd.org/video.

You'd think that opening multiple lines of communication would be a priority for all emergency services in this day and age...There's a new phrase in the safety industry -- "Superdomed." That's what happened to the people in New Orleans. There were people who were damn hungry and damn thirsty stuck in the Superdome. But they weren't dying from hunger or thirst, they were dying a little bit at a time from lack of information. They thought they were on their own Gilligan's Island.

We can't have that happen again. In Southern California we're always on alert for earthquakes, evacuations, explosions, and terrorist attacks so the ability to transmit information on a broad scale over multiple media is essential. But the single greatest impediment to expanding these systems has been a lack of support at City Hall - it simply isn't the knowledge or understanding of these systems and applications that's the issue.

The third leg of the Department of Homeland Security's mandate is called EPI -- emergency public information. We're striving to fill this hole with these tools. Now AM radio has their commitments to ballgames and talk shows that they won't preempt, so we have to narrowcast - take it right to the source of people who want it.

You've been a fireman for over 20 years. How did you get involved in bringing the LAFD to the Web?

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You know, I have no problem running into a burning building, but it took a while to build the courage to get on the Internet. We started the blog in May 2004 on Blogger and the feedback that I've gotten from people inside the fire community has been positive. I knew we had arrived when I was invited to meet with Chief Bratton before they started their blog (http://lapdblog.typepad.com/).

But I've had plenty of support from the LA blogging community and people like Jonah (LABlogs.com creator) and Sean Bonner (MetroBlogging) have really helped me get to the top of the hill.

Would you ever be interested in training other safety agencies and gov't organizations by spreading your knowledge and experience -- evangelizing -- the use and potential of these tools?

In my free time I've talked with people at the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission about new media strategies. I recently met with some of the nation's top fire educators to discuss how can we better get the message out there - they insisted on calling me Chief because I'm the Chief Web Evangelist [laughs].

What we do does get noticed, we get phone calls and e-mails from around the world -- and yes, we respond to them all. Additionally, 5-10% of the Google Groups sign-ups are from DHS employees in D.C. keeping an eye on things. But many of these applications can lead to analysis paralysis and I'm just lucky to be in a situation where I'm trusted to go forward with these things. As the saying goes: "We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government." Why not go ahead and stream live video from cameras on the trucks? [laughs]

What challenges do you face as far as transparency and keeping the public updated, but not overwhelmed with information?

The biggest challenge is writing in a personal tone - approachable and respectful at the same time - that's the biggest challenge, it's not a broadcast, we're interacting - I get 500 e-mails a day, not including spam jobs, t-shirts, feedback on an incident. The biggest challenge that I face in teaching other dept's about this - when your on top of the Web 2.0 hill, its not about talking louder, the chief benefit is the feedback you receive, both positive and negative. Meaningful feedback for free is priceless for a public service.

We don't want to create community we want to create safety. If we can better communicate three basic principles -- encourage the people of LA to live safer, healthier, and more productive lives -- then we're doing our job.

For more on the LAFD's "Bunker," see Mack Reed's 2006 post.