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First Responder Panel: Hear from Veoci’s Own Fire, Emergency Management, and EMS Responders

Jan 13, 2022

Back to Veoci BlogFirst Responder Panel: Hear from Veoci’s Own Fire, Emergency Management, and EMS Responders
Veoci Staff

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This webinar was originally recorded on December 8th, 2021. If you would like to see the recording, click here. 

For those who have never worked as a first responder, it’s difficult to understand what a day, or night, in the lives of those who arrive on the scene of an emergency first really looks like from the inside. Hearing these stories firsthand from responders on the Veoci team.

How do you all juggle professional growth, continuing education, recertification in your role, along with maintaining a full time job? 

Anthony Quintana 

I think while you're active in those roles, and some of us are still in volunteer roles and professional roles as well, it's much easier to stay up to date. I still hold my paramedic certification, but that's a personal choice based on the time commitment that a lot of us put into it, right, and wanting to maintain that. 

Hannah Coffey 

At the age of 17, I took an EMT course at the local Piedmont Virginia Community College, and was excited because we had a real cadaver, courtesy of the University of Virginia's medical school, they had donated it. And after that, it was all down—I mean uphill—from there. I struggle like they do with staying up to date and deciding and triaging really what is important in my life. And the other thing I think is that using tech has become for all of us, more important in the last 20 plus months and will continue to be, there's just no way around that. 

Natalie Monett 

I think these guys are definitely rock stars to be able to continue with their continuing education and still work in the field and have a full time job. I did not keep up my continuing education for my EMTI, which I regret. I went on and got my master's degree, and it was an easier way for me to have that balance with my family and having small children. So right now I'm just concentrating on the personal growth side of it, and being able to learn from everything that I have done and put that forward. 

How has your experience influenced your decision to pursue your current work? Do you feel that your experience helps you relate to others as previous or current practitioners?

Anthony DeGeorge 

I think, coming from healthcare, that a lot of the pain points and heartburn issues that they're experiencing I went through or assisted one of our facilities with. So, kind of being able to relate and just not only provide a solution to solve the problem, but also have some thought exchange, I think is also a nice thing to do and be sounding boards for each other.

Richard Smith 

The value that I've experienced coming from industry to Veoci is the fact that we, the company, does a really good job of hiring people, like everybody on this panel, folks that aren't tech background. We don't have this level of expertise in IT or anything like that because we come from industry, we come from a first responder background. So we either have ideas that we've already implemented as customers or that we've implemented with our customers that we work with now, or we can relate to a novel solution or whatever it might be, and we at least know what's going on.

Hannah Coffey  

If you're debating about career choices, and how you juggle these things, and where to take your expertise next, find somewhere that lets you do the things that keep you alive and passionate. If they didn't let me run off to Turkey and give out vaccines, you know, they wouldn't probably have me and I would be the less for it.

John Taylor 

And I think the best thing is we're trying to improve the process for the greater good of the community. That's what we strive for, you know, in the sales side of it. But we're just trying to make it better for everybody.

What are some challenges that you face in the past and day to day operations in your various roles?

Anthony Quintana 

Whether you're a small shop, or whether you're a big shop, you're looking at operational communications; the ability to communicate with people over a geographical area, and making sure that the message that you're sending out to them is one of consistency, and one that the organization can get behind, is extremely important. With technology and with the direction that we're headed, things are easier now than they used to be.

John Duddy 

Communication from leadership to membership, as it comes down from the higher officers down to the boots on the ground level, making sure that everybody's on the same page, that we all have the same information. With small volunteer departments, as it's getting harder and harder to keep those folks coming, make sure that you're balancing out the members, their activities versus calls, things like that.

Richard Smith

Just to tag on to that there's, especially in the volunteer service there’s been this thing of providing user-based forms for everything, check-off sheets for who responded to calls, using paper base sheets for apparatus checks, or even water source inspections. Finding the right champion in the department to be able to move that forward, to make it easier for everybody, makes a big difference.

Don’t be afraid to embrace a technological solution that might replace what was done that everybody's comfortable with, it just makes things easier in the end. Not everybody can respond to calls every single day, but they can still contribute to that department and giving them the means to do so makes a big difference.

Natalie Monett

To tag on to that, some of the challenges that I faced back in day-to-day operations was just time and time management, being able to create tasks that I could check off each day. Knowing that I had to complete those and having the tools to be able to even do that, even now in day-to-day operations, is really important in order to maintain balance.

