Sunday, November 11, 2018

2019 and beyond

Many years ago now, we sat in a Brigade meeting discussing how we could get better turn-out for Hazard Reductions.

The issue was, we didn't know who was available and the Call-Out Officer was having a hard time ringing around to get commitment from Members. By the time we had enough to crew to submit for a HR, all slots were taken and we missed out.

So one senior executive member questioned us - "Surely someone here can come up with an idea to solve this?". I went home and thought about it, and the next day I wrote an availability app for our Brigade. It was put into use, it solved our problem, we were getting crews onto HRs, and our Call-Out Officer was a lot happier and sane once more.

A while later word spread at a district meeting and I had some enquiries from neighbouring Brigades if they too could use it. So I made some changes to allow for different Brigades and they were up and running too. As far as we knew, there was nothing like this in use in our district so it grew from there. But this was only at Brigade level and our District office turned a blind eye.

Ideas started coming in from Brigades such as "can we get members to check into the station for training?". So I added features for Vehicles, Locations and it continued to grow. As more Brigades heard about "MyRFSCrew" there were more enquiries and more ideas, questions and things to deal with.

So the system got moved to a dedicated ISP and was re-written to become secure and scalable. It continued to grow... but not through any advertising. I was adamant that if a brigade wanted such a system they only need ask and they could have it for free. I was never going to force anything on anyone and not even suggest they use it. Any rookie in the RFS knows the danger of sticking their head up and suggesting something. I was a good developer and keen to hear from Brigades how they wanted to operate, not tell them how they should.

He system spread to other agencies like the SES, Marine Rescue, VRA, and to other states as Brigades and Units with similar problems saw this system as a possible solution. So it was rebranded as "MyEmergencyCrew" and with that we moved again to Servers Australia who provided an industrial strength hosting and redundancy. We were serving over a quarter million page views ever month!

I never wanted to say "No" to anyone asking to use the system but with rapid growth came immense demand for support and also development. It became almost a full-time job.

In 2016 the RFS conducted a Member Survey to try to understand what their Members were doing with their own system "MyRFS" and what they had gone out to find on their own. The result of that survey was that "MyEmergencyCrew" was used by RFS Brigades more that all other 3rd party options combined. I was called in for a meeting which turned out to be more a "free" opportunity for the RFS to conduct research that their contracted researchers couldn't achieve. The meeting ended around "next steps" being a commercial relationship... but the contractors finished and nothing further was said.

Around the same time the SES went out, quite informally, to look at existing systems. I agreed to showcase MyEmergencyCrew to them in demo form since it was being used by a lot of SES Units. I was asked to show how their own units were using the system, to which I pointed out our privacy policy. It must have come across as odd that I would not show the senior SES team Unit's data as they seemed to expect exactly that. We heard nothing back from the SES until  they announced that they would be building their own system.

It was around this time that I made a hard decision. The system was costing a lot of money which was coming out of my own pocket. In development terms and costs I could have bought myself a very nice luxury car instead, maybe even 2. So I had to start charging for something and the subscription model came into effect in August 2017.

Many Brigades objected to having to pay for what they were getting for free so certain exceptions were made to allow them to continue with heavy discounts for another 12 months.

During all of this, other systems were coming into the market. Once such system was BART. I have never used another system nor even looked at one, but I assumed they were receiving the same requests for development as I was. So it was no surprise that these systems did much the same as MyEmergencyCrew did and it didn't concern me.

I had a good and lengthy chat to the BART team. We seemed to be on the same page when it came to the reasons why we were building such systems and we agreed to allow users from my system migrate to BART with a free trial. This started some rumours that MyEmergencyCrew was being shut down. It wasn't. I was not in this game to compete or to enter into discussions over which system was better. So I figured that if Brigades or Districts were now prepared to pay for such a service, they should be uninhibited to do so and pick what suited them. I am happy to have worked with BART on this. They're a great team with strong leadership.

In October 2018 the RFS put out a Tender, well more just an invite to express an interest in supplying to the service a Member Availability System. This appeared for all intents to be the next step following their 2016 Member survey.

This EOI had all the hallmarks of what the SES had done a few years earlier. Very light on detail and quite vague in a lot of respects. It seemed rather coincidental that the SES announced at the same time that they had shelved their own development and were partnering with the RFS on a system. At the time the RFS denied this, but later did admit that they would be working with the SES, whilst being questioned by prospective "interested" EOI parties.

So where does all of this leave Brigades and Units that just want to be able to manage their own band of Members effectively and stay happy and operational?

I can honestly say that I have received no official support from the RFS, RFSA the SES or any such agency, at "official" level. The support for MyEmergencyCrew has come from the grass roots and spread to areas I never expected. It is encouraging to see that Districts are now supporting the idea of high visibility across their resource and we have seen incredible cultural change amongst those who have.

The new commercial players in this area have made serious in-roads to capture the market and take what was a growing, cultural tide and turn it into a new era of managing emergency crews and services. This is an extremely positive thing and I hope it continues.

But one must ask whether the top levels of these agencies have missed the boat and let vast quantities of information flood out of their grasp. I look at the amount of real-time data MyEmergencyCrew captures and work with Districts and Brigades on how to visualise it. They now have a much higher quality of visibility over their own operation and that of their area than their own agency HQ does and this is only growing minute by minute.

My own Brigade now has multiple monitors and push messaging to members that completely bypasses the old channels (pagers, etc) that the aging agency depends upon. Our Members are given high quality, real-time data right on their own personal devices and when they arrive at station, know exactly what happening and who is going to resource it. In the trucks we have real-time tracking back to station and instant updates to co-operating crews. All of this is happening without any intervention of even knowledge of our agency Comms or HQ. 

It should not be this way. But it is.

Will the RFS and SES get together with a 3rd party and claw back some of the data they do desperately want? Or will they end up building a bolt-on to their aging systems and try to force it upon their Members, making that same mistakes as in the past? Will Districts who are now investing is systems like BART, and recognising the benefits of such systems, relinquish their new investments or work ethics back to their HQ?

For what it's worth, MyEmergencyCrew will continue in the short-term. But here's my view on the future :-

Commercial systems, like BART, will continue to grow and will become the dominant provider of services to emergency crews. Agencies will continue to suffer from the revenue shortfalls that have plagued such internal efforts to date and the control will shift to the external providers. The gap between the hierarchy and the membership is wide and will only get wider.

I was just happy to be a part of the infancy in this new era. 

We will review MyEmergencyCrew in the next few weeks, and its place in the market.