Archives – November, 2010
Olive and Obiwan, the otters of the WNC Nature Center, are getting a home renovation that will expand their habitat by 50 percent. Construction on the center’s most popular exhibit is expected to be completed in January, and will make it more accommodating to the otters’ needs as well as more interactive for WNC Nature Center visitors, says Assistant Curator Laura Pearson.
The design incorporates the original habitat built in the 1980′s, but adds more natural ground surfaces. “It’s very important for otters to have substrate to dry their fur on,” Pearson says. “The best things are grass and soil. It improves their ability to clean and groom themselves.”
Because the otters are a potential breeding pair (Obiwan was selected in part because of the possibility that he and Olive are compatible) the new exhibit also includes space to separate the otters in case of pups. “It would allow us to give the mother a place to raise pups in a stress-free area,” Pearson says.
The otters will also have more places to hide, and the expanded area will allow nature center animal care staff to provide more enrichment exercises – methods used to stimulate the otters’ minds like hiding food for them to find and simulate their behavior in the wild.
Nature Center Director Chris Gentile says the new design won’t just benefit Olive and Obiwan. Enhanced viewing areas will also mean closer observation points for visitors that bring them “nose to nose” with the otters. New, thicker glass allows for the removal of railings that previously kept visitors from approaching the underwater viewing windows, and interpretive exhibits will also explain the natural history and conservation programs of otters in our region.
Funding for the exhibit expansion comes thanks to the Friends of the WNC Nature Center and a donation by the family of Brandon Horne. The center will mark the grand opening of the new otter exhibit with a specially scheduled announcement and celebration.
The WNC Nature Center was recently reaccredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the otter exhibit is one of several enhancements currently underway there.
November 26, 2010
In the world of communications, diversity means increased reliability. The city of Asheville uses a number of telecommunication tools to ensure public safety communications are in line with making Asheville the safest city in America when compared to cities of similar size.
Information about the city’s public safety delivery systems is highly sensitive due to its nature as a critical public safety asset. Generally, however, the city’s telecommunication assets can be classified in three ways:
Wireless infrastructure: The City owns and operates its own infrastructure as well as a number of telecommunication sites. Ownership ensures radio and other wireless transmissions have a dedicated and safe pathway, ensuring the fastest and safest possible relay of information.
Fiber optic infrastructure: Fiber optic infrastructure is another tool that relays information extremely fast, only the information passes along a wire as opposed to through the air.
Mobile field units: The City uses commercial service to outfit patrol cars, fire trucks, and non-public safety field units with data services. The City also provisions its own public safety radio units, which have a higher degree of reliability and are not susceptible to common mobile telephone service issues such as dropped calls, “dead zones,” or access overload during catastrophic events.
A good example of a public safety delivery system would be the fire station alerting systems. New telecommunications technology allowed these alerting systems to improve cardiac survival rate from 7% to 24%; Asheville Fire Department’s success in confining a fire to the room in which it started increased from 24% to 90%.
Field radio systems are another example of a public safety delivery system, as they are critical communication assets during a crisis. It is important, especially during emergencies, that different agencies are able to communicate. The City partners with Buncombe County and state agencies to ensure communications between all agencies are seamless in times of need.
One solid step in that direction occurred in 2009 when the Asheville Police Department’s communication unit moved into a new combined communications facility in the Buncombe County Emergency Services Center. The move increased interagency communication and cooperation and decreased response times to critical incidents.
November 24, 2010
An Asheville City Council meeting may be the big event for those who follow local government, but meetings of council’s boards and commissions offer plenty of opportunity to participate in crafting city policy. 2011 will see seats becoming available on a wide variety of those boards and commissions, (click here for a PDF of upcoming openings) and the city is encouraging anyone with expertise or interest to apply.
More than 250 people serve on 34 council-appointed boards and commissions, bodies that consider and make recommendations to council on city policy. The boards cover topics from a catch-all of subjects: from the Public Art Board to the Recreation Board to the Riverfront Redevelopment Commission, there is probably a board that appeals to anyone’s interests.
Tapping into that community input is a big priority for the City of Asheville, says City Clerk Maggie Burleson, because council relies the experience and recommendations of the public to make decisions.
