Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Potpourri

I hope that everyone has had a blessed holiday season thus far.

It's been a somewhat hectic few weeks. Over the course of that time, I've been trying to catalog those stories, observations, and ideas that made for short stops on the bullet train of my attention span.

Like a simmering pot of subtle fragrances designed to provide a pleasant ambiance, these numerous topics of interest have presented themselves to me as a fragrance, an odor, an olfactory metaphor that stimulates the thought process in some way - either memory, contemplation, or an emotional response.

While not all connected to the holiday season (and not all subtle or pleasant), they are no less topical and appropriate to the time of year, as well as our immediate future:

Pine Boughs, Warm Shortbread, Melting Candle Wax

It's been many years since I celebrated Christmas in this area, but it was still good to see luminaria lining Thorn Street in Sewickley as well as adorning other locations. There is a certain comfort to tradition and ceremony, whether as part of a religious community or as someone who exercises their formidable kitchen skills for the benefit of family and stranger alike. Lots of homemade cookies are comforting to the psyche if not the waistline.

As I picked up the spent bags from outside of the house on Christmas morning, I was reminded of the last few years in Colorado, when the luminaria I placed in front of the houses on my block seemed to be a unique addition to the usual holiday decorations. I continue to cherish both the simplicity and profundity of the message that is symbolized by a bag, some sand, and a candle.

Brine and Benzene

A couple of significant developments in the continuing controversy over fracking:
I normally try to resist making comparisons to Colorado and Pennsylvania, especially in terms of government and politics. However, chemicals and groundwater know not what state boundary they are flowing underneath, and contaminated water is just that, no matter where the humans that have to use it happen to reside.

Considering the revelation that the energy industry is employing public relations personnel with a background in military-style counterinsurgency tactics, it's more important than ever to get to the truth, and assure that the government charged with serving citizens understands that truth, and does their job accordingly.

Chalkboard Dust and Musty Textbooks

Back in 2009, I wrote about some of my memories of Mount Gallitzin Academy in Baden, upon the announcement of its closure. Now the sounds of schoolchildren will again fill those tall, old hallways and classrooms, thanks to the recent state approval of the Baden Academy Charter School. It's noteworthy that the school's approval at the state level was unanimous on the part of the charter school appeal board, overturning a unanimous disapproval (twice) by the local school board, Ambridge Area.

I don't know what to think of the whole charter school concept, especially as it relates to the local experience. What I know is what I see - many school districts experiencing much more difficult times in terms of declining enrollment, dwindling tax bases and state subsidies, and constant if not rising infrastructure and personnel costs. Many see merit in the ability to establish a school and receive public money for it, and the government oversight appears to be fairly robust.

Still, some of the methods with which many local charter schools are getting their message out and their faces in the public eye - such as high-profile advertising and corporate-style sponsorship - seem disingenuous to me as both a parent and taxpayer.

Nonetheless, I wish the school and its students the best, along with the ongoing mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph, who will rent their building to the school. As an overview on the school's website states:
The former Mt. Gallitzin facility offers superb classrooms in a safe, serene setting. Decades of successful education attest to the practicality of the facility as a desirable learning environment.
Can't argue with that.

Stale, Moldy Bread in these SOPApillas

It's been heartening to see how much coverage the mainstream media have been giving to controversial legislation of late. One particularly odious bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. This bill is part of a continuing effort to place restrictions on the flow of information in an effort to combat copyright infringement and the sale of counterfeit goods online.

Proponents of the bill are those whose profits and livelihoods are tied to entertainment product - the MPAA and RIAA, and the AFL-CIO among others. The bill's opponents include the bulk of the Internet community, including Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, and on and on.

The core premise of the bill is to create an Internet blacklist - to facilitate the wholesale censorship of information deemed to "infringe". The bill infringes, all right - not only upon individual liberty, but free enterprise as well. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an excellent overview of the subject matter, as well as links to take action.

As it happens, Politico reports that corporate support for SOPA and it's Senate counterpart, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) appears to be eroding in the face of continued vocal opposition and at least one boycott of the largest domain name provider.

SOPA puts over-reaching "protection" of a lucrative industry ahead of the fundamental rights of citizens.

New Car Smell

The National Transportation Safety Board has gone on record advocating for a complete ban on cell phone use while driving.

From a personal standpoint, I believe that texting while driving is dangerous. I'm also uncomfortable with trying to manipulate a phone while behind the wheel. This includes trying to hold the phone up to my ear.

I have a Bluetooth headset, and my phone has voice dialing. I believe that I can safely engage in a conversation with both hands on the wheel and eyes facing forward. The vehicle manufacturers that have incorporated Bluetooth hands-free into the sound systems of their cars would appear to feel the same way.

A complete ban on cell phone use while driving seems to me to have the same kind of government over-reach that SOPA does. Enforcement of such a law would also be difficult in my mind, especially if expanded to the entire spectrum of distracted driving.

A CBS News consultant and former NTSB member took this one step further, implying that the current board "missed the boat" by ignoring additional technology advances, such as frontal collision avoidance systems, that could help to mitigate accidents regardless of any inattentive behavior on the part of the driver.

I Love the Smell of Asphalt in the Morning

Sometimes there's nothing that can be done to prevent or protect yourself from life's pitfalls, whether on the roadway or not. One faulty valve on a truck loaded with liquid asphalt can really ruin your day (and your car) if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now it seems that the Nov. 22 spill along 40 miles of the Turnpike has damaged so many vehicles (including a couple of luxury models totaled) that the insurers are throwing up their hands or attempting to deny coverage, for which they're being sued.The driver of the truck apparently decided to leave the area after the State Police told him to stay so his truck could be inspected - a big boo-boo on top of everything else.

This is another example of how tenuous the nature of travel is - how dependent it is upon due diligence, attentiveness, and an attitude that is rife with a lot of patience - especially around here. This was brought home to me on the way back from work this past Friday, when a flatbed semi loaded with drilling rig assemblies, followed by a large tanker truck full of something (fracking fluid?), passed me inbound on the Parkway East.