Mark Demski  

Having a system where everything is documented is critical. I've been through multiple, activations, and disasters and you have no idea or remember what you did three years ago, but it's so great now with technology to have a product that you can go in and say, at this time, I assigned this to that person, or at this time we activated this plan. As everybody knows, if it wasn't written, if you don't have a document, it didn't happen and you're not going to get reimbursed for it and everything else. It’s that situation awareness, how many times did we make phone calls before telling everybody, a storm was coming, or we're activating at this time. Now, things can be done seamlessly.  

Hannah Coffey 

When it comes down to clarity, I've had a lot of cultural nuance training, whether I liked it or not. Whether it's serving in a Muslim country, or whether it is serving in rural Alabama, that clarity of communication is enhanced when you have good tools to communicate, where things don't get lost literally in translation, and they just get transmitted faster. That has been invaluable to me in this role, you know, where that has changed, and I've been able to change that for my clients. For those with that nuance, Louisiana is Louisiana, and Alabama is Alabama. And you better get it right for each one.

What challenges are faced in your field of expertise right now?

Anthony DeGeorge 

I think I mentioned this earlier, but being in the middle of the longest incident of any of our careers. That comes with a whole set of challenges, but the one I want to focus on for this point is the AAR. How are people managing that? Have they broken it up into different incidents or different responses? Pre vaccine availability, post vaccine availability? Are they doing midterm AAR's? And what does that documentation look like? 

John Taylor  

I think the biggest challenge is going to be turnover retirements. Then what if there's another wave that comes and everybody's burnt out? We need to be thinking that down that path.

Hannah Coffey  

We're losing institutional knowledge and experience at a rate we've never experienced before. We need to start capturing it and capturing accurately and learn these lessons from these people. I'm terrified, to be honest even though I'm supposedly grown up, at losing some of my mentors who've been in the field for 30-35 years. So let's start capturing that expertise. But let's also start training new recruits. It's time to go out there and get some people who have some oomph and vinegar left in them. 

Richard Smith 

There's also a fall of volunteerism right now and it's been alluded to earlier where we don't have people that work in the town that they live in, so the volunteer departments are suffering pretty highly. Certification requirements also aren't going down, they're going up. So from an EMS perspective, or anything like that, it ends up being you're trying to find qualified individuals that can't dedicate that time. That’s a challenge that's being faced across the country. It's just a matter of trying to accommodate those requirements and make sure that you can still bolster that volunteer membership and participation.

John Duddy 

Every fire department has an ISO rating, which affects every building, essentially, or the commercial fire rating and which it ends up subsequently, their cost of the insurance. Whether it's a volunteer or career department, they have to meet those expectations. So that declining ability to volunteer, not only relates to just responding to a call, but all the things that you have to verify, whether it's an OSHA standard, or if you're an NFPA state, or if you're doing an ISO recertification. That's all extra time, besides responding to a call that folks are looking for that needs to get done.

What recommendations would you make to other responders or agencies based on your experience?

Mark Demski  

Experience is everything. Books and certifications are great, however true life experience is really where it comes, where the rubber hits the road, taking what you've learned, even in a book, and then matching that with experience. But one thing about emergency management: nothing ever goes as planned. Listen to people ahead of you who have been doing this longer. Learn from their experiences, best practices, it really goes a long way to combine what you've read, and classes you've taken. But experience is really where what's going to make you a great responder.

Richard Smith 

No plan stands up to first contact. You have to be adaptable, you have to make changes. From an agency perspective, it's something where you have to be very nimble in being able to support whatever the agency's mission is without getting pigeonholed into something where you're looking for funding to satisfy a specific requirement. Likewise, for volunteer agencies, it's very important to reiterate the membership of that agency. I've been told before that the fire department is always there, so take care of your family first. It's very important to the membership to know that that department will always be there so whenever you can respond, whenever you can train, anything like that is important, but always take care of family first.

Richard Smith

The other thing I wanted to mention is making sure you partner on the volunteers with your neighboring towns. They support you in every aspect of every big call, or even the small calls. That's a big deal.

Hannah Coffey

To reiterate what Rich just highlighted, the need to reach out to that next generation of responders and find your new base is vital. I've told people to find the flexible ones. Well, who's flexible? Teenagers are. We all started when we were teenagers for a reason, we thought this stuff was normal then, or at least cool and interesting. So high schools, votec, community colleges, we pounded down those doors. Reach out everywhere you can, because it's going to be educators who are going to be your greatest proponents. They're going to start showing interest and the teachers are going to be the ones that know. Make those alliances because as our institutional knowledge loss continues, we're going to need a new tranche. COVID has been hard, but what comes next? I think it's going to be pretty awesome.