“You do have a voice and we want to know what it is,” Burleson says. “I can’t express enough how important citizen involvement is. Council can’t do it without these boards.”
Council Boards and Commissions aren’t new: the oldest of the group include the Fireman’s Relief Fund established in 1907, followed by the the Planning and Zoning Commission in 1921. And the list continues to grow as needs evolve within the City of Asheville. Recent years have seen the appointment of a Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment and a Soil Erosion/Stormwater Review Committee.
With so many advisory bodies, seats frequently come up for consideration. To fill those seats, Burleson sends out regular announcements of upcoming board vacancies. The city’s tools to get the word out have ranged from bus advertisements to the publication of the regular “Talent Scout” brochure and most recently, spreading the word through online social media tools.
Board and Commission applicants are interviewed by Asheville City Council, then selected by vote in a public forum. Typically, board members serve three-year terms. And hopefuls don’t have to wait until a vacancy is announced. Applications can be submitted at any time and are held for a year. Applications can also be downloaded from the city’s website.
“Vacancies occur all the time,” Burleson says. “Go ahead and apply even if there isn’t an opening.”
Public comment at Council meetings is a valuable tool for citizen input, but the issues that people care about have lives before they appear at Council meetings, Burleson notes. They often start in boards and commissions, and even attending those meetings can help inform and influence policy recommendations.
Asheville Vice Mayor Brownie Newman, who chairs council’s Boards and Commissions Committee, notes the importance of the recommendations that come out of those bodies, and points out that even attending the commission meetings gives citizens a chance to get in on an issue long before it gets to City Council.
“Citizen participation and leadership on our boards and commissions is a vital part of the community decision making process,” Newman says. “We strongly encourage citizens in Asheville to be involved with our boards and commissions, either by directly serving on them or by attending and participating in their meetings.”
To receive regular notifications of board and commission vacancies, contact City Clerk Maggie Burleson at 259-5601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to download a PDF of the upcoming boards and commission vacancies for 2011.
Click here to see a PDF of the most recent edition of the “Talent Scout” brochure.
November 23, 2010
Twenty fire engines from departments throughout Buncombe County – including four trucks from the Asheville Fire Department – have been outfitted with equipment that drastically cuts back on their emissions of particulate matter, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.
The upgrades, announced November 19 at Fire Station One in downtown Asheville, come thanks to a $31,500 North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources grant awarded to the Western North Carolina Regional Air Quality Agency.
“These retrofits are an example of the kinds of reductions we need to see in the future,” said Sheila Holman, director of the N.C. Division of Air Quality. “Congratulations to all of the partners in this project.”
The engines, all of which were purchased before new required emissions standards took effect in 2007, were fitted with diesel oxidation catalysts, which reduce particulate matter by 20%, hydrocarbon emissions by 66%, and carbon monoxide emissions by 41%. Fire trucks responding to emergencies idle while on the scene since they need to operate onboard equipment and be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Reduction of emissions means better air quality for firefighters exposed to exhaust and the region as a whole.
The upgrades are also cost savers, and not only because the work was done completely with grant funding, said Ashley Featherstone, from the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency, because they prevent expensive replacement of trucks, all of which have a life span of about 20 years. The four City of Asheville engines outfitted with the equipment are the only diesel trucks in the fleet that are older that the 2007 emission regulations.
“This is just a wonderful partnership we are proud to be a part of,” said Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette. “Asheville City Council has challenged each city department to reduce its emissions. This gift is a valuable way we are able to achieve those goals.”
The City of Asheville also provided its Fleet Maintenance garage and lift for use during the outfitting of the 20 fire engines, Burnette said.
Fire departments participating in the partnership include: City of Asheville, Broad River, Black Mountain, Enka-Candler, Skyland, Swannanoa, and West Buncombe.
November 19, 2010
Click here for a text version of this announcement.
November 19, 2010
City of Asheville employees attending two Nov. 17 workshops got hands-on lessons in increasing energy efficiency and saving money through finding and sealing attic and basement gaps and leaks in their homes.