Fresh Sausage

Thinking about this topic, I was reminded of the quote that is attributed to German chancellor Otto Von Bismark (1815-1898):
 "There are two things you don’t want to see being made—sausage and legislation."
That being said, it seems that there are similar goings-on in my former home and my current one that warrant some attention. Both have to do with the bumpy road of transition.

It seems that the City Council in Grand Junction, Colorado elected to force the resignation of City Manager Laurie Kadrich...just in time for Christmas. Ms. Kadrich, who held the post for five years, cited  “fundamental philosophical differences between me and City Council" as the reason for her departure.

Ms. Kadrich was a fine City Manager. She was the last one I had the pleasure of working for, and even after my departure from the City's employment she was accessible and straightforward, even in the face of disagreement.

Mayor Tom Kenyon was quoted in the Daily Sentinel story as stating, “The city manager has a lot of authority, but they have to remember they have seven bosses".

When some of those seven bosses change, the dynamics and priorities often change as well. This is something that is about to happen in Leetsdale. With not just the current Borough Manager, but the position itself, under threat of termination by the council members-elect, the future of the borough's day-to-day operational structure remains unclear, even if the stated intent of the incoming council members is not. 

The transition has already begun to impact those operations. Sewickley Patch reported that a sitting Council member questioned one incoming member's request for reimbursement from the borough for classes she and the other three newcomers are taking in preparation for their new duties.

These classes comprise the Newly Elected Officials Course, offered by the Local Government Academy, located on Pittsburgh's North Side. The academy has been in existence for over 25 years, and serves as a clearinghouse for training and information to help those elected and/or employed in the field of local government succeed on behalf of the citizens they serve.

It's a good idea that these incoming council members have this kind of baseline training. I personally don't have a problem with the new Council members requesting reimbursement from the borough - just so that request is accompanied by a copy of a certificate of completion. The course is scheduled to conclude on March 10.

Here's looking forward to that, and for more good tidings into the new year. Until then..

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Public Recordings, Recorders, and Records

All censorship exists to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. 

All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. 

Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.  
                                                                           - George Bernard Shaw

Over the last 25 years, incidents of local, national, and international significance have been made more so by the increasing availability of portable recording devices.

Whether as part of a mobile phone or other platform, when combined with Internet access and ubiquitous social media networks these compact devices collect and disseminate information in a manner that has literally changed the way the world is perceived and governed.

Most recently, the so-called 'Arab Spring' and the Occupy Wall Street protest and its various offshoots across the country have demonstrated the power of instant messaging and video to document activities and mobilize citizens to action.

Issues have arisen locally and in other parts of the country concerning the recording of public safety and other government personnel in the conduct of their daily activities. The issues involve not only the practice of recording these personnel in public, but also the availability of the official recordings of their activities, and/or the 9-1-1 calls that precipitated them.

Here are some examples of how these activities affect us as citizens:

Your Right to Record the Police

From Long Island to Leetsdale to Las Vegas, this past year has seen public servants finding themselves on the wrong side of both the law and public opinion when confronted by a citizen with an audio or video recorder, and attempting to stop the recording. A recent federal court decision may put to rest any hint of ambiguity about the public's right to record public officials in the exercise of their official duties, including those in law enforcement.

The case involved Simon Glik, a Boston lawyer who recorded some questionable handling of an arrestee in 2007. He was himself arrested for doing this. The charges against him were dropped, and Mr. Glik successfully established in court that the attempt to prevent him from passively documenting the actions of the police flew in the face of our most fundamental liberties.

Here in the local area, law enforcement seems well aware of a citizen's right to record them in action, as well as a citizen's responsibility not to unlawfully interfere with police activities or jeopardize safety at the same time. Law enforcement training and legal bulletins, including this one, are getting the word out to police agencies about these rights and responsibilities, on both sides of the badge.

There are several online examples out there of how to record police, and how not to. A good overview is available here.

Pittsburgh CopBlock: Monitoring or Meddling?

Organized monitoring and recording of police activity has its roots in the time of the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, when home video cameras were becoming an affordable reality for many. The first of many "Copwatch" groups was organized in 1990 in Berkeley, California. Their message and mission is clear:
Berkeley Copwatch is based on the idea that WATCHING the police is a crucial first step in the process of organizing. We do not attempt to interfere in police activity or to resist police misconduct physically. It is our hope that, one day, mass outrage at police and government violence will increase to a point where fundamental change in the nature of policing becomes inevitable.
As the years and technology have provided a means to instantly transmit video over the Internet from any number of small devices, some concerned with the behavior of their local police have taken this concept and tried a different approach.

Copblock.org states that it exists in part to:
"..highlight the double standard that some grant to those with badges. By documenting police actions – whether they are illegal, immoral or just a waste of time and resources – then calling the police stations involved (ideally while recording and then later sharing your conversation), we can work together to bring about transparency and have a real impact".
This national organization has several affiliates, including one locally. Pittsburgh CopBlock has taken the strategy of the national organization one precarious step further - engaging in direct action that appears designed to elicit, or perhaps provoke, an emotional response from the officers involved. You can check out one of these activities here, and several more here.

Sewickley Patch, Beaver Countian, and other media have attempted to cover the local Copblockers and their activities, some of which have run them afoul of the local law. This occurred most recently in Leetsdale at Magistrate Robert Ford's office. The national CopBlock group has taken issue with some of this news coverage.

CopBlock Pittsburgh's efforts thus far consist largely of attempts to antagonize local law enforcement - by local I mean mostly Ambridge and the Quaker Valley departments - instead of calmly documenting their public activities in non-confrontational ways. Cops have to eat like everyone else - why go after them in a convenience store?