How has technology changed over your tenure? Has it made it easier or more difficult? How has CERT (the volunteer management program) aided in your experience? 

Natalie Monett 

I don't think at this point, we would be able to do a lot of what we do in the field or in the field of emergency management without CERT members. As technology is changing over time, being able to have the technology that we have now, and the willingness for those CERT members to help, makes it easier for them. Having technology that's easier for them to learn so you can let somebody in front of a computer and say, just check these people in and they can. They can help do that and they feel more wanted and more useful on a scene or wherever. 

Richard Smith

Try to get away from disparate systems. There's a lot of technology out there and there's a lot of things that do a very good job in whatever avenue that they're pursuing. It might be just responding to a call saying, “I'm responding to this call,” or it might be something where you're reporting a call to the USFA, or whoever it is. Try to consolidate that if you can, because it makes it easier to engage your membership, it makes it easier to engage volunteers from other agencies, or CERT or whoever it is just to have a central point rather than say, "well, if you want to do XYZ log into this system, but if you want to do ABC log into this system". Try to make sure you consolidate that as much as possible.

Mark Demski 

With Veoci, what we've done with the program is we've recognized CERT and actually have a solution where volunteers can be part of the system. The local Emergency Manager can send them alerts, and they're actually able to say I'm going to respond to that and help you with that. They're able to help you with damage assessment. So they have access to a software system that they can actually use and participate in and provide eyes and ears out to the Emergency Managers out there. If 100 of them come in and give information, they may not be trained professionals, but they're trained personnel who are actually able to really help.

Anthony Quintana

Whether you're urban EMS, or whether you're rural EMS, everything has changed in regards to technology. Any EMS system really, if you're running a high performance EMS system, you're having dynamic staffing, there's going to be technological aspects that need to happen. Now, there's always an importance to keep one foot grounded. As for worst case scenarios, your backup plan should have a backup plan, but you have to look at the environment, and you have to look at the things that are happening around. In Nevada, there's multiple private ambulance shops that are closing, even though we're in COVID, even though there's people being transported to the hospital and we're in a real time pandemic. There's fire houses where, as was stated by Richard, that can't staff and then they get consolidated with other fire houses, again, potentially increasing response time. If you can't measure it, you can't manage it. 

Any stories or fun anecdotes?

Richard Smith  

I can start with one. In regards to the data management piece, in our rural fire department, we had firewell inspections. It was basically inspecting all of our water sources across the town. We never really met 100% compliance on this. Throughout the years, we tried and tried again and it was all managed through a spreadsheet. The department actually migrated to Veoci for this and imparted on its membership to check firewells using their phones. That was the first year that we saw 100% compliance, 100% of the firewells inspected. We were able to communicate to the town on what firewells needed to be cleared, which ones were inaccessible, which ones had low water, and so on and so forth. Leveraging that technology made a huge difference.

John Duddy  

Definitely a true statement. For those who have just picked up on it, Rich and I are in the same fire department. We have leveraged the system (Veoci) there to help us out, with we just went through our ISO as I mentioned earlier, and it's actually moved the department forward on that part of the process, and also elevated more questions to make it even better going forward.

Hannah Coffey

Yeah, in terms of technology, and, you know, stories and anecdotes, I do wilderness first response. I'm a wolfer. And that was part of my attraction to New England actually was that I could be a wolfer, there is plenty of remote terrain, and the weather is not very forgiving. So in a mapping program we were using at the time in Vermont, we had a gentleman in distress on a snowmobile. He had gone out over a frozen lake in January, we were sent as the retrieval team. It was SAR work. And the one thing that had not been included in the software, or at least the individuals who had chosen to do the mapping, was the status of the ice. And it was fully loaded with that snowmobile out there and we went out one at a time. And we fortunately did remember to drop our rope because the ice broke under the weight of a second person plus the fully loaded snowmobile, let's just say. It had plenty to go with it, including his bourbon for that evening. So in retrieving him, we ended up retrieving all of us. But it turned out that one of the things that had been discussed in the EOC, and in this mapping software rollout was, you know, they live, all of these people lived near or adjacent to, or even use those transit route lakes during the winter, right, this is upstate Vermont. So in northeastern England, those are the roads. And nobody had included the status of the water and the air temp to flag on the map. You know, as we looked down on our mobile devices, you know, the air temp when, if we had been thinking, you know, we would have also said, you know, it's gotten up to 38 for a few days, maybe we should be cautious. But yeah, we built in an automatic flagging status check, after that. That was chilly.

