EMERGENCY RESPONSE/Tulsa offers distance learning to firefighters
In February, the Tulsa (Okla.) Fire Department completed installation of video streaming technology that changes the way Tulsa’s firefighters train for their jobs. The project is the culmination of a three-year effort to modify training methods so that firefighters can receive instruction without leaving their posts.
The Tulsa Fire Academy provides training for the city’s fire department, which includes 32 stations and 700 firefighters. Prior to the use of video streaming, the academy had to offer a single class multiple times to accommodate all of the firefighters.
“You’ve got to get every station to the training center,” explains Frank Mason, visual communications officer for the Tulsa Fire Department. “[Within that station], you’ve got three platoons, so you’re bringing that one station three times for that class. Then you’ve got makeups for people who are sick or injured.”
Scheduling was not the main problem, however. Instead, fire officials were concerned about the risks of taking equipment out of service. “The stations were taking vehicles or apparatuses out of commission for training, and it was a hardship for the rest of the department to fill the holes,” Mason says. “We’ve actually had to shut down training because we’ve had a large fire and had to put the guys back in service. We wanted to provide training and overcome the problem of having so many vehicles out of service at one time.”
Mason began searching for technological solutions to the department’s problem, and, in 1998, he proposed the use of video streaming. However, the costs were prohibitive. “It was going to cost in the neighborhood of $400,000 to get this thing started,” Mason says.
In a matter of years, equipment costs declined substantially, and the technology improved, Mason says. Furthermore, the fire department had new training demands that bolstered the city’s interest in video streaming. For example, the department began providing advanced life support on five of its trucks, and the training required for that service far exceeded that required for firefighters alone. Additionally, an analysis of fuel and maintenance costs for fire trucks showed that the city could save substantially if it reduced the number of trips to the academy.
By January 2001, Tulsa was ready to make the change. The city purchased an encoder and 33 decoders from Amnis Systems (formerly Optivision), based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and it purchased a multicasting unit from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Extreme Networks. Mason and other city personnel handled most of the installation, connecting the components to Tulsa’s fiber optic network in six weeks.
Today, the Tulsa Fire Academy produces training videos at its facilities, and it can broadcast live or taped classes or studio discussions. Additionally, it can broadcast a satellite feed, which it receives from the Fire and Emergency Television Network, operated by Primedia Workplace Learning in Carrollton, Texas.
“We’re going to be putting out a television schedule, and we will put asterisks by the [programs] that are required,” Mason says. “[The firefighters] are going to be tested on a lot of that material, and the rest is just topics of interest and good general information.” The firefighters can view the training sessions in their own stations, and programming is repeated to give them multiple opportunities to “attend” the classes.
Tulsa spent $150,000 to purchase and install the new video streaming system. The investment will help the fire department maintain the professional standards of its firefighters, help ensure the availability of vehicles and equipment, and reduce department costs.