Despite the counterproductive nature of their rhetoric and tactics, I believe that Pittsburgh CopBlock has a valid point to get across, especially as it relates to our rights as citizens to document the activities of public servants. They're just going about it in a way that will serve only to isolate them in the larger arenas of public discourse.

Police officers have a very difficult job. I like to believe that the majority of them perform their duties with a healthy balance of respect for citizens, while possessing a situational awareness that sometimes makes it necessary to use force and aggressive tactics to mitigate a threat to themselves or others.

I also believe (but don't like to) that there are police officers out there that exceed the boundaries of both their authority and responsible conduct as a public servant. Citizens such as Simon Glik, along with excellent bloggers such as Carlos Miller, have demonstrated and brought attention to this on several occasions. The most recent affront to reasonable police actions, on the campus of the University of California at Davis, embellishes the point even further.

Perhaps CopBlock will consider joining the efforts of Copwatch, the ACLU, and others who seek to assure that police do their jobs within the boundaries set by law, while continuing to assure that their own behavior is protected by those same laws themselves.

The Official Record - Your Right to Know

Pennsylvania is one of only six states where the official recordings of 9-1-1 calls and public safety radio traffic are confidential, unless an agency or court decides that their release is in the public interest. These recordings and other information were specifically exempted in the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law of 2008.

Computer and written logs that provide information on response times are public, however, as is information regarding 9-1-1 callers, their phone numbers, and location information. This was reaffirmed by Commonweath Court in February of this year, reversing a lower court decision after a reporter filed suit to obtain records in York County.

In response to the Commonwealth Court decision, in March State Rep. Joseph Hackett (R-Delaware County) introduced HB 1174, which would specifically exclude the information about callers to 9-1-1 and their geographic location.

The bill was marketed as an attempt to protect crime victims and witnesses from possible retribution from the release of this information. It gained the immediate support of the bulk of the emergency response community and crime victims groups alike. With this support, and perhaps the looming approach of their summer recess, the state House unanimously passed this bill at the end of June, and sent it to the Senate.

The bill has remained in the hands of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee since then, perhaps in response to fairly loud voices in opposition to the bill. This includes the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, expressed through the editorial pages of its member newspapers, including the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review. The Trib seemed to sum up these concerns best when it wrote:
"We can't support them unconditionally if they hide from us this critical information about their work," says Trib legal counsel David A. Strassburger about first responders, speaking on behalf of both newspapers and the public...The Senate must not fall for this rollback of transparency masquerading as aid for a victimized group.
If there is a true, genuine concern that criminals, abusers, and stalkers will resort to showing up at a police station or other government office to obtain this information through a Right to Know request, then build amendments into the law to specifically exclude information related to certain criminal cases from release without a court order.

Otherwise, the media and general public should have the ability to obtain information on how their public safety agencies respond to requests for assistance. A big part of this is being able to independently assess response time data to all areas of the communities that these agencies serve.

This information can also provide insight into additional resources requested to an emergency scene, how long it took those resources to arrive, and the appropriateness of the resources requested. This is important to assure that the most proximal resources needed for the job are the ones being requested and sent.

HB 1174 will allow government agencies to withhold much of this information.

As a public safety professional for most of my working life, I strive to make sure that the job I am doing can be held up openly before the public as an example of conscientious, professional service. I believe that accountability and transparency trump what seems to me to be an over-reaching effort to "protect" crime victims and witnesses. I also believe that there are those who seek the same "protection" whose aim is to conceal from the public examples of less than professional 

In the process of researching this bill, I requested comment from the ACLU of Pennsylvania regarding their take on it. Legislative Director Andy Hoover responded, "At the moment, we have no position on this bill but will continue to monitor this legislation and offer our input when appropriate".

As this bill has a potential direct impact on the ability of citizens to independently assess the accountability of police and other public servants, I would think that some kind of analysis and positioning on the part of the ACLU is well overdue, especially since police accountability is one of their stated priorities.

Contacting your state senator, and encouraging them to closely evaluate these factors when considering whether to support or oppose HB 1174, is definitely a good idea.

Why Does This Matter?

If you're interested enough to have read this far, then you're probably someone who values their ability to question government, assemble peaceably to voice concerns collectively, document the response of public servants, and not be subject to violence or criminal prosecution as a consequence of those actions. You can even deliver a relatively anonymous screed to a talk show host, or express your feelings responsibly online, and feel confident of your freedom and safety.

You can thank the Bill of Rights, and those like the ACLU who make it their mission and passion to defend the liberties granted under it. You can also thank laws that make government activities part of the public record, and prevent attempts at secrecy in the large majority of those activities.

We all have an obligation as citizens to be responsible stewards of these freedoms - not to take them for granted, not to set them aside just because someone thinks we should. 

One of the linchpins of a free society is a strong and vibrant news media. The media needs to have the tools at their disposal to report to the citizens, and as a consequence encourage public discourse and the means by which citizens engage in participatory government, whether as a public servant or an informed member of the electorate. 

With that in mind, enjoy your freedoms, and your week ahead.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Extreme Customer Service

I hope that everyone had a happy Thanksgiving.

The season of celebration and bustle that marks the arrival of high holy days for numerous religious denominations is upon us once again. I'm remembering more and more about how much Pittsburghers, like so many others across the country, are largely creatures of habit; Thanksgiving means family, turkey, and football, and with it the associated travel across the region or the nation.

The roads were not as busy with rush hour traffic on the way home from work Wednesday afternoon, but there was sufficient congestion caused by what seemed to be drivers appearing to be unfamiliar with the nuances of navigating the Pittsburgh area in a vehicle.

As those of us from this area know, finding your way through the Burgh can be as much an intuitive exercise as it is a cognitive one. These factors often confound the cool, electronic mind of the GPS receiver, and those wide-eyed, weary travelers who depend upon it.

That being said, be careful out there this weekend. Many of you will most likely be planning on attending services at the many temples of what I like to call The First Church of My Stuff.