What excites you most about developing technology as you look towards the future?

Anthony DeGeorge

Generally, software becoming more mobile. I think we're all excited and at a point in our careers where we could sit at our desk and do something on a computer. And now we have devices that are much more powerful in our pocket. So seeing the kind of natural progression of what could once only be done on a desktop machine, move to a laptop and then move to a tablet or a phone is exciting, and it's just going to keep moving these industries forward.

Mark Demski 

That, and I would also say the public being able to participate. We're seeing more and more of the public being able to work with their emergency management on some of their public portals. With using a product such as Veoci to be able to participate, it actually helped the emergency managers, and we're seeing a lot more of the public, actually doing part of the preliminary damage assessment. That really frees up the Emergency Managers to know exactly where the damages are initially to then get their team together. 

Richard Smith  

Investigating a fire, and taking pictures of everything that happened in that structure fire, every point of that investigation, and seamlessly being able to integrate that with your report, instead of the old way with a DSLR camera and a Word document is game changing. Being able to integrate that into your report is huge, it saves a lot of time, a lot of effort, and it makes a big difference. And that's very exciting, to streamline investigation, and really move things forward in even occupancy inspections as well, you know, this exit was blocked, for instance, and being able to take a picture was blocked. Those types of things we never really had before.

Natalie Monett  

And having it pushed and saved in the cloud, and you don't have to worry about it getting lost or something happening to it, I think is huge also.

Anthony Quintana 

With what we're doing right now, organizations are no longer confined by buildings. And with that being said, having a virtual emergency operations center on the internet is an unbelievable opportunity to get all the decision makers on the same platform and able to move things forward during a time of disaster and emergency.

How do you think that culture change can be effected in terms of adopting new modes of operations and management, in order to improve, but not necessarily replace best practices today?

Richard Smith 

Eventually, there's going to be a culture change that is inherent to generational evolution. With the fire department we work with there was a champion, a younger Assistant Chief. He took it on himself and embraced it and made it successful, and I think you're going to see that likened in other settings. Ultimately, the old way of doing things will still be retained in some fashion, but as time goes on, those in the younger generations that embrace technology, are going to just move it forward. It's not an easy transition by any means and it doesn mean that you should exclude those older folks or anybody else that has a traditional way of doing things, it's important to incorporate them in that. But adoption and success is really going to be hinging on those trendsetters that take it on.

Anthony Quintana 

Trust. You have to make sure that your employees have trust in your organization. If your organization is looking to make a cultural change, buckle up, because it's going to take anywhere between five to eight years, at least. It is a long term process and in order to reassure individuals, you need to be transparent, show them the framework and the direction that they're headed.

Mark Demski  

You may not want to give technology or a new piece of technology to someone who is dead set in their ways. But maybe there is somebody within your organization that really likes technology and has the fortitude to really investigate it and try to move it forward. It may not be the senior guy, it may be the young guy who is willing to take the chance to make it work and really impress others, win everybody over, not just force it down their throat

John Duddy

To take that step one further Mark, that result of seeing a change will also increase the buy-in or the believability that a change is okay–that it's okay to push forward. That will be a big determining factor in more people coming aboard. Small victories along the way.

Richard Smith 

If you could adequately demonstrate success, adoption will follow suit. That's the thing to keep in mind.

Hannah Coffey

And bringing in students, you'd be amazed. They're flexible, they are ready and they inherently come in with a different mindset. If they want to learn something, give them the tech, let them play with it and watch them learn. 

Anthony Quintana  

If you show success, people will inherently adapt to it. But give your organization the why. Tell them why upfront. People are afraid or fear things that they don't understand. And if you give them the why to the technology that's coming in, you will get early adopters and potential for more success.

John Taylor 

I think it's best just to lay out a technology roadmap for them as well. You know, eat the elephant, one bite at a time. Do something this quarter, next quarter, next quarter.

Hannah Coffey

Know where you're going. Why you're going there, where are you going there, how long it's going to take.

Mark Demski

And learn from others.

...

More details, including a Q&A, can be had by watching the First Responder webinar recording.

Learn more about Veoci's emergency management solutions here.

Photo by Obi Onyeador on Unsplash

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