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Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Public Sector Tech: New tools for the new normal

How fire departments can extinguish money, space, and data loss with the cloud

On-premises data centers are hurting first responders, but the cloud can help.

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Image: iStockphoto/kjophoto

Firefighters spend their days saving lives, but outdated systems cause them to lose money, space, and data. The cloud is taking over the enterprise, with the public cloud market predicted to grow by 17% in 2020 alone, Gartner found. However, many fire departments still rely on legacy, on-premises data centers.

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"Fire departments and first responders depend on data to minimize injury and death to both firefighters and civilians and to minimize financial losses," said Colin Dawes, chief solution architect at Syntax, a managed cloud provider. 

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"They can leverage historic and operational data in the cloud for educational purposes, disaster prevention and emergency responses," Dawes said. "Typical data within on-premises systems include information about buildings in their district, such as construction material, building age, floor plan, sprinkler and machine room locations, as well as the location of hydrants, fire plans, inspection records and photographs."

Despite housing so much data, some fire departments have yet to update storage practices, which is long overdue, according to Joel Patterson, founder of The Vested Group, a NetSuite solution provider. 

"It's 2020. Fire departments need to keep up with the rest of the world," Patterson said. 

The main reason firefighters haven't switched to the cloud is because of how new the technology is, said Everett Harper, CEO of software infrastructure specialists at Truss, an organization that helps teams design, build, and scale modern software. 

"With firefighters, their systems came in pre-cloud," Harper said. "Switching to the cloud involves not just the cost of switching, but having new types of people and new types of organizations around those systems. There is a little disincentive to make a switch. No-one likes change."

However, the problem with legacy systems is that over time they start to fail. Harper said his company worked with a client that stored data on legacy systems. The client faced problems with the speed -- or lack thereof -- with the system; when too many people would try and access the mainframe, the old systems would crash.

"I'm sure a similar situation could occur with firefighters, where you have a five alarm call or something urgent; you don't want your system crashing," Harper said. "You want to be able to respond."

Other than functionality, some of the biggest benefits for firefighters include cost, reliability, security, and space, Harper said.  

Benefits of the cloud in fire departments

  • Lower costs

Switching to the cloud automatically saves money on the day to day, said Nicole Bordelon, vice president and treasury management officer at JPMorgan Chase

"It costs to buy paper. It costs to store paper. It costs to destroy the paper after a period of a year," Bordelon said. "At some point, there is so much paper, you need even more space. If an employee needs to locate a particular item, it takes time to locate the document. Time equals money." 

The cloud also benefits finances in the long term. "Your total cost of ownership over time is much lower and you have a provider whose incentive is to continually upgrade their systems. Before you can think of it, they've already got a plan for it and they release it," Harper added. 

"While some accounting and ERP systems are still offering both computer-based and cloud-based systems, more and more are phasing out computer-based and shifting to the cloud," Boredelon said. "Ultimately, if you remain with an outdated accounting system no longer supported by the software company, it will cost you more money to pay for IT support just to keep it up to date and in compliance."

  • Better reliability

The cloud provides a whole layer of reliability that on-premise can't match. 

"If you get surge and demand, the system automatically adjusts so you don't get the situation where, 'Oh my God, there's too many things hitting the system. It's going to crash or it's going to shut down or it's going to limit the speed,'" Harper said. "With cloud providers it just does it, [you] don't even have to think about it."

Bordelon said, "If you are using a computer based accounting system, or paper hard copies for document retention, what happens if you (ironically) have a fire? Or flood, hurricane, tornado, theft? Physical information can be lost forever." 

When organizations look to business continuity planning (BCP), having copies or backups of important documents in a secure place, like the cloud, is critical, Bordelon noted. 

"Many of the paper items that fire departments have are critical floor plans," Bordelon said. "If at least copies do not get stored in the cloud, what would truly happen if the only stamped copies are lost or damaged or destroyed? If the items are in the cloud, they'll not only be accessible, but they can also be backup copied to additional servers in the event your primary server goes down."

Another aspect to reliability is the availability cloud users have to cloud provider personnel, Harper said. 

"From an operator standpoint, fire departments have either an in-house IT person or consultant IT firm and that person or firm does not need to be the world's expert on speed, reliability, security, etc. because the cloud provider does that," Harper added.

  • Stronger security

A major benefit of storing information in the cloud is security. In the cloud, cybersecurity vulnerabilities can be easily spotted and stopped, Harper said. 

"When on-premises systems are phished or hacked, sometimes you don't even know that they've been phished or hacked for several days or even a week," Harper said. "That can present lots of problems."

"Systems in the cloud have multiple vectors of warning and notification in case things happen. You can be notified and things can be shut down quickly so that contagion can be limited fairly quickly," Harper said. 

When items are on paper, it's much more difficult to detect a breach, Bordelon noted. 

"The technology of today, with secure encryption, backing up information to additional servers, and cyber insurance can all help mitigate this risk,"Bordelon said. " If there are large amounts of paper documents in the office, how do you regulate security and access to those documents? How do you know if something is compromised? There is not a digital audit trail. Does your cyber insurance, if you have any, cover paper documents? Or will it only cover materials being adequately protected from fraud?" 

  • Eliminate unnecessary space

The last element accounted for by the cloud is space. With an on-premises data system, whether it's an entire room, closet, or box, it is taking up space. The cloud, however, takes no space at all, Harper said. 

The conditions for an on-premises data center may not be ideal either. "That back room may or may not be locked. It may not be air conditioned. There's a whole range of things that places that data in a vulnerable position," Harper added. 

Overall, by switching to the cloud "you'll get a much better design of your current operations in the firefighting department for less cost, with greater flexibility and greater security," Harper said. 

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