In recent years the high priests and priestesses of the retail industry have elected to begin their convocation of cash earlier and earlier on their highest of holy days, Black Friday. Unfortunately, many of them ran out of zero-dark-thirty time to be the first to offer that bauble or gadget at a ridiculously low price.

As a result, some businesses are commencing their annual assault on the debit and credit accounts of consumers on Thanksgiving Day itself. Perhaps retailers are betting that the warm, fuzzy, comfortable feeling generated by the combination of l-trytophan and carbohydrates will help to set aside any trepidation about spending too much.

Caught in the middle of this morass of humanity are those who ply the retail trade - myself included - and those who are charged with answering requests for emergency assistance on holidays and every other day - hey, that's me too.

I'm working as a Cashier this weekend. Over the course of 2 years in 'big box' retail, I've been formulating some general rules based on my individual experiences, which those handling checkout duties can use to help them deal with the everyday realities of the profession:

Murphy's Laws of Retail Cashiering

1. The customer approaching your register will have their cell phone ring as they arrive, and will endeavor to carry on two independent conversations simultaneously.

2. The most time-consuming, complex, and/or tedious transaction will occur approximately 2 minutes before the end of your shift.
  • A corollary to Rule 2- The customer involved with that transaction will have many questions, asked in an English that is for them a second language - a distant second.
3. The majority of legible UPC barcodes will be presented to you at an angle of between 180 and 359 degrees from the location of your scanning device. The remainder will be illegible or not in the SKU database.

4. The smallest items in a cart to be unloaded and scanned will be scattered randomly, and located underneath several sheets of cement board, plywood, drywall, or a combination of similarly sized and weighted goods.

Despite these challenges, in order to be successful in serving the customer you have to be prepared to calmly deal with all of these situations, and the numerous other complications that arise with the job. I've managed to deal with this kind of stress by remembering a few things:
  • Each customer gets as much time and attention as they need - one at a time.
  • The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer.
  • It's not about life and death here. It's about stuff, plain and simple.

Of course, in my other job the last of these tenets doesn't apply. It can be about life and death - in many circumstances. There is one rule I know that applies very well:

Murphy's Law of Random Synchronicity
Emergency calls will randomly come in all at once.

I won't get into the debate about when to call 9-1-1 - the news media seems to have a handle on that - but there are some things that citizens can do to help 9-1-1 operators provide access to critical services as quickly as possible:
  • First and foremost, know where you are. There are 130 municipalities in Allegheny County. A post office does not count in most cases - places like Wexford, Gibsonia, and Allison Park exist only in terms of where to send the mail.
    The Sewickley zip code (15143) is used in all or part of the following municipalities:
    Sewickley, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Heights, Aleppo Township, Glenfield, Haysville, Sewickley Hills, Leet Township, Bell Acres, Franklin Park, and Ohio Township.
    Depending upon where you are and the services you need, there are six different places that could be involved in the process of delivering those services. The more you know and can provide to a call taker, the quicker they can be mobilized.
    Technology only goes so far, especially when using a wireless phone, or phone service that uses Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), such as Vonage or Magic Jack.
    If you're on the road, know which road you're on. Try to remain cognizant of the last exit, mile marker, or intersection. Take note of businesses or other landmarks. If you have a GPS unit, know how to obtain your Latitude and Longitude from it.
  • Stay calm and speak clearly.
  • Be sure to listen carefully and answer all of the call taker’s questions to the best of your ability.
  • Do not hang up until the 9-1-1 call taker has obtained all of the information that is needed.
Customer service in 9-1-1 also differs from the retail environment in that the greatest impediment to effective service delivery can often be the customers themselves. As a public safety communications professional, I have attempted, succeeded greatly, and at times failed to address these challenges to the satisfaction of customers, both internal and external.

I mention this because relationships with internal customers - co-workers, field personnel, and managers - are at least as important as the essential interaction with those external customers in need of services. That's a common challenge with any workplace, but even more so with the critical nature of public safety operations.

As the perceived demands of the holiday season begin to intrude upon us, I'm looking forward to remembering what this season really represents, along with the rigors of mastering an old job in a new setting, and hoping for success on the multiple fronts I've mentioned above. Above all of this is my wife and family, both here and across the country. Is it any wonder why the holidays carry with them more stress than joy for a lot of us?

Enjoy the weekend and the season ahead.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Municipal Miasma -
The Pain is in the Process

I've been a citizen of Pennsylvania (again) for just 8 months; it's taken me some time to re-acclimate to the way things are done across the myriad layers of government at work here.

Something that is hastening this process is my getting back into the business of public safety communications. I've been in training for the last month. One thing I've been learning is the nuances of dealing with 130 separate municipalities, some who dispatch themselves and others who are a mix of being dispatched by the county 9-1-1 center and other municipalities or public safety agencies.

One quick example; there are five municipalities in Allegheny County where depending on the type of resources you need (Police, Fire, or EMS), three separate dispatch centers will be involved. Four of these five communities are in the Quaker Valley School District. In case you were wondering, Edgeworth is one of them.

More about that later. Today I'm interested in the recent election results, and their potential impact on my own community, Leetsdale. If you need to see a timeline of what has been reported about the recent history of borough government, check out this overview from June by crisis communications expert Dan Hicks. He's got some interesting things to say about the whole Penn State situation as well.

Voters this past Tuesday followed the entreaties of four candidates who banded together under the name Concerned Citizens of Leetsdale, and elected three of them to four-year seats and one to a two-year seat.

This action gives these four citizens (Melanie Dunn, Joe McGurk, Linda Michael, and Jeff Weatherby) a majority on Council come January. According to statements made by the candidates to Sewickley Patch and other local media, they intend to waste little time in undoing some of the current Council's actions over the last couple of years.
This will largely center around the following:
  • Eliminating the positions of Borough Manager and Junior Clerk.
  • Re-creating the position of Borough Secretary/Treasurer.
  • Promoting the current Senior Clerk to the re-created Secretary/Treasurer position. This employee, Elizabeth Petalino, served in this capacity previously until Council eliminated her position in 2010 and created the position of Borough Manager.
One question I had for these candidates at one of their get-togethers before the election had to do with Ms. Petalino, whose demotion, along with what could best be described as a unique recruitment process for Borough Manager, seemed to be the primary focus of the Concerned Citizens campaign.

