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Video Heats Up at Spokane Fire Department

What if you could create short training videos that can be easily distributed to your city's fire halls at any time of the day?

Dean Pearcy edits with Final Cut Pro at the main video console for the Spokane Fire Department.
What if you could create short training videos that can be easily distributed to your city’s fire halls at any time of the day?

by Bob Kovacs

Fire response and rescue is a fast-changing enterprise, with tools, techniques and procedures changing so rapidly that it’s sometimes hard for a mainline rescue professional to keep up.

Like many urban first-responders, the Spokane (Wash.) Fire Department finds that staying current with new techniques and technology is nearly a full-time job.

In Spokane, they’ve had some video capability since the early 1990s, but this ramped up in the past few years to include delivery over the city’s cable TV system to the fire department’s 14 fire halls.

Benjamin Giese (left), a fire recruit for the Spokane Fire Department, works on EMT skills while being observed by firefighter Michael St. Amand (center), as Dean Pearcy records the scene. “The fire department is forward-thinking,” said Dean Pearcy, audio-video technician for SFD. “They realized that this was a way to get the most bang for the training buck.”

With money seeded from a franchise agreement with Comcast a few years ago, the department expanded its video system to include production and distribution of videos for training. The department also produces a monthly program for the general public, called “Second Alarm,” which is broadcast to the community on the government cable channel.

With a four-shift work schedule and employees regularly out for vacation and illness, getting routine training for fire fighters can be difficult to accomplish. By putting training on video and running scheduled playbacks at all hours on a channel dedicated to fire department personnel, Spokane has more flexibility with its training. Fire fighters can also get training programs on DVD.

All this costs less and uses less equipment than you might think. SFD has a relatively new training center with four classrooms and a 200-seat auditorium, each with dedicated cameras, pan/tilt systems and audio pickups. These are fed to a control room with a single Echolab MVS 5 switcher and Mackie 1402 audio mixer.

Back in the control room, Pearcy manipulates the cameras with a Telemetrics pan/tilt system, and uses this one-man operation to record many of the training sessions offered in the classrooms. The typical workflow then is that the video will be recorded on an Apple Macintosh computer and edited using Final Cut Pro.

Video into the Mac is handled through a Multibridge PCI Express interface from Blackmagic Design. The Multibridge PCI Express fits into the computer and can convert from any format to any format, at both 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 quality. This gives Pearcy the ability to handle any format of video at the highest quality level.

Coming out of the Mac, video is compressed using either a Telestream encoder or Apple’s Compressor software.


Editing with Final Cut Pro was an early challenge for Pearcy.

“The first nonlinear editor I learned was Avid but we decided with Channel 5, the local government access channel, to be on the same platform,” he said. “We got a better price for Final Cut Pro Systems.”

Now that he’s been using Final Cut Pro for a while, Pearcy said that he misses some of the media management functions with the Avid software but the Apple product is just fine.

“Now that I’ve had it about a year, I’m pretty comfortable with Final Cut,” he said. “I really enjoy Apple Motion 2 for creating motion graphics.”

The output of the Mac is compressed to MPEG2 and saved on the server that feeds cable Channel 95-the dedicated channel for the Spokane Fire Department. Pearcy will also make DVDs of the program for distribution to firefighters who need a physical copy.

In addition to video generated from classroom sessions, Pearcy also shoots in the field with a handheld camera at fire scenes as well as at the department’s fire training center. These are imported into the Mac, edited on Final Cut and, as with the in-house video, sent to the cable server and recorded on DVD.

Within the classroom complex, audio, video and RGB projection signals are switched with a 32×32 multilevel AutoPatch Modula router.


Since Pearcy is an employee of the Spokane Fire Department, he gets far greater access to fire scenes than civilian videographers are allowed. All location footage he shoots is in HD, which the Apple Final Cut Pro editor will handle without a problem. Once the edit is complete, Pearcy renders it down to standard- definition for distribution but stores the original files to produce an HD version when distribution at higher resolution becomes possible.

The department’s primary camera for on-location shooting is a Sony PMW-EX3 XDCAM unit, although Pearcy has an older HD camcorder that he uses for higher-risk shoots.

Prior to joining the SFD as its audio-video technician, Pearcy worked for several years as an ENG cameraman at TV station KHQ, the NBC affiliate in Spokane. Why the jump from TV news to a government job?

“I was looking for different challenges, different opportunities and learning new things,” Pearcy said. “It’s nice to concentrate on fires and incidents here in Spokane, instead of always scrambling around.”

There have been some memorable incidents to concentrate on, too. One that Pearcy remembers is the Whitley Fuel Fire, which involved a tank farm.

“The fire started with a gasoline tanker truck,” he said. “I could see the fire from five miles away.”

In addition to documenting fires, creating training videos and doing a monthly video magazine, the department uploads videos to YouTube under the user name “Spokanefire.” These range from training videos to reports from fire scenes.

With a news professional at the helm, the department produces clean and well-edited video. This gives the department a direct line of communication to the city’s taxpayers, as well as a convenient and time-saving way to distribute training-with equipment mostly provided under the city’s cable franchise agreement.

Bob Kovacs is an engineer who has worked on educational and corporate video systems. He can be reached