The potential for technology to enhance emergency response is at an all-time high. From internal records management to combatting large-scale disasters, the right tools can enable responders to act with greater understanding, coordination, and efficiency. Through the creation of its third advisor position, the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA) has affirmed its stance as a leader and advocate for advancements in public safety technology. David Blankinship has joined WFCA as its new Senior Technology Advisor, and will be at the forefront of Western’s work to prioritize technological progress in emergency response. Daily Dispatch had the opportunity to speak with David about his new role and what the future could hold for tech in public safety.
Tell us about the professional experiences that have led you to your current position:
I have always had an interest in geography and technology. I have also been fortunate enough in my career to be surrounded by people who are insanely talented in both of these fields. The first instance was at Colorado Springs Utilities where I learned about Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and worked with great people on fascinating projects relating data to mapping. That led to working with other local cities and agencies including the Colorado Springs Fire Department (CSFD).
As the Senior GIS Analyst for Colorado Springs Fire, I was surrounded by people who knew a lot more about fire and technology than I did. This was an amazing group to work with and be supported by. The highlight for me was always having a teacher – there was always someone who knew how to do the thing I didn’t know how to do. The culture was driven by a mission focused on making the community better and using technology as a tool to do so. This pattern has been reinforced in my life several times. I worked for Colorado Springs Utilities for about six and a half years and for the fire department a little over 10 years. There was continuous learning over the course of that experience, and I was very lucky to work for chiefs who integrated me into every operational aspect of public safety. The collaborative approach to public safety in Colorado Springs worked very well across disciplines. Anything requiring a response included the technology pieces that we worked on.
While engaged in those projects, I met more and more people across the country doing the most interesting things. I was deployed to California multiple times and met people who would later become significant in my life. I started the company Intterra with a few of those people, which has been growing and innovating for the last ten years.
All of these experiences have one thing in common: I got to work with people who were much smarter and better than I was. This provided the best kind of training ground for learning how things really work and pushing the technology boundaries forward in public safety.
Of your skills and experiences, which do you think will be most valuable in your new role?
I have benefited from working with very dedicated, bright technology minds for the past 25 years. I am also at a point in my career where, in some ways, it is a totally new and green field of possibilities while the mission has stayed the same. I have always worked for groups where the complete and total focus was to make people safer, to make things better, and to use technology as a tool to do that. Whether I was with a local government or a tech company that makes software on a large scale, both had the common goal of making ‘better’ happen faster. The new role with the Western Chiefs is the same pattern. I get to work for an innovative organization (WFCA) that is entrepreneurial and believes in collaboration, technology, city and wildfire issues, and the intersection of all of them. This role allows me not to have the government hat on, and not to operate as a vendor in public safety, but as a neutral advocate working on behalf of fire chiefs with a mission to drive technology, collaboration, and innovation forward.
What are some challenges / opportunities you will be tackling with WFCA?
If I had to boil everything down to two words, I would say ‘integration’ and ‘innovation’. Public safety, like many industries, has been slow to adopt technology. When that happens, you see apps that do “single things” emerge in the landscape, then those apps start to share data. Eventually, you see ecosystems that make sharing large amounts of information from CAD, records management, and situational awareness and other tools possible in near real time. That is one opportunity we will be facing – to drive the pace of data sharing and to make lots of companies and agencies successful in their missions doing that.
There are opportunities to look at technology as it relates to understanding where wildfires will happen, understanding risk related to structures and land, and how to address those issues with partners in insurance. Additionally, the United States is ripe for thinking about deployment of resources and protocols based on risk, and not just response times. We are looking to make outcomes better for communities beyond the speed or size of a fire engine. We want to examine where things will happen and why – with the goal of best helping our communities or even engineering risk out before things go wrong.
What do you see as the most important technology-related project for the fire service in the West?
Helping the industry use information to collaborate, strategically and tactically – between agencies, incidents, and software. This is a key to helping almost every facet of this job we love. Understanding risk and using data to support fire departments and policy makers to make better decisions. It sounds boring when you say it is all about data and inter-operability, but when you have data freed from its silos, you create an innovative environment that solves problems. Fire departments and technologists are innovative and always looking to solve problems, they just need the tools to do it. Our job is to make them successful by removing barriers for them.
What does it mean to be a loaned executive?
I helped create the company Intterra, which has done very well, and has always been driven by a mission. A way to drive this mission forward beyond the company itself is to make our talent, leadership, experience, and technological know-how available to WFCA. This benefits the Association without making it hire all of its own talent. In effect, you take a company like Intterra that believes in what WFCA is doing, and it loans Western my expertise to focus exclusively on challenges WFCA is facing.
What keeps occurring to me is that this strategy isn’t business as usual. This is a new pattern for the industry. Now is a unique moment in time for public safety; technology has matured, data is available, and departments have begun to innovate and take the lead in understanding risk and using tools in all facets of their jobs. There couldn’t be a better time for WFCA and the fire service to make managing and innovating with technology a primary focus over the next couple of years.