Snohomish County Fire District 1 is one of the largest fire departments in the state of Washington. The organization provides fire, emergency medical, public education and fire prevention services to more than 195,000 residents in suburban Snohomish County.
In 2010, the organization faced some serious challenges. The fire district had over 230 employees working around the clock to ensure public safety. The IT infrastructure to support such a large staff at all hours was (understandably) fairly complex. The organization had 12 physical servers, 6 virtual servers and approximately 85 workstations.
IT support at that time was handled by a consulting firm based in Arlington, WA. The IT support provider was well-intentioned but small. The entire company consisted of just three individuals including the company owner.
There was growing evidence that the IT support provider lacked sufficient resources to support an organization as large as Snohomish County Fire District 1. Project deadlines were missed. A Microsoft Exchange email implementation—proposed to take 2-3 weeks—was incomplete over a month later. The district suffered down-time and data loss on more than one occasion, and the organization was not on a good trajectory.
“We outgrew the skills of our IT support provider,” recalls Captain Bob Eastman. “Our ‘technical expert’ was the owner and he couldn’t keep up with emerging technology while running his business. His solution was to buy new products (computer hardware) to fix any problem, but these were only Band-Aid® solutions. We were overspending on hardware and on service.”
Outsourced IT support was stretched thin. Service was unreliable and unresponsive. Issues languished for weeks without resolution. “Our staff had no confidence,“ recalls Eastman. A survey of end users taken at the time revealed comments like:
“They never reply in timely fashion. It takes hours and then they do not resolve the issue. As if I didn’t matter to them. They are making it difficult to do my job.”
“These guys are either stupid, or overwhelmed. Either way our IT is a failure.”
“We are a 24-hour business. We need 24-hour support.”
Tension was brewing.
ADDING FUEL TO THE FIRE
To make matters worse, the organization was headed towards some major changes in its use of technology. Electronic medical records were becoming more widely used. This created a whole new set of security concerns and data storage needs. Snohomish County Fire District 1 and several neighboring fire districts were about to begin a migration to New World computer aided dispatch software. This sort of a migration is a major undertaking and it has serious implications. The organization couldn’t navigate through such treacherous waters without expert guidance.
In mid 2010 Snohomish County Fire District 1 enlisted ISOutsource to execute a technical assessment and plan.
The assessment project began with a period of intense discovery and analysis. This included a review of server roles and workloads, network topology, data structures, remote access, wide area network connectivity, backups and more. As part of the assessment, network diagrams and other key IT support documents were created.
“That was the best money we’ve spent on technology,” exclaimed Eastman. “We suspected things were broken but we didn’t know the specifics. The assessment proved that our gut-check was right.”
Eastman appreciated that ISOutsource didn’t require a long-term commitment. “At the time, we weren’t an ISOutsource client. This was just a one-off project.” The district didn’t have to sign up for an extended support engagement.
The assessment also provided a review of the current state of IT security. Policies and procedures, layers of security, the integrity of specific devices on the network, physical and logical access to data, were all examined and evaluated with respect to industry standard “best practices.”
“What we thought we were getting in back-ups, we weren’t getting,” Eastman says, admitting that the organization was exposed to much more risk of downtime and data loss than previously suspected.
The IT support function also received careful review. Clearly, fire district staff members felt frustration. The assessment sought to identify areas where staffing levels and or expertise were not sufficient to meet demands. Rather than casting blame, the assessment looked to identify a more effective IT support structure.
Throughout the assessment project a clear strategy began to emerge. The assessment resulted in a technology plan that assigned priority to tasks based on risks, costs and rewards. The technology plan included high priority, medium priority and low priority recommendations. It provided a roadmap to get from the current state of unreliable network performance to a point where the environment was stable.
ISOutsource was able to identify areas where Fire District 1 could take advantage of advances in technology. Project plans were put in place that provided a clear path toward a more efficient computing environment. ISOutsource specified best of breed solutions for server virtualization, network security, and other technologies.
TECHNOLOGY INCIDENT MANAGEMENT TEAM
At the end of the technical assessment and plan, Fire District 1 decided to engage with ISOutsource to begin implementing recommendations and to provide ongoing maintenance of the network and support of the district’s staff.
With over 70 people on staff, ISOutsource was in a unique position to support Snohomish County Fire District. 1. A team approach was employed to ensure that adequate resources are always available. ISOutsource assigned primary and secondary field consultants to provide onsite tactical and strategic support.
ISOutsource’s call center and remote support team (based in Bothell, WA) monitors the health of servers and back end infrastructure and is also available to provide immediate response to end user support issues as they arise. A central dispatch system promptly allocates resources and a dedicated pager rotation ensures rapid response, any time 24/7/365. ISOutsource staff members collabo-rate, exchange expertise and deliver solutions based on proven methodologies.
“For the dollars that I pay ISOutsource, we could employ 1 full-time IT support person, but with ISOutsource I get invaluable input from our primary consultants and we have the benefit of 70 [ISOutsource] experts behind them!”
ISOutsource’s significant depth and breadth of expertise has proven to be an advantage. “With my previous IT support provider, I had to pay for his training time, and I felt like I was his Guinea pig,” said Eastman. The Snohomish County Fire District 1 network had become a training ground. “He was learning at our expense.,” but now things are different. “With ISOutsource, it’s an expectation that the consultants know technology. ISOutsource consultants know the an-swers, they get input from their peers, or they train on their own time. I don’t have to pay for their education.”
ISOutsource has gone beyond the role of a technology vendor and become a trusted partner. ISOutsource team members were instrumental in the organiza-tion’s migration to new Computer Aided Dispatch and Firestation Management applications. When needed, ISOutsource team members have filled the role of technology advocate at planning meetings within the district and with projects involving neighboring districts and other municipal government agencies.
Of course great service and support isn’t free, but ISOutsource’s continual focus on efficiency has actually led to a decrease in technology costs.
Captian Eastman cites a few examples: “ISOutsource found a less expensive yet better firewall solution for us. That recommendation resulted in a 75% reduction in the costs of firewalls and associated support..” The focus on efficiency keeps support costs low too. Sometimes scheduled maintenance is completed in less time than anticipated. “If the consultant is done with everything that needs to be completed, he leaves. And because it’s T&M billing, we save.” In this regard, the district benefits from not being locked into a restrictive managed services contract where prices are fixed regardless of how quickly the consultant can finish his work.
The net result is that an organization that was once overspending on hardware and support and suffering with less-than-ideal customer service is not experienc-ing happy computing. Fire District 1 personnel are productive and feel supported in their use of technology.
There is a solid trust between me and my primary consultant from ISOutsource. I can leave town for two weeks and be confident that the network is taken care of. And on top of all of this, we spend less on technology now than we did when things weren’t going so well. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Captain Bob Eastman Snohomish County Fire District 1