Administration and Leadership, Columns, Training

Save Trees and Get Organized with Recent Technology

Issue 11 and Volume 38.

We waste a lot of paper. According to an EPA website, we use more than 70 million tons of the stuff annually.1 We recycle about 28% of that amount, which means we waste a little more than 50 million tons every year. I’m no mathemagician, but it seems to me we’re killing way too many trees.

I work for a small agency that ran about 5,000 calls a year when I joined eight years ago. At the time, we were using about a ream and a half of letter-sized paper just to produce our monthly stats. I was sure we were submitting most of that paper to people who threw it away as soon as they received it.

In addition, our run sheets amounted to another ream every day. We all felt bad, but we didn’t know of any other way to share the information for which we were
all accountable.

Add to that the file cabinets and boxes full of certificates, CE attendance rosters, incident reports, duty rosters, vehicle licenses, maintenance records, legal documents, employee files, receipts, invoices, and statements that every organization needs to be able to track, store and locate, sometimes several times a day. This doesn’t even take into account the expanding amounts of storage space it occupies—or the energy you need to preserve it all in a habitable environment.

A Better Way to File
Eight years ago, a one-terabyte hard drive would have been big, slow, unreliable, expensive and really hard to find. And the technology for scanning, manipulating and filing documents of varying shapes and sizes in formats you could share was down-right uninspiring.

Times have changed, Life-Saver. You can get a Brother MFC series multifunction printer for less than $100 that will scan anything from the size of a CPR card to a legal document and integrate flawlessly with Adobe Acrobat Pro (v. 11). It turns out, that’s a killer combination.

Personally, I don’t think much of Brother’s printers. The lower-end models are built around a system of four tiny, high-priced (CMYK) color cartridges that are clearly designed to offset the machine’s low purchase price. But built into every one of those little black boxes is a very competent scanner. Its paper-handling is trouble-free and predictable, even when you mix sizes and weights of paper. It’ll last forever.
(I got 10 years out of my last one, and I beat the hell out of it.) And its software doesn’t try to take over your computer, like the software that comes with some of Brother’s more famous competitors.

Using PDFs instead of piles of paper, I can track ten years’ worth of our agency’s licenses, stats, complaints and compliments, accounts payable, fleet and portable equipment, and protocols on a storage device the size of a cookie. That includes not only our certs and training records, but those of 70 firefighters as well. I can back it all up in minutes, and access it instantly from any PC or Mac.

PDFs & Scanning Software
As for scanning software, you can get any number of free applications online. I’d say don’t screw around. Get Adobe Acrobat Pro and be done with it. Version 11, the current one, will cost you a shade over $200, and it’s worth every penny. After all, Adobe invented the PDF file.

Acrobat Reader is free, and that lets you read PDF files. Acrobat Pro finds your scanner and controls it directly. It enables you to read, annotate and edit PDF files. It does optical character recognition (OCR). It automatically mixes page sizes and orientations in the same file (portrait vs. landscape), and it lets you rearrange the order of your pages by dragging simple icons. It’ll let you copy pages from one file to another. It’ll combine any number of documents into a single PDF. It’ll let you break a single file into any number of PDFs. And, it’ll scan double-sided documents without a hitch.

Your computer will see Acrobat as a printer, so there’s no learning curve. And you’ll learn how to use its special features kind of like you learned to work in the field. By doing it.

Most of us don’t work for great, big agencies. But we’re responsible for tons of information. We really need to do this. And with solid, inexpensive technology, it’s never been easier.

1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (July 12, 2013). Facts and figures. Retrieved Sept. 11, 2013, from