Better Alert Types

This is how we currently classify alerts

The pie chart is getting an upgrade

We have added some features to our website so alarms can be classified by type.

Many of you are familiar with NFIRS codes.  Codes starting with 100 mean “fire”.  For example:

NFIRS 162. Outside equipment fire. Includes outside trash compactors, outside HVAC units, and irrigation pumps. Excludes special structures (110 series) and mobile construction equipment (130 series).

NFIRS is a US standard, but we have modified our system to support other systems as well.  Currently NFIRS is the only classifier that is programmed; if you want another classifier, you will have to let us know what your system or country uses.

  1. We have added a column on the alerts tab that lists the alert type for easy reference
  2. You can select an alert type by clicking on the alert and scrolling to the bottom of the window.
  3. You can do a full text search by name or by code number.  We have also reorganized the codes into an easy-to-browse list. When you have made a selection, push “save”.
  4. “See also” suggestions, if any, will be displayed below the description.  NFIRS codes are complicated, we have tried to make it easy to choose the right one.
  5. We are adding a server component to learn from your selections and auto-select types for future alarms. In order to train our server, we are asking users to log into their web consoles and manually classify a couple dozen recent alarms.  We can use this data to perform machine learning.

Some users have pointed out that a machine can not be accurate 100% of the time, especially since an alert classification often changes based on what is found on scene.  A “651 smoke” alarm might turn into a “111 Structure Fire” or a “733 Smoke detector malfunction”.  This is reasonable. To ensure clarity, human classified alarms will be shown in dark letters with the full 3-digit code on the Alerts tab.  Computer classified codes will show the century digit only and will be grayed out.  For example:

111 Fire (black, 3 digits) = Human classified

100 Fire (gray italics, 1 digit) = Computer Classified

Of course, if the computer gets it wrong you can always correct it manually.

The next step (once alarms are being classified right) is for us to update the pie graph to show the new classification system.

 

 

 

A Good Tech Policy Will Make Your Department Safer

Active911, like other modern tech tools, is a great help for emergency responders.  I just got back from a trip to Saltillo, Mexico where the local FD has used Active911 successfully to reduce their average response time by over 50%.   Most departments in the US already have low response times but still benefit from the communications and coordination that Active911 provides.

But what happens when we have a server outage and these tools suddenly disappear?  As a leader in a tech organization, it’s not a subject I really want to talk a lot about because, well, we’re not supposed to go down.  Ever.  Nevertheless, it happens.  Several weeks ago we got a call from a department  who had trouble reaching their local responders because of a completely unrelated internet problem miles away in Texas.  It wasn’t our “fault” or theirs, but something in the internet caused our servers to be unavailable when they needed it.

Events like this underscore the fact that we must all have a plan in place to deal with unexpected outages, and we must make sure that everyone knows and practices the plan.  To this end I’ve written a policy writing guide to assist chief officers in creating a tech outage plan.  This guide can be useful not only for dealing with Active911 but for any tech service with lots of moving pieces.

I encourage all administrators to examine the tech that they rely on and ensure they have a plan in place for when, not if, that technology, suffers an outage.   Even if you never have to use it, you’ll be prepared to take care of the people who depend on you when the unexpected happens.

March 2016: iOS & Android updates, page groups, and more

We’ve made several upgrades to the Active911 system we thought you would like to know about. Here is the short list:

- New iOS update adds mapping options, map ruler, and more.  Read details or watch a 5 minute video.

- New Android update (1.4.0.0) has additional fields for creating alerts, better handling of locations when creating alerts in the app, an alert edit view, and other changes.  Read details or watch a 90 second video

- ALSO, we accidentally leaked an Android feature that allows you to add map markers directly from the app.  We were going to release it later when iOS had the feature too, but instead Android users get it early.  Happy March!  See a 0:24 video here (silent).

- Page groups can now be “daisy chained” across agency lines. This means that you can now have automatic mutual aid activations in your department or in a neighboring department as a result of preconfigured parameters!   We’ve made a video explaining how this and the other new website features (including bulk map data editing) work.

