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Tulsa Puts Out Fires With Streaming

To the extent that they must stretch budget dollars far enough to accomplish their mandates, government institutions function much like corporate enterprises. Like many of those enterprises, the Tulsa Fire Department (TFD) spends a significant amount of money on employee training. But for the TFD, the cost of training isn’t measured only in dollars. It can also be measured in lives destroyed or lost. In May 2001, the TFD adopted a streaming media training solution – not only to limit rising training costs, but also to lower response times and potentially save lives.

For years, the TFD has provided access to training for its firefighters – many of whom are also paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who must meet annual continuing education requirements. As the department has purchased sophisticated new equipment and offered new services such as Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and Advanced Life Support (ALS) certification, the need for training has expanded, further straining the department’s resources. Frank Mason, visual communications officer for the Tulsa Fire Department, said, "We realized that we were going to have to hire a whole bunch of new training officers, or figure out some other way to get the information out to the crews."

The impact of the increased demand for training was more than just financial. "We started pulling crews out of service for EMS, ALS, HazMat, technical rescue and regular firefighter training," said Mason. "It was creating a lot of difficulties with the rest of the department." The life-and-death nature of the TFD’s charter made the need for a more effective training solution – one in which firefighters would spend less time away from fire stations – even more compelling. "Our four-minute response time wasn’t four minutes anymore," said Mason. "And our coverage [of the city] wasn’t what it should be."

Since 1989, the TFD has delivered televised training through the local cable television operator. That system offered high-quality images on station-house televisions, but it also had drawbacks. Studio and cable access time was limited, and scheduling was dependent upon the needs of the cable operator and much of the training content wasn’t suitable for public consumption. (Just imagine the howls of a parent whose six-year-old was searching for the Cartoon Network and stumbled upon an autopsy in progress.) As a result, much of the training took place on-site at the Tulsa fire training facility or other locations away from the fire stations. The TFD turned to streaming media as a way to keep firefighters physically on the job. "Keeping firefighters in the station house keeps our response time down to a minimum. We hope that can save more lives and reduce property loss in Tulsa," notes Mason.

MPEG to the Rescue

In designing its streaming media solution, the TFD considered both the resources available and the particular demands of its target audience. With access to Tulsa’s new fiber-optic ATM network, the department opted to deliver frequently scheduled MPEG-2 multicasts – targeted toward station-house televisions – instead of on-demand unicast streams aimed at individual PCs. The TFD created its own virtual LAN to keep its streaming video from degrading the city’s other data traffic. "We carved out our own little tube [of bandwidth]," said Mason. "So we don’t affect the rest of the [data] flow."

The TFD audience – 700 firefighters working out of 31 fire stations – provided unique scheduling challenges. Tulsa firefighters work shifts of 24 hours on and 48 hours off. The entire force is divided into three platoons, only one of which is working on any given day. By scheduling most training programs to run three times a day over the course of six days, each platoon gets six opportunities to view the training. In one popular application, the fire chief conducts a live streaming chat – taking phone calls from the troops – on the last three Fridays of every month. "With 31 work sites and three platoons, the fire chief would have to go out and visit 93 work sites a month," notes Mason. "That’s just not going to happen."

The TFD draws content – programs run from five minutes to two hours long – from a number of sources, including a satellite feed from the Fire and Emergency Television Network (FETN) and monthly videotapes from the PULSE Emergency Medical Update subscription service. The department also streams homegrown programming produced in its own studio and classrooms. Firefighters keep track of program offerings through a weekly Tulsa Fire Television Network Program Guidebook. Around 60 percent of the training is required, and firefighters verify they’ve watched the videos through sign-in lists. "The district chief looks at the lists and makes sure all his people have got the training," said Mason. "And if not, then he wants to know why."

The TFD uses the AMX (formerly Panja) control system to program remote switching between the various video sources – six VCRs, the FETN satellite feed, and for live broadcasts, the outputs from the department’s production studio and classrooms. The TFD focuses its streaming dollars on the encoding and delivery side, keeping production equipment and personnel costs to a bare minimum. Programming is captured with three vintage Panasonic industrial cameras (WVF-250) and a couple of S-VHS decks. Production crews are an eclectic mix of TFD employees. For example, because the fire chief’s secretary ran a mixing board when she was in a band, she now does audio for the chief’s streaming chat. And because a woman in the TFD Public Education Department once worked in a TV station, she’s now a floor director for the TFD. Frank Mason and two colleagues in the Visual Communications Department share duties from technical directing to answering phones for the streaming chats.

While the TFD’s production equipment and personnel may not be quite ready for prime time, its encoding and streaming infrastructure is state-of-the-art. Streams are encoded from NTSC on an Amnis (formerly Optivision) NAC-3004 MPEG-2 encoder/server, and delivered over Tulsa’s robust ATM network. (The MPEG-2 video is currently streaming at a relatively modest 4Mbps, but will be upped to 10Mbps when Tulsa upgrades its network to Gigabit Ethernet this Fall.) Each fire station hosts an NAC-4000 series decoder, which converts the MPEG-2 stream back into NTSC for display on the station house TV set. The TFD recently purchased licenses for Amnis Live Players, a software-based application that can receive encoded streams on desktop computers. Because the TFD delivers only multicast streams, it archives no on-demand files, and thus uses no video file storage.

Cutting Costs

By cutting production costs to the bone, and taking advantage of available bandwidth on the Tulsa ATM network, the TFD has kept streaming costs low. Two encoders, 38 decoders and an Alpine 3808 switch (enabled for IP multicast routing) have cost the TFD around $150,000. Mason figures the system will save the city around $75,000 the first year in fire truck fuel and maintenance costs alone, not to mention salaries and benefits for firefighters taken off the job for training.

The TFD streaming system has been up and running for only a few months, but the response so far has been encouraging. Mason said, "Our guys are loving it. A basic-level EMT needs 48 hours of [continuing education] every two years. Twenty-four hours of that can be done by video … while sitting in the station." Other departments within the city of Tulsa – including police and public works – are taking notice and making inquiries, as are fire departments in cities across the country. Next week, representatives from the Dayton, and Columbus, OH fire departments are coming to Tulsa to study the TFD’s success with streaming media.

With citizens’ tax dollars at stake, government institutions are often more conservative than corporate enterprises when it comes to experimenting with new technologies. But a demonstrated return on investment, and potential life and property saving efficiencies – such as those realized with streaming media by the Tulsa Fire Department – may attract even conservative institutions. As hundreds of municipal and state budgets contract with the national economy, the potential cost-saving benefits of using streaming media for employee training may become even more compelling. And that might result in the streaming media industry itself finding its way off life-support and back into the pink.

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