My question related to succession planning; who, if anyone, would be prepared to take over in Ms. Petalino's stead if there were no Junior Clerk or Borough Manager? Mr. McGurk stated that a part-time person would likely be hired to learn the duties of Secretary/Treasurer, with the intent of eventually replacing Ms. Petalino upon her retirement.

I should mention here that the current Junior Clerk is Sandra Bajsec, wife of councilman Mike Bajsec, whose term will be ending in January. Ms. Bajsec's seemingly imminent departure appears driven more by a need to assure that all vestiges of her husband's influence are eradicated from borough operations, than any effort to streamline those operations and/or reduce costs. It sounds as if the councilmembers-elect know they need someone like a Junior Clerk - they just don't want her.

At this point I'm struggling to look at this from the perspective of positions and processes, which is what I'm accustomed to. The bulk of my government work experience, at least in the Human Resources arena, involved a formal recruitment and assessment process, conducted in a way that assured all qualified applicants a fair shot at being hired.

Pre-employment testing, an interview with several stakeholders, and a thorough background investigation (including a home visit) were the norm for positions in public safety. This process was exhaustive and needed to be, considering the significant access and responsibilities being entrusted to the successful candidate.

One could assume the same things would apply to recruiting and hiring someone to be in charge of the day-to-day operations of a municipal government. Then again, I am trying to compare what I knew from Colorado with what exists in Pennsylvania.
I promised I would not dive into those comparisons, so I must turn to what is here and now, and try to understand what may be the short tenure of Leetsdale Borough Manager Paul Scimio.

I've spoken with Mr. Scimio only a few times. In those interactions I found him engaging, articulate, and somewhat excited about his work. How he actually ran the borough's daily operations is something I can't speak to. He did, however, at the October 13 meeting of Leetsdale Council, when he endeavored to highlight some of his accomplishments during his one-year tenure. These include:
  • Reviewing and consolidating borough insurance policies, saving money.
  • Changing borough phone service from Verizon to Comcast, saving money.
  • Spearheading the refinancing of the borough's bond indebtedness, resulting in a savings of $108,000 this past year.
  • Helping to coordinate the resolution of an addressing conflict on a borough street, shared with Leet Township, that was affecting public safety response.
  • Securing an insurance settlement for a damaged police vehicle.
  • Putting forth an insurance claim for the loss of trees in Henle Park.
  • Securing a private donor to help pay water bills at the Henle Park Splash Pad.
It has also been stated by some in the business community that they appreciate the ability to be able to access someone in borough government who can act as a point person for their concerns, direct them in the way of navigating the necessary processes, and basically be the face of government operations on a daily basis.

However, additional questions about the borough's actual needs begin to raise issues that transcend the personalities and politics that seem to have dominated the controversy up to this point, and impacted the processes in ways that citizens last week appeared to have collectively deemed unacceptable.

According to a publication from the Governor's Center for Local Government Services, "More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania’s municipalities have populations
under 5,000, a size generally accepted as the point where full-time municipal management becomes feasible".
Leetsdale has a residential population of about 1,100.

A Post-Gazette story after the May primary elections took this a step further:
Issues beyond population have to be weighed, as well. For example, Leetsdale has about triple the number of people working within its boundaries as residents, due to a pair of industrial parks, a copper mill, Quaker Valley High School and a shopping center.
As I've written previously, Leetsdale is perhaps the most dynamic of the 11 boroughs and townships that make up the Quaker Valley School District. The influx of workers, students, and material goods in and out of the borough, and the various layers of government that provide essential services to them, is of sufficient complexity that it requires someone of authority to be readily accessible, research and respond appropriately, and report comprehensively to the citizens and their elected officials.

How the new council addresses those needs will say a lot about exactly how much Leetsdale is poised to make changes in its operating philosophy.

In a Sewickley Herald article from August 2010, Councilman Bajsec was quoted during a council meeting as saying that the process of advertising for the Borough Manager position for one day in the Beaver County/Allegheny Times was due to a desire "
to allow people 'familiar' with the borough to apply". Perhaps the true intent was to exclude anyone not possessing that 'familiarity', which appears to be centered on having grown up in Leetsdale, or lived there for a lengthy period of time.

Regardless of Mr. Scimio's experience, competence, or performance over the last year, the circumstances surrounding the creation of his position and his ascendancy into it has tainted those accomplishments, and created sufficient cause for concern among citizens as to precipitate the results of last week's election.

Nonetheless I believe that Leetsdale, like its nearby counterparts, needs a competent and experienced Borough Manager. This needs to be someone with sufficient educational and professional credentials, who can look at the borough's operations from a fresh perspective, not necessarily one steeped in the strong tea of the status quo.

Positions and processes need to be more important than personalities and politics.

That being said, all we as citizens can do is hope for the best from our newly elected officials. For me that includes thinking outside the traditional boxes, among those being the man-made lines that serve not only as municipal boundaries, but also at times barriers to more effective and responsive governance for all of us.

Best wishes to our new soon-to-be council members, and for those already on council that will also be charged to effectively represent the citizens of Leetsdale.

Have a great week ahead.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Farewell to Air Com

For just under a year, I worked at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction as a Communications Specialist in their telephone office, known as "PBX" to those familiar with the hospital's operations.

The dedicated staff of that stuffy, windowless room, some of whom have been there for over 25 years, also took on the duties of receiving requests and coordinating the helicopter and fixed wing resources of what is now called St. Mary's CareFlight. The flight program, originally called Air Life, changed names when the hospital switched aircraft and maintenance vendors from Englewood-based Air Methods to Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI). "St. Mary's Air Com" was the telephone and radio voice of the program.

