OpenSource: Coming to the Rescue!

Two years ago, on April 1, 2004 an article appeared here on OSNews titled “Will Open Source Come to the Rescue?” Two years later, I am proud to report that there is indeed an effort to bring open source software to the Emergency Service community. I would like to take this time to tell you what has transpired in the past two years.

After the article first appeared, we were surprised at how many web sites picked up the article. We received many e-mails and comments concerning the issues we discussed. Some folks thought I was a Microsoft basher, but that was never the case. Others thought I was just plain nuts, which may very well be true! But the majority were thoughtful comments, suggestions and advice.

Many folks wrote to me and said they would love to be a part of such a project, but they knew little of the operations of a 9-1-1 call center, or what type of software a fire truck would need, or how FOSS would fit into the law enforcement community. Others expressed the frustration that varying standards would cause, such as the reporting standards here in the United States versus what might be required in Poland. There was also concern that bugs have the potential to do real harm.

It seemed like interest in such a project was beginning the wane, and it looked like it might not go anywhere. Then gradually things began to happen. As you well know, open source became more present just about everywhere. You began to see articles about European countries and governments embracing open source. In the United States, the open source movement was also gaining speed. Businesses took open source seriously and local governments began to look at open source and open standards. On our end, we still weren’t able to seem to get anything going, but that was about to change.

The OpenISES Project is Born
On July 3, 2005, I received an e-mail from a Mr. Arnold ‘Arnie’ Shore. He had recently read the article and was interested in joining forces. Arnie was retired, and was currently involved in volunteer work developing web applications. In addition to the article, he had a friend in Florida who worked for an emergency operations center in a small county during a recent hurricane. As far as a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) program, they had nothing. Sure, there were commercial versions, but the county simply couldn’t afford such a ‘luxury’. That is how Arnie got involved, and we began to send e-mails back and forth discussing how we should proceed.

From these series of e-mails came the birth of the OpenISES (Open Information Systems for Emergency Services) Project. We created the OpenISES Project ( to help provide emergency service agencies with the software, materials and expertise they need to do their jobs. Our projects were to be all open source, with the primary goal of offering emergency service agencies a choice that is away from high cost software. We know that many agencies simply don’t have the money, so they do without. Sometimes a choice is made between spending budget money on software, or put to use purchasing rescue gear. We are determined to help those agencies have more choices, so they can better serve their communities.

As with any new project like this, there are problems that come up right from the start. One of the biggest obstacles we have to overcome in the developer community is an impression that with little or no experience in emergency services they can’t possibly be of any help. This is simply not the case. A prime example of this can be seen in what Arnie did as he looked at emergency service applications from a different perspective. Consider his approach to the CAD program;

“What I did was to assume that 9-1-1 operations are similar conceptually to tracking software problems. Really! That is, a ‘ticket’ gets written, then tracked to its closure, and that status info is needed along the way. At its core, it’s record-keeping. So, I looked at a number of F/OSS ticket applications, picked one that looked amenable to some heavy adaptation, have added mapping, etc, to it, and it’s under development as we speak.”

And its not just CAD programs that can benefit from the experience of the open source developer community. Listen to his idea concerning a Jail Management project;

“(There has been some) interest in a jail management application as a possible extension to Tickets. I see a parallel between that and (are you sitting down?) a school administration application. For instance, students relate to prisoners, parents relate to visitors, teachers relate to guards, principals related to wardens, schoolrooms relate to cells, etc. There may be better choices, but I’ve looked at a few of these for another ‘customer’ of mine, and the parallels struck me. So, if one could find the right school system and perform a massive change of term X to term Y, one could be 75% (?) of the way towards a jail management application.”

What We Plan to Provide
Our plan is to create a community where computer experts/developers and emergency service providers get together to discuss, create and provide the type of software that is needed by the emergency service community. That need is very real, especially in the smaller communities. Consider this statement from an Illinois EMA director who visited the Tickets demo site “Thanks for taking an interest in us ‘po’ folks’ out here with lots of area and very little funding.” It is these folks, the “three guys in a Winnebago”, that really need our help, and will benefit the most from the OpenISES Project. A contact in Steamboat Springs mentioned a software upgrade would cost $15000; money this small community simply doesn’t have.

We will be offering forums where emergency service providers and programmers can meet to discuss projects under development, or ideas for new projects. They will be able to receive support for the OpenISES applications they have deployed, often from the developers themselves. In addition, they will be able to get help on the implementation and use of other F/OSS applications. We are developing the materials a member of an agency may need to go to a City Manager or Chief and convince them that this ‘open source’ stuff is worth doing. They can get the support they need, in setting up systems, in using the software, etc.

One thing we are not doing is recreating the wheel. For instance, the OpenISES Project will not be developing another word processing program. We believe in using open standards and open source projects whenever possible. For example, we will be releasing all of our documents in the Open Document format. This open standard document format can be found in open source programs such as OpenOffice ( or Koffice ( We will not be creating a Learning Content Management System (LCMS), but will developing materials for established LCMS programs such as Moodle (, Dokeos ( and Claroline ( using the open SCORM standard. By supporting stable, existing open source projects we can focus on providing the specific software and content that is needed most by emergency service agencies.

The OpenISES Project is intended to be more than just software, however. As hinted in the paragraph above, our second goal of the project is to provide free open source training materials focused on emergency services. This would include projects such as training presentations and instructional texts. We believe that through the use of open standards, such as the Open Document Format, we can provide resources for a wide variety of emergency agencies, allowing them to be used on a wide variety of computer systems. Our goal is to create resources that would integrate with the open source LCMS packages. Our training resources will be open source so the material can be modified to meet the individual agency’s needs.

Can You Help
The OpenISES Project is off to a good start, but we need your help to keep us going. Currently the core group consist of four hard working folks. Arnie Shore is a ‘retired’ developer who has done a lot with the Tickets CAD program and has made contact with numerous agencies already. Mike Harris is another retired database programmer, who has been working on creating the back-end database schemes that the project software will use. Bill ‘BK’ Kramer is a retired from fire/EMS communications, and brings his experience from working the floor as a 9-1-1 operator and dispatcher, to setting up and integrating the back-end computer systems. As for me, I am an active paramedic, who does the web site and promotes the project. The folks at have given us a home on the web. Even with this core group of hard working folks, we sure could use your help.

We are looking for emergency service professionals and developers who wish to share with other providers, whether through training materials or computer expertise. We are looking for providers to work with our volunteer developers to help create the software you need. We are looking for instructors who are willing to make their training materials available for others to use. If you feel that this would help your agency as well as other agencies across the country and around the world, consider being a part of the OpenISES Project. We are asking for your help to be able to meet your needs. Come and join us.

The members of the OpenISES Project follow in the long standing tradition of emergency services by volunteering their talents and services to help their local communities.

We are a community of software developers and emergency service personnel with a goal of creating open source software and resources tailored to the needs of emergency service agencies.

About the author:
Robert W. Austin is a Nationally Registered Paramedic and has been serving in the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department for 18 years, and has over 25 years of fire and EMS experience. He currently works as a Paramedic Preceptor in the EMS Preceptor unit, and has been involved in many technology and research projects conducted by the department. He has been involved in developing computer programs since he developed his first program for the Surfside Beach Fire Department on a Commodore 64.

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