Around 70 city employees attended the workshops hosted by the City of Asheville’s Office of Sustainability and conducted in partnership with the city’s Public Works Department and Asheville Green Opportunities (Asheville GO).
The sessions focused on parts of the home that are vulnerable to leaking heat to the outside or cold air to the inside. Locating and patching those areas, which can be found around plumbing pipes, ventilation ducts and even light fixtures are steps that are as important as insulation in terms of reducing energy loss in the home said Green Opportunities project manager Marcus Renner.
“Insulation does not stop air flow,” Renner said. “If you insulate without sealing, you are not stopping air movement.”
City of Asheville employees were able to work alongside Green Opportunities experts filling holes in mocked-up fixtures and vent ducts that are utilized for training the nonprofit’s own technicians. The workshops were the latest in a series of free classes hosted by the city’s Office of Sustainability aimed at informing city employees of opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint and save money on energy bills.
“We had a great turnout, and Asheville GO had a lot of helpful information about how a little investment up front means savings later on,” said Sustainability Outreach Specialist Rachel Rogers. “We are lucky to be able to work with an organization like Green Opportunities to get that message out.”
Director of Public Works Cathy Ball greeted attendees to the morning workshop, and noted that the turnout of field employees exceeded her expectations.
“The number of people that showed up displays that people are very interested in saving money,” Ball said. “It’s an indicator that people are wanting to do the right thing in increasing efficiency and sustainability.”
The City of Asheville has a partnership with Asheville GO in which the organization provides educational opportunities for both city employees and the public to demonstrate how best to save energy in homes and businesses.
Giving city employees the opportunity to lower their personal carbon footprint goes hand in hand with the city’s own push for a 2% reduction in its carbon footprint per year and a 80% reduction by 2050.
Click here for more information on the City of Asheville’s initiatives to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions. Click here for the City of Asheville Carbon Footprint 2009 – 2010 annual report.
November 18, 2010
Beginning Nov. 19, the City of Asheville will begin enforcing a change in parking meter policy that says customers displaying handicapped parking placards or license tags will be required to pay parking meters.
Leading up to that change, the city’s Parking Services began issuing warning tickets on Friday and distributing educational leaflets to cars displaying handicapped placards that were parked in front of expired meters. The city will continue issuing those warning citations through Thursday, Nov. 18. Additionally, the city is distributing information about new, pre-paid parking placards for metered spaces.
City of Asheville Transportation Director Ken Putnam said that, over the two days of Friday, Nov. 12 and Saturday, Nov. 13, Traffic Services issued a total of 34 warning citations. The warnings, Putnam said, are intended to allow people who have been using the spaces time to transition to the new enforcement rules. In October, based on City Council instruction, the City of Asheville began examining its policy of allowing vehicles with handicapped parking placards or license plates to park at metered spots without paying the parking fee.
“We are hoping this transition will inform people about the upcoming enforcement and allow them to adjust to the change,” Putnam said.
Cars that received warning citations also received information about prepaid parking permits now available through the city’s Parking Services Division. Those passes are available to parking customers displaying handicapped parking placards or license tags, and may be purchased at the Parking Services Office at 45 Wall Street.
Each coupon costs $5 and allows for 5 hours of parking in metered spaces. The coupons, Putnam said, are intended to provide a way for people with disabilities to pay for their parking spots ahead of time without having to make repeat returns to their vehicle. Two parking passes, Putnam said, will cover the entire 10-hour span from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in which parking meters are checked and enforced.
“We want to provide a way for people with disabilities to not have to go back to feed the meter over and over again,” Putnam said.
Parking passes are numbered and can only be used once, and are available only to drivers with handicapped parking placards or license plates. Handicapped parking spaces within the city will continue to be unmetered.
For more information on the pre-paid parking system or about the City of Asheville’s Parking Services Division, call (828) 259-5792 or click here.
November 15, 2010
November 14 – 20 is National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week, and the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative is utilizing the event to push its newly-developed social media effort into the community.
Homeless Initiative Coordinator Amy Sawyer says the social media component is intended to strengthen the information network built by the Asheville Buncombe Homeless Coalition and to give a voice and source of resources to people in Asheville and Buncombe County who are experiencing or are at risk of experiencing homelessness.
