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Web Tracks Emergencies in Real Time

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- People wondering why an ambulance or fire truck is racing down their street can now go online to get the scoop.

The city of Columbia has unveiled a new feature on its Web site that displays fire and emergency medical dispatches in real time.

Officials said yesterday the service has been available for about a week.

James McNabb, director of Boone County/Columbia Public Safety Joint Communications, said city officials have had the idea of the Web site feature about two years.

Setup was hassle-free because all of the information was already being gathered by emergency dispatchers and causes no delays.

The site displays basic information, including dispatch time, location and type of response for calls throughout Boone County. It automatically updates every minute.

So what's the reasoning behind it?

"Just because I think the general public's interested," McNabb said, adding that the site might benefit news reporters.

And, he added, "because it's cool."

Battalion Chief Steve Sapp of the Columbia Fire Department said he has seen similar sites online for other cities. Because the majority of dispatches are medical, there was a concern about not releasing any information that might compromise patient privacy, Sapp said.

"It's kind of a scanner on the Web, is what it is," Sapp said, referring to radios that allow people to listen to radio frequencies used by emergency responders.

Law enforcement dispatches are not displayed on the site, but interim Police Chief Tom Dresner said that possibility is being discussed.

Dresner said security reasons might cause information about police responses to be delayed for 24 hours or so. Police particularly do not want to alert suspects when drug or sexual assault investigations are under way, Dresner said.

"It's coming. It just probably won't be in real time," Dresner said. "We have to consider that bad guys might be looking at us and seeing what we're doing, and if it's in real time, that wouldn't be good."

Sapp said another future improvement could include a way to plot the data on a map.

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