Computer Centers in West Virginia's Volunteer Fire Stations

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West Virginia is leading the nation in technology innovation. Not the kind of innovation involved in designing computer chips, but in an equally important kind of innovation--social innovation in expanding access to computers, broadband Internet, and computer training. Other states have set up public-use computers at public libraries, but that's not always feasible when the only public library in town is small and understaffed. West Virginia has come up with the idea of providing computer access at volunteer fire and rescue departments and has received a Federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant to put its ideas into practice.

The grant proposal for this project explains that the broadband penetration rate in West Virginia is 40 percent, well below the national average of 63 percent. According to Traci Hickson, Director of Communications for Future Generations, the organization spearheading this project, volunteer fire and rescue squads are the logical place for setting up public computer centers because these are the de facto community centers throughout West Virginia. The grant proposal explains it this way: “These anchor institutions number 445 and are in nearly every community. They not only act as a social service network, but are life-links for West Virginia’s families and make logical centers for broadband learning and extension.”

Future Generations is an international nonprofit and graduate school headquartered in Franklin, West Virginia. According to Future Generations, a statewide survey of volunteer fire departments in West Virginia determined that only 48 percent of these departments had broadband. That doesn't cut it when it comes to public safety. Just as any other public safety official needs to do, volunteer fire and rescue personnel need to rapidly access information and submit reports about the work they've done. Dial-up slows this process to a crawl.

To meet this overlapping public safety need with the parallel need of community members to have access to computers, broadband, and computer training, the project is setting up 60 sites across the state over the three-year grant period. Future Generations has been diligently collecting information about how these computer centers are serving their communities and has collected anecdotes like these:

1) An elderly woman in Circleville has begun visiting the public computer lab in order to learn to use spreadsheets for running her home-based business. (Source: User survey)

2) When conducting the baseline community surveys, one interviewer spoke with a woman in Beverly who could not afford an Internet connection to further her professional development on her current social security income. When the interviewer informed her that a public computer lab would be opening down the street from her house, she embraced the interviewer with tears in her eyes. Her gratitude surprised the interviewer, who then left the woman’s house even more certain that this project would bring much good to West Virginians. (Source: Emily Carlson)

3) A computer lab user in Braxton County uses the lab to access information for a diabetes support group. “It has been in existence for one year now, and we have grown from seven members to thirty members. This is Braxton County’s only diabetic support group in a county that is on the top of the statistic[s] list for obesity and diabetes. We are a fun group who have learned a great deal about the disease this year, and are learning to support and share information with others.” (Source: computer lab user survey)

4) A female paramedic from Wyoming County was laid off and was forced to cancel her Internet subscription due to cost, and is now able to continue her education through the Upper Laurel Computer Lab. “Due to the fact that I am now living on unemployment, I don’t feel I can afford the extra bill for the internet. I am in the process of completing online courses for the requirements of the nursing class I am pursuing. Upper Laurel has been such a blessing to me! They have been very accommodating with their hours and allowing me to use the computers. They have actually done far more than they had to. Having the access to these computers [has] allowed me to do all that I need to do by simply driving just 2 miles down the road, instead of driving 30 miles to Beckley every day. I am extremely grateful!”

If you think all of the above is interesting, that is just half the story. Here is the other half. These public access computers dual-boot Linux and Windows, with the default boot to Linux. Why Linux? The grant proposal spells out exactly why:

1. Less resource-intensive and runs smoothly even on older hardware

2. Easier to secure for a classroom environment and does not require expensive antivirus software

3. Freely available, not dependent on regular expensive upgrades, fully functional, and compatible with PC and Mac Office software

4. A way to promote broadband because, unlike off-the-shelf software, it is often available only by high-speed download.

Each computer center has at least one mentor to assist the public in using the technology. The Future Generations Website spotlights these mentors. A quick reading of these spotlights will reveal the extent of positive impacts from this initiative in West Virginia.

Spotlight on Aaron Dickerson

Spotlight on Ginger Wimer, Caron Warner and Gail Powers

Spotlight on Charlotte and Eric Squires

Some of you may be wondering what programs are installed on the public-access computers. Damian Christey, Technology Manager for this project, explains:

The OS in our public computer centers is a pretty standard Ubuntu 10.04 Desktop. We use Kerberos authentication, so that when people sign in to a computer, they are automatically logged in to a course website (using Moodle, also Open Source) where they are prompted to take a survey and can register for online classes.

In addition to the normal Ubuntu desktop programs such as OpenOffice, we
also include:
* Inkscape and GIMP for some basic graphic design courses
* Kompozer for an intro to HTML and web page design
* Google Earth and Quantum GIS for an online mapping class

However, the major focus of this grant is on web-based applications, in order to meet the U.S. Department of Commerce's goal of promoting broadband adoption. So, for example, we are using Google Docs for a class on office applications, for a personal finance course, etc.

Damian goes on to explain about a computer refurbishing project that is part of this initiative:

The refurbishing program buys large batches of used computers, usually about 5 years old, from various government agencies through its partner organization, MissionWV. Our refurbishers test, and in some cases upgrade, the hardware, and then install Ubuntu on them. We sell them to our partner fire departments at cost, who then sell them to the public as a fundraiser. The end-user price is between $125 and $175 for a laptop. We are also have 200 refurbished desktop computers ready for the new computer centers we're adding this year.

In an e-mail to me, Damian also confirms Traci Hickson’s explanation for why these computer centers are located in volunteer fire departments rather than in public libraries:

I noticed you frequently blog about public libraries, and you are probably asking, as other people have, "Why put these public computer centers in fire stations rather than libraries?"

We are also big supporters of public libraries, and wanted to avoid duplicating services that were already available in these communities. Prior to applying for this grant we did an extensive survey of public libraries in West Virginia. What we found was:

- Many libraries in our small towns have few or no public computers.

-Those that do usually only have 1 or 2 computers.
- Very few of our libraries have evening or weekend hours, making them inaccessible to students and people working regular jobs.
- Many of the small towns in West Virginia have no library, but nearly all have a volunteer fire department, which serves as a de facto community center.

These conditions may be unique to West Virginia, so computer centers based in fire departments may not work so well in other states. The design of this project is typical of Future Generations' development process: using resources that are already available in the community, building on success, adapting to local conditions, and sustaining momentum and impact through partnerships and the volunteer energy of local people.

I do not work for the Gates Foundation, but if I did, here is what I'd do: Right about now I'd grab an envelope and on the back of that envelope I'd figure out what it would take to expand this project from 60 volunteer fire stations in West Virginia to all 445 volunteer fire stations. And after I determined that figure, I'd write a check and send it to Future Generations. The reason I'd do this is simple: We cannot have 385 volunteer fire stations in West Virginia standing on the outside wishing they were one of the 60 fire stations included in this grant. When something works as well as this initiative does, you replicate it throughout the state--without delay. There's no use waiting 5, 10, or 20 years to do that.

Phil Shapiro

The author of this article is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He has worked for several public library and public school systems in the DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

Gracious thanks to Dave and Elizabeth McIntire, in Washington DC, who suggested I write this blog post. Both Dave and Elizabeth are longtime community builders in DC. Devoted free software advocate and teacher, John LeMasney, of Ewing, New Jersey, provided vital feedback for this blog post. John's 365 Sketches project, celebrating Inkscape and GIMP, two outstanding free graphics programs, is well worth visiting.

Further details about the West Virginia initiative described in the above blog post can be found at

Previous Community Voices blog posts.

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