One of the toughest calls I have ever had to make as a communications professional was to St. Mary's on February 28, 2001. I had to inform them that a helicopter had crashed in the Whitewater area, and knowing that their ship was out on a maintenance test flight at the time, could they check it's status? The voice on the radio repeatedly trying to reach CareFlight afterward, without success, still resonates with me. The program lost a pilot in the crash.

As of today, St. Mary's Air Com has gone silent. As Paul Shockley reports in today's Daily Sentinel, the hospital elected to outsource its communications needs to a communications center in Phoenix operated by PHI.

St. Mary's VP for PR Dan Prinster is quoted in the story as stating that the ability for PBX to answer CareFlight calls was somehow impacted by the operators being "
barraged by a lot of other calls". Having been in the room for a year, I'd have to agree and disagree with that statement. The PBX workstations and job assignments were set up so that the operator handling CareFlight would typically be the last to answer other phone lines, and could take themselves out of the call distribution queue when a flight request was in process.

This being said, the hospital apparently could not justify setting up a separate communications center that could handle CareFlight and other hospital resources such as Security and Engineering. As a result, you have what happened today.

This practice has become somewhat of a trend in the air medical industry. Air Methods operates a communications center in Omaha, Nebraska that handles requests and aircraft coordination for numerous flight programs across the country. I was offered a position there in 2010, but turned it down. I wasn't ready to move yet, and got a local job offer that made more sense at the time.

This trend has affected air medical operations in my the area of my new home as well. Pittsburgh-based STAT Medevac, which started with one aircraft in 1985, now coordinates 17 aircraft across 4 states and Washington DC from one communications center here. Air Evac Lifeteam, which operates and coordinates nearly 100 aircraft from headquarters in Missouri, has a ship in East Liverpool, Ohio and 4 aircraft based across West Virginia.

Is this a good trend? I believe it depends on the nature of the flight program. Some hospital-based air medical programs have re-engineered their communication centers into "transfer centers" that can act as a one-call destination for outlying facilities needing to get a patient accepted by a physician, transported, and admitted to a facility capable of providing more specialized care. The flight program I worked for in the 80's and 90's is an example of this model.

As much as I feel for the "Comm Specs" at St. Mary's Air Com, I did not believe that their operation was sustainable in this operational climate. That's why I sought to attend a school that would certify me for more complex work with aircraft of all types, and left St. Mary's in pursuit of that.

Two years ago I was in San Jose for the annual conference of the leading trade group for the air medical industry. Ironically, October 19 marked the conclusion of this year's conference in St. Louis, and along with it the end of an all too short tenure for a small center and a dedicated group of communicators.

Best wishes to those impacted by the closing.

Have a good weekend ahead.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Station 138 - An Unfair Farewell

Edgeworth Press Release re Edgeworth Vol Fire Dept De-Certification

With this rather concisely-worded release, Edgeworth Borough announced to the press a week ago that it had de-certified its volunteer fire department, and intends to contract with the Cochran Hose Co. of Sewickley for fire protection services forthwith.

When I wrote in July about the need to have conversations concerning the most effective way to provide public safety services, I didn't think that more change would be this soon in occurring, or in a manner that raised more questions than answers.

Judging from the reaction of Fire Chief Tim Scott in the Sewickley Patch story on the subject, those discussions did not involve him or anyone with his department. My initial reaction was that Chief Scott made it sound as if he and his fellow firefighters had been blindsided.

I made some initial comments on the Patch story that reflected my feelings at the time, including:
It appears to me based on this report that Borough Council and manager (Marty) McDaniel have some madness to their methods.
After delving into the situation some more, I think some modification of this stance is in order. The manner in which this action was taken, and subsequently reported to citizens, raises more questions about the borough's methods and motive.

For those who value transparency in government, answers to these and other questions are essential to gain an understanding of how tax dollars are being spent, and how effectively citizens are being served.

What We've Got Here Is...Failure to Communicate

Clearly, some discussion had to take place within the walls of the Edgeworth Borough Hall before a decision like this could be served up to Borough Council and voted through - unanimously. What was the rationale behind this decision, and the manner in which it was carried out?

Edgeworth Borough manager Marty McDaniel was willing to speak with me this past Wednesday. He wanted to make clear that the fire department was a separate entity, independent of the borough itself.

When asked if the borough had approached the fire department about their concerns and the possibility of consolidation with a neighboring department, Mr. McDaniel stated that the subject had not really been broached. With regard to consolidation, he added that "most of these groups aren't really interested in talking about it".

I asked Mr. McDaniel if the borough had ever told the fire department something to the equivalent of "improve service by a certain deadline date, or else". He stated that no such action had been taken.

When asked to comment about Chief Scott's response to the borough's action, Mr. McDaniel stated, "No one likes to be fired". He added, "3 guys showing up for a fire call just wasn't cutting it".

Mr. McDaniel also stated that among the factors that precipitated the borough's decision were concerns on the part of insurers that provide homeowners coverage to borough residents, as expressed through the Fire Suppression Rating Schedule of the Insurance Service Office (ISO). The single-digit ISO Rating is a factor in determining premiums for homeowners insurance in many areas, but its use and significance are changing with some insurers in many states, including Pennsylvania.

Mr. McDaniel stated that Cochran Hose's two pumpers (fire engines that primarily pump water) as opposed to Edgeworth's one may give the borough an improved ISO rating of 5 instead of the current 6.

With regard to the two Edgeworth fire vehicles, both owned by the borough, Mr. McDaniel stated that no specific plans were currently in place as to their sale or other uses.

I then spoke with Chief Tim Scott on Thursday. He and Mr. McDaniel appear to be in agreement on two things:

1. Up until just before the council meeting, there was no prior notice to the fire department of the borough's intended action.