- Finally, we have some overall mapping improvements: our new geocoder, Wiz, allows us to use your GIS data to better geolocate alarm locations before we send them to you! This optional feature replaces Google geocoding. We are encouraging agencies with access to local GIS in the form of ESRI Shapefiles to contact our support team with your shapefiles using the title “Shapefiles for Wiz, (insert agency name here)”.

Stay safe,

The Active911 Team

 

Active911 iOS 1.5.1 update

We actually pushed this to Apple some time ago, but it got “stuck” in their process and we had to call them on the phone to get it kicked loose.  They were very helpful, though, and now 1.5.1 is available for download.  From the Apple App Store:

What’s New in Version 1.5.1

- Added easy links for Google and Apple external routing
- Makes notes selectable, enables hyperlinks in notes!
- Fixed issue creating alert where some phones were unable to set title or address.
- Fixed issue preventing app from launching directly to new alert when alert was swiped. 
- Fixed issue with missing text when alerts contain “&” character.
- Fixed name sorting on Personnel page
- Fixes bug with test messages when app is in foreground

The “easy links for Google and Apple external routing” are new little icons you’ll see below the address.  One goes to Google Maps, the other to Apple Maps. The Google Maps link won’t work if you haven’t installed Google Maps (obviously).

We’re rich-texted the notes, so if your PSAP puts a phone number in there, it should get auto-detected and hyperlinked for one-touch calling.  Same for URLs.

Everything else is pretty much bug fixes.  We have assignable assignments working in beta, so the next update should have that as well.

ON ANOTHER NOTE, we’re consolidating the beta program somewhat.  Those assignment features that the beta users are using?  Yeah, it only works if you grant yourself “assignment” permissions in the Devices tab.  Which you can only do if you have the Beta website.  Which you can only do if you are a website Beta tester.  Since this is getting too complicated, we are granting ALL beta testers access to the whole suite of beta products.  Grant is working on this now and they should all be getting emails in the future with more details on this change.

Apple app notes – week in review

We pushed the iOS Active911 1.5 app update on Monday, enabling Assignments.  Today is Friday, so we have had a week to get feedback and figure some things out.

In version 1.5.1

Selectable text in version 1.5.1

The bottom line is that some more updates are in store for Apple users.  Here’s a list:

  1. The “External Link” on the bottom of the alert details page used to launch Apple Maps, and it doesn’t any more.  Lots of people use this for navigation. This is being fixed.
  2. The address area launches a map within the Active911 app.  Most people already know this, but for those who don’t, we’ve added a helpful icon.
  3. Test messages don’t pop up when the app is in the foreground.  This has been fixed in beta and should be in your hands soon.  Normal alerts seem to come through fine, as do alerts and test messages when the app is in the background.
  4. People asked us to make the text within the app selectable.  This has been added to detail text for 1.5.1 beta.  It also means you can have hyperlinks in the details section!  See the image at right.
  5. The app update required a server update which in turn introduced a bug.  The bug made it so late-model iOS devices didn’t get paged when messages were very looooong (many lines of notes).  This was fixed today and does not require an app update (we had to update the server).
  6. We have one report of an iPhone 5 user (iOS 8.2 or iOS 8.3) who says the alert title is reset to “Alert” when he sends an alert from his phone.

All told, it’s been a busy and tiring week!  On the radar also is making assignments assignable to anyone from within the app, and paging (Apple Notifications) to the assignees.  :)

That’s it for now – have a good weekend, everyone!

Active911 Rescue Film

We made a short video saluting the work of fire and rescue personnel everywhere.  This video played for the first time at our booth at FDIC 2015, and now that we are back we wanted to share it with everyone else.

Thanks to everyone who helped us make this, and to all of you out there doing what you do.

Artsy Blues, or Top five things I want to ask “Visual Designers”

Yep, you recognize this

Devs don’t do this stuff

I believe in good design. That is, I believe that it is super important to make sure that our software looks good and works in a comfortable and classy way.

I also think that Active911 is about ready — and probably far overdue — for a serious infusion of design talent.  I’m tired of having to run to 99designs every time we need something actually creative, and then fake everything in between.

