L.A. Fire Department Twits And Blogs To Safety
ALEX COHEN, host:
This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Cohen.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up, why Caroline Kennedy is not taking questions on her New York listening tour.
COHEN: First, though, plenty of folks use sites like Twitter and Facebook to let the world know what they're doing. Here in L.A., the fire department has been monitoring those public posts. It's an innovative way of dealing with disasters. Reporter Nishat Kurwa has the story from deep beneath city hall.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Unidentified Man: This is where we live.
(Soundbite of metal door opening)
NISHAT KURWA: This 10-by-seven foot media command center was built in the 1960s as part of a Cold War bunker for emergency operations. Today, it's lined with old-school 10-inch TV monitors and computer screens flashing Twitter feeds and Google Maps.
Unidentified Woman: OK, is she able to talk to you all? And does she have any difficulty speaking between breaths?
KURWA: The public service office is adjacent to this dispatch center. Everyone who works down here has also been a firefighter out in the field, including this 49-year-old spokesman for the LAFD.
Mr. BRIAN HUMPHREY (Spokesman, Los Angeles Fire Department): Good morning. Your Los Angeles Fire Department. This is Brian Humphrey. Hello? It's a live person.
The words out of their mouth was, oh, it's the - expletive - voicemail. So...
(Soundbite of laughter)
KURWA: He probably gets that a lot.
Mr. HUMPHREY: Yeah, I do. I do.
KURWA: The mouthpiece for the LAFD has a tendency to lapse into a smooth broadcast baritone whenever a phone receiver or a mic, for that matter, is nearby.
Mr. HUMPHREY: We can no longer afford to work at the speed of government. My job here is to help keep the city safe, ideally to help people lead safer, healthier, and more productive lives. Fire service is the mosaic of American life.
KURWA: While that stream of cheerful cliches sounds like standard PR shtick, what Humphrey is doing differently from most public-information officers is cutting out the brokers, the traditional media.
Mr. HUMPHREY: We don't want people to have to wait until the top of the hour for the newscast.
KURWA: Humphrey says the LAFD's awakening to the need for modernized communications came during Hurricane Katrina. His team wanted to build with constituents live and direct. So, they began using the most popular social-media tools for so-called crowd sourcing, tapping into the collective wisdom available online.
Mr. HUMPHREY: When the bridge collapsed last year in Minneapolis, we were among the first places to know because we saw people sending Twitter messages that said, OMG, OMG, which stands for oh my God. If I see 20 or 50 or 100 people from a specific locality saying that, that raises my attention.
KURWA: Humphrey's constantly tracking web chatter and search terms like fire, evacuation, explosion. He filters the data with a tool that works kind of like a big online info blender. You program the tools to scan your favorite websites for keywords...
Mr. HUMPHREY: You put all these feeds and all these data in there, you throw the switch, as it were...
KURWA: And then the blender spits out customized, streamlined results. In Humphrey's case, these results might give him an early heads up that disaster's afoot. A lot of these tools are familiar to consumers, but there aren't many bureaucracies this nimble with online technology. Humphrey's pretty confident this public engagement can increase the department's efficiency, as it did during a devastating fire a few years back in L.A.'s massive Griffith Park.
Mr. HUMPHREY: In monitoring Twitter, I was able to see people on the other side of the park talking about some structures that were not yet protected. I was able to send them a direct message, and I asked them to call our media-relations line. And I was able to take that two-way conversation via the phone in making commanders aware that there may be some unmet needs on the far side of the fire.
KURWA: Humphrey is well-versed not only in Web 2.0 practices, but in social media etiquette, too, and that's the fluency that wins you points in online communities. He hyperlinks like crazy in his blog posts about heroic fire department exploits, flu vaccines, and deep fried turkeys. And he relies on other bloggers and open-source programmers to suggest free resources, not that Humphrey doesn't get offers for more lucrative work away from the LAFD...
Mr. HUMPHREY: For three times my salary plus staff of, you know, a dozen people.
KURWA: He says corporations are interested in selling his playbook to police and fire departments around the country.
Mr. HUMPHREY: I'm not interested in doing that.
KURWA: But he's also not shy about pointing out that he's been running these online experiments for the city of Los Angeles at what you might call fire-sale prices.
Mr. HUMPHREY: Humphrey draws a great big circle in the air when he talks about his budget.
KURWA: Yes, he did just refer to himself in the third person. It's happened a couple of times this interview. Humphrey is a big personality and an optimistic public face for the department, even as Los Angeles, like other municipalities, struggles through the recession.
Mr. HUMPHREY: We don't have the best or fanciest tools here. We know that we need more, but we're in a tight financial time.
KURWA: A time when Humphrey's tech experiments could ostensibly save the department money. Instead, he's wondering if budget constraints will force his already modest bureau to downsize. That would mean Humphrey spends less time in the lab inventing LAFD 2.0. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa.
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