2. The borough made no notification to the department that they were not
performing to the borough's expectations.

Chief Scott stated he was out of town for the meeting with council that occurred immediately prior to the public meeting. The fire department board of directors, which includes one line officer, was present when the word was delivered.

Chief Scott also stated that the fire department still exists as an organization, even if it is not providing fire protection services. While the borough owns the fire trucks, the department owns the ancillary equipment, such as SCBAs, radios, bunker gear, etc. In addition, the department has obligations to its life members to provide insurance, as well as accountability for money received under the state relief fund program.

The department's membership will meet this month to discuss the future, and their immediate plans.

Chief Scott also said he was interested to learn the terms of the proposed agreement with Cochran Hose Company. When asked if his department had any formal agreement with the borough for services, one that would define a time frame for notification by either party to end the agreement, the chief stated they did not.

The minutes of the Sept. 20 meeting will not be available until approved by council at their next meeting on October 18, which is also when council is slated to formalize their relationship with the Cochran Hose Co. According to the borough office, the proposed ordinance that would formalize that relationship is slated to be published this week.

Cochran Hose Chief Jeff Neff, reached on Sunday, would not discuss any specifics regarding his agency and Edgeworth Borough, referring me back to Mr. McDaniel's office. He did cite the trend in the local area of several volunteer fire departments disbanding, or being de-certified by their municipality. Chief Neff mentioned the Guyasuta Fire Department in O'Hara Township as a recent example.

At least Guyasuta VFD got 90 days notice. Edgeworth VFD got about an hour.

Where Was the Media?

The decision to decertify the fire department was made at the September 20th Council meeting. The file tag on the press release is dated Sept. 23, and the release appeared to have been sent out on Monday, the 26th.

Subsequent reporting on Sewickley Patch and the Sewickley Herald website on Tuesday the 27th, almost one week after the fact, appears to be the first media coverage of any kind regarding this change. That's a travesty.

Sewickley Patch Editor Larissa Dudkiewicz told me that she was at the beginning of the meeting, which involved the approval of a contract with Duquesne Light for a controversial power line project. She then had to leave early.

There is no indication that anyone from the Sewickley Herald, Allegheny Times, or other local media was present for any discussion or decision concerning the fire department. Herald reporter Bobby Cherry did not respond to e-mail and voice mail messages that sought to confirm this.

It should also be noted that the proposal to de-certify the fire department does not appear as an item on the council agenda for Sept. 20, as published on the borough website. Not under New Business, Other Business, or any other line item.

Was this the result of an error of omission, or an attempt at subterfuge?

I also received information that the vote to de-certify the department came near the very end of the council meeting, when most spectators and local media may have already left.

Our local media, while small and staffed only so much in uncertain times for their industry, must nonetheless focus some attention on those actions of government and other public entities, regardless of their size, that affect citizens in their coverage area.

Luckily, there is also something called citizen journalism. Hopefully there are more "netizens" willing and able to assist in monitoring these activities, and getting the word out when these kinds of decisions are made.

Observations and Thoughts

A fundamental tenet of effective human resources management (as I understand it) is that employees deserve to know when their performance is exceeding, or is below, the expectations of their employer.

There is also a principle of American law that establishes the doctrine of At-Will Employment, which in short means that absent a contract of some type either party in an employment relationship can end that relationship for any reason, or for no reason at all.

It seems as if Edgeworth Borough chose to treat an agency that served the borough for over 100 years as just a bunch of at-will employees. They took advantage of what sounds like no more than a gentleman's agreement between the two entities to accomplish this.

Borough council left this action off of their published agenda for the September 20th meeting, and acted upon it near the end of the meeting when most of the audience and media were no longer present. While this business was likely conducted within the letter of the law, it could be argued that an attempt was made to minimize debate and keep the action as quiet as possible for as long as possible.

However, the speed with which the borough's action was taken, combined with the same-day notification of the fire department and the unanimous consent of council, suggests the possibility that advance deliberations may have occurred among council members prior to September 20th.

One wonders if these deliberations may have been required to be public, in accordance with the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. I don't know enough about the Act yet to make that assertion, but perhaps some concerned party will take that to a more logical conclusion.

What did the fire department do, or not do, to deserve this treatment? Regardless of the answer, there appears to be a clear disconnect between the borough and the fire department. That's not a healthy way to conduct business when public safety is the end product.

A working relationship, with some form of meaningful communication that respects the viewpoints of the participants, is essential not only for effective service provision, but to help assure accountability to citizens. I'm wondering who dropped the ball to create the situation that culminated in last week's action. It feels to me as if both sides share in some of that responsibility.

Having been a member of an area volunteer fire department, I also know that underneath the formal mutual aid agreements and cooperation in the face of emergency situations can be an unwritten, largely unspoken sense of identification with one organization over another. Add human nature to the mix, along with the kinds of personality conflicts that can arise in any organization, and you get ill will where it does not belong.

I should mention here that a good chunk of Edgeworth is closer to Leetsdale than it is to Sewickley. Hopefully that will be addressed at the dispatch level before something happens to force that consideration.

One of Mr. McDaniel's responses to Sewickley Patch raised a few more questions that I would have liked to ask:

McDaniel said Cochran Hose is just a few blocks away and response time comes down to a matter of one minute. “There’s no reason to have a fire department in Edgeworth,” he said.

I wonder if Mr. McDaniel's opinion would be different if there were still some residents of the borough serving vital roles on the fire department. Would that minute matter more if actual borough taxpayers and voters were the ones being handed their collective hat?

What are the operational advantages to maintaining a separate police force, dispatch center, public works department, administration, code enforcement..anything?

Why should Edgeworth Borough continue to exist?

The short answer is because its citizens apparently want it to, and can afford to do so.
They just can't or won't find the time to volunteer as firefighters anymore.

This is perhaps the biggest reason that Station 138, as it is known in Allegheny County, no longer provides services to a population that no longer saw fit to support it.

Marty McDaniel took slight offense to my characterizing their actions as "madness". As I said before, I agree that's a little inappropriate.