This means hiring a design firm, or maybe hiring a full time visual designer.  ”Visual Designer” or “UI Designer” is apparently what these mythical beings call themselves. I know this because I talked with my brother in law, who just graduated from artsy school, and because I’ve been doing my research.

In fact, you might say that I’m a little obsessed with artists right now.  I see that finding artistic help is going to be an absolute requirement for Active911′s future, so it’s now one of my top priorities.  I want to know how these people think, what makes them tick, and where they congregate.  It’s like hunting an exotic bird in the jungle.

Now this leads me to some interesting problems.  First, I’m not an artist, so I have a hard time evaluating and understanding artists.  If a job applicant takes a long time to draw a user interface, does that mean that they are slow – or just thoughtful?  If I ask for multiple design options and get two instead of five, does that represent a lack of creativity or perhaps someone who already knows what a good design looks like and doesn’t waste my time with anything else? Not to mention the fact that the whole thing – art – is a bit subjective anyway.  (I can be fairly objective about user interfaces, but it requires a pretty careful analysis.  On the other hand, it’s probably easier to evaluate good and bad UI design than to evaluate a chunk of code.  And we do evaluate the code produced by potential new hires.)

Second, we have a wide variety of things that we need help with.  In addition to the apps and the website, we also need illustrations for the help documentation.  We need a trade show booth.  We need apparel and general branding work.  And we need video and animation help.  So someone with skills in just one area might be a little lost.  We need a unicorn.

My third problem is probably the strangest one of all.  Now, my research shows that artists are primarily judged by their portfolios, and that these portfolios are online and also hosted almost exclusively on Dribbble and/or Behance.  So naturally I started looking through these sites for artists with exceptional abilities.  But guess what!  Almost none of the good UI designers (as judged by me and the Top100 list) live in the US!  What?  That’s right.  Despite the fact that there are 300 million of us, and that the US is home to a lot of big software companies, we have a very poor presence in this important niche. I’m still scratching my head about that one.

Oh, and one more thing.  Why do big companies like Intel and Google still outsource artistic help?  Don’t they have big in-house design departments?  Could it be that artists prefer to work in a flock-like team?  I kind of doubt it.  There are a lot of freelancers out there, after all.  On the other hand, they also seem to worry a lot about finding work, so maybe it’s just the nature of the work.  Programming jobs that involve making websites for clients over and over again get pretty boring, but maybe that is the kind of work environment that artists like.  Maybe developers are monogamists where artists are not, instead flitting from relationship to relationship.  I want us to be able to attract and keep a designer just for ourselves. But I want our designer to stay because they love us and our work, not because they feel trapped.  Oh no! Did I just make it weird?

So here it is.

Top five things I want to ask “Visual Designers”:

  1. If you were the only designer at a small company, and had to build things with (appreciative and friendly but non-designer) teammates, would that be cool?  Like some really great devs who are not artists?
  2. Why are so many amazing UI people in places other than the USA? Like almost exclusively NOT american?!  :)
  3. Please explain Nike / Intel / Google / Facebook / etc outsourcing design help.  These companies build their own software and even (some cases) run their own bus line.  They can’t do their own design?
  4. Is there any way to objectively measure someone’s artistic ability when it comes down to specific jobs, for example branding or UI/UX?
  5. Do you feel a need to be constantly moving in order to not feel stifled?

New Alert Server

We’ve had a lot of questions in the past few days about the new alert server.  Our original announcement looked like this:

NEW ALERT SERVICE (BETA) – Some people get multiple pages for every alarm due to dispatch settings, and they wanted better merging on our end.  Others have problems with alarm locations defaulting to the wrong place, and want to have “default” map locations moved to somewhere more obvious, like the station house.  We have a new alert server in beta right now that should fix these and other issues.  If you want to try it out on a beta testing basis, contact support so they can hook you up.

This prompted a flurry of emails.  Since there was some confusion regarding what exactly we were fixing, I thought I would go into more detail here.

An “alert server” is the first contact that Active911 has with your dispatch center.  It performs the following tasks:

  • Receive and validate incoming alarms
  • Parse them into standard data items (address, nature, etc)
  • Mapping (geocoding)
  • Alarm filtering
  • Duplicate detection
  • Pagegroup selection
  • Duty shift and personal device filters
  • Paging

As you can see, it’s quite a lot.  It works out to about 5,000 lines of code besides all the parsing code and Apple and Webview paging servers (which are entirely separate projects).

As mentioned in this post, we recently rewrote the whole thing to be more efficient and have better feature control.  So for those of you wondering if the new alert server can help you, the answer is to look at the above list and see if your problem relates to one of the affected items.  If it does, we might have a solution for you.  Part of the code rewrite is to add in features that people have been requesting.  Here are some examples of problems we should be able to fix:

  • Some departments get alarm updates, and they want the updates (2nd and later alerts) to be silent.  Silent alarms are now being supported.
  • Alarm filtering was fairly primitive.  It’s getting a boost.
  • Alarm duplicate detection is now more customizable
  • Once a duplicate has been detected, the way it is handled is more customizable
  • The alerting process is being made more efficient to help speed up paging times
  • Map points can be substituted (addresses that mapped to a particular location can in some cases be relocated elsewhere)

It’s not a complete list.  But in general, things that have to do with the initial alert processing are either being upgraded or are open to feature suggestions.

We’re running a beta test alert server, and we are inviting people to try it out.  Since it is beta, it will be buggy and is not something most agencies should try.  If you have an agency that can tolerate a few missed pages in the interest of testing out a new system, however, you might be a good fit.

Where is the iOS update?

We’ve had a bunch of people recently asking about the next iOS update. The current version is missing some features that it really needs, including some map data features, internationalization (i18n) and the ability to properly show large amounts of notes text.

So, what’s up?

Well, I confess the holdup has been my fault.  I actually have a newer version built already – it’s been running on my phone for months – but I haven’t had the time to release it yet.  True, it is a bit buggy and needs some tweaking before it is really ready for the wild.  But it’s basically there.

And that’s because I’ve been busy for the last couple months redesigning the alerts servers.  The alert servers are the machines that process your alarms when they come in, decide which page groups to page, perform mapping, and do other important things.  The code had grown to be rather unwieldy and quite inefficient.  The straw that broke the camel’s back was when Cadpage asked us to send different data to their devices than what we had been sending.  Plus, we’re moving to a sharded System of Record (SoR) datastructure, and compartmentalizing all the database code at the same time made sense.  The alert servers had to be recoded.

Of course, we added some features as well – giving the tech team better controls to configure your filtering, duplicate alarms, merging, and so forth. :)

Fortunately, I’m about done with the alert server.  It’s around 5000 lines of code, and pretty much the whole thing had to be gone over by hand.  It’s now up and running on my development machine; next, I’m deploying it to a test server for some beta users to poke at while I write test classes.  Finally, it will get pushed to production and I can work on iOS code.

Yes, we’re pretty much constantly on the lookout for more help.  We are working on hiring more development talent.  But getting good people takes time, so in the meantime your patience is appreciated!  We’re still churning out new code and you should have your iPhone/iPad update before too much longer. Thanks for understanding.

Big(ish) data and loving it

I was sitting here, in the dark, at 2 AM and wishing that Facebook would allow me to post under my real name.  I work at Active911 but when I post on our Facebook wall, it all looks like the same person posting (you can never tell who “I” is).

The reason I wanted to use my real persona is because my feelings tonight are very personal.  I just finished converting some 40 million or so records from one data type to another, so that Jonathan can proceed with his feature rollout (the much requested response button renaming). After I converted the records, I started working on our new sharded data store (more on that some other day) and created a new Github repo called “bard” (rhymes with “shard” :) ) to manage all of this.  I’m currently planning on storing Thrift-serialized data in a MySQL blob column.

AND I FREAKING LOVE THIS STUFF.  I guess it sounds boring to non techies, but this kind of stuff makes my engine purr. I love the stuffing out of my job.

Let’s hear it for everyone out there who loves what they do!