Malevolent? Perhaps. Machiavellian? That's more like it. But not "mad".

Edgeworth's firefighters got a raw deal.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, I hope that Chief Scott and his firefighters, along with those interested citizens of Edgeworth Borough, get more of the answers they are looking for, and that they can continue to depend upon a diligent local media to help them do just that.

Best wishes to them.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

September Sunday Self-Reflection with Stephen

We know that Stephen Colbert is paid to make us laugh, and of course make money for himself and his employer.

He does his job very well, by making us think while we're laughing.

Here, he just makes you think. A lot. Hello, mirror..

Have a good Sunday.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Abundant Anniversaries

Those who forget history may be doomed to repeat it, but how about those who wallow in history? Are they doomed to become trapped in it, like Bruce Springsteen's classmates in his song "Glory Days"?

Like so many other things, moderation is the message of the day. Keeping a firm eye and focus forward, while not forgetting how you got where you are, is to me a very healthy approach. Living up to those words can be something entirely different, however.

With this in mind, this past Sunday marked 5 years since I started this blog. A lot has changed in my life since that day, but it feels like surprisingly little has changed in the larger scheme of things. I'll elaborate a little further down the page.

In the meantime, here are some personally significant observances that might strike a chord with you as well. Or not. In no real particular order:

Sewickley Bridge

Yesterday marked the 100th Anniversary of the opening of the first Sewickley Bridge. Larissa Dudkiewicz of Sewickley Patch made me think about this when she posted a picture of one of the original bridge's finials on the Patch website. Curiosity and Wikipedia did the rest.

Having grown up in this area, and as the child of small businesspeople, I was aware but not fully cognizant as a teenager of the tumult surrounding the deterioration of the original bridge to the point where it was barely safe for any sort of traffic. The present span, along with the previous one, is a linchpin for the local economy, public safety, and transportation infrastructure.

This coming October 21 will mark 30 years of service for the current Sewickley Bridge. As is seemingly the case with so many issues related to transportation, some of the same issues that created the need for a new bridge in the 1970's are still with us today. These include present and future challenges related to the safe and efficient movement of traffic and its relationship to the vitality of the Quaker Valley area.

Some of these challenges include the impending closure of the nearby Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge, and the impact up and downstream; the ramping up of drilling activity, and the increased presence of rig equipment and water trucks on our roadways; and the need to improve traffic movement through traffic signal synchronization on the Sewickley side in response to both factors.


Last week Leslie and I marked 6 months of marriage with a simple dinner at what seems to be our favorite restaurant. We are continuing to put things together in the face of multiple challenges, deadlines, and the pressures of work, including a new job for me that I'll have more to say about later.

In the snapshot of today, things are going well. This includes the fact that since I got here in March, there's about 35 pounds less of me. Feels good. Gonna try to keep it up.

The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

Those who have read my blog regularly know of how things have gone with me. Judging from the traffic stats I get, there's not many in that group. Since I moved to Pittsburgh, the number of hits on this blog site is about half of what it was in Grand Junction. Still, there are some individual posts that continue to generate traffic from all over the place.

This blog also has a presence on Sewickley Patch. I've no idea how many hits my posts get on that site, but it seems like people are reading. I promised myself to write for me and not anyone else, and it seems that my life now is taking me a little bit away from writing. A new family will do that to you. I'm fine with it.

I looked over the past year or so of traffic stats, and found some subjects and images that get consistent hit traffic in response to search engine queries. This is probably the best way that I know to give a thumbnail picture of the first 5 years:

In October 2006, a young reporter for Grand Junction TV station KJCT had the local media atwitter with a "gotcha" piece about how people and school administrators would respond to an unattended backpack inside Grand Junction High School. Jonathan Vigliotti left GJ (voluntarily) not long afterward.

Five years later, Mr. Vigliotti has worked his way through Milwaukee and Miami, and now works for WNBC in New York, the number 1 media market in the country. A nice transition upward from working in market number 187 back then. I get almost daily hits from searches of his name. Nice to see that he's doing well.

In May of 2009, I compared the pattern of annexation by the City of Grand Junction to the way a spider spins a web when it's exposed to stimulants or depressants. The illustration I used for Spiders on Caffeine still gets lots of image hits.

Other things that get lots of hits are memory quilts, Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass, Johnstown Flood dam pictures, and the Uniden Home Patrol scanning radio.

It's been an interesting but satisfying 5 years. I'm hopeful for many more.

September 11

One other thing that I wrote five years ago was a reflection on the events of September 11, 2001. I thought about this a lot - one reason it took until the week after to get it down - and even after that I found that the way I feel now really doesn't really differ from the way I felt then:

Things aren't as different for some people as perhaps they should be, but for me the 9/11 experience has been a decidedly mixed bag. Professionally, many things that I have believed in and worked for most of my career in public safety have come much closer to large-scale acceptance. Things like unified Incident Command and interoperable communications are big deals, and they're happening now. This is a good thing.

The price we've had to pay as a society for the loss of personal freedom, increased suspicion, lack of trust in one's fellow man and the nagging effect of fearmongering, hype, and conspicuous consumerism on our collective national psyche has at times been difficult for me to stomach. One must have a finely tuned B.S. filter nowadays, firmly placed inside the protective cocoon of faith, humility, and dedication to one another, regardless of our ideological differences.

Leslie and I went to the memorial observance in Leetsdale, which despite the rain was fairly well attended. The time was also used to honor and remember those served in the emergency services locally who had passed away since 9/11/01.
There were lots of familiar names and faces on that list.

The quiet procession from the Leetsdale Borough Hall to the Memorial site was perhaps the most poignant display for me. Public safety personnel from all disciplines, walking together. A good thing, and something we can all remember as necessary whenever we think of the past, present, and future of our society.

We are all in this together.

Have a good week ahead.

Photo credit: Sewickley Valley Historical Society (1911 Bridge Poster)