“When people become homeless, they may be cut off from access to networks they previously relied on for information like neighbors and coworkers.” Sawyer says. “We hope social media can provide a means for some of the communication and resources needed by people experiencing homelessness.”
The initiative has already built up followers for its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/abhomeless) and blog (abhomeless.wordpress.com), both launched this fall, and is using those venues to get out information about events like the community book read and the calendar of events for National Homelessness and Hunger Awareness Week.
The initiative will also soon activate a Twitter account (twitter.com/abhomeless) and hashtag (#avlhmlss) that will not only give updated information to the public, but is intended to provide a virtual bulletin board of needs, services, and information to people seeking them out.
“Maybe a service provider is short on supplies that another has on hand,” Sawyer says .”Or someone has a job interview but needs a ride to get there. They will be able to put it out into the Twitter community.”
While the online venues will provide the community with opportunities to get involved in reducing and preventing problems associated with homelessness, Sawyer hopes the A-B Homeless Initiative blog will eventually become a place for people to contribute stories about their experiences being or becoming homeless. As part of the “Faces of Homelessness,” such stories would help Asheville, Buncombe County and the region at large have a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding homelessness.
“Some of the biggest obstacles to effectively addressing homelessness in many communities are the misconceptions people have about homelessness,” Sawyer says. “We see a big opportunity with the blog to get real stories out in front of the community.”
Click here for more information on the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative.
November 12, 2010
When your job can involve any dangerous scenario from burning buildings to high-rise rescues, you never stop preparing, says Asheville Fire Department Division Chief of Safety and Training Barry Hendren.
“We’re always ready to do training for the unexpected,” says Hendren. “It just helps us be better prepared for what comes our way.”
In recent months, the department underwent training in specialized situations, including scenarios at the top of a 125-foot free-standing crane currently being used for new construction on the Mission Hospital campus and coordinated by Hendren and AFD Capt. Ron Morrow.
The unique opportunity came thanks to construction company Brasfield & Gorrie, which allowed the firefighters to practice on their crane on three separate Saturdays for three to four hours per day. The rotation allowed the fire department to get all three of its shifts on the crane executing rappels and “pick-offs,” a scenario where an injured or disabled worker would have to be lowered by rope to the ground.
“It’s always good to see how we would affect a rescue if one of those guys had a problem,” Hendren says. “They provided us with an extremely rare opportunity to work in an environment we don’t usually get to experience.”
Two of the company’s field personnel, a crane operator and a project safety manager, put in extra-off the-clock hours so the AFD firefighters could utilize the crane.
“Brasfield & Gorrie places a high priority on giving back to the Asheville community,” says Senior Project Manager Tony Burgess, “We really appreciate the efforts of the fire department’s daily work and are happy to be able to help Captain Morrow and his staff with this specialized training.”
The Asheville Fire Department also participated with departments and agencies from across the state in a weekend-long wilderness training exercise DuPont State Forest that took place November 5-7. That exercise is an annual training event that not only focuses on search and rescue and wilderness medical techniques, but also reinforces important cooperation between regional and statewide organizations and practice implementing the National Incident Management System.
Other regional participating organizations included Henderson County Rescue Squad, Haywood County Emergency Management, Transylvania County Emergency Management, Brevard Rescue Squad and Henderson County Emergency Management.
Throughout the exercise, fire and rescue personnel operated in 12-hour shifts and were coordinated by a round-the-clock command post.
“It helps us to practice those skills in an extended environment,” Hendren says. “So we are all speaking the same language.”
In upcoming months, Hendren said, the department will see even more exercises, including one that utilizes rope training from the rafters inside the Asheville Civic Center. The department is also in the process of training its rookie firefighters, a group that is scheduled to be graduated in January.
November 10, 2010
In an organization of more than 1,000 people, speedy and accurate information flow means not only increased efficiency but also real dollars. That’s an underlying theme that emerges when City of Asheville employees talk about the recently launched technology upgrade that provides not only swifter access to data but also easier communication between city departments and city customers.
The Munis system purchased by the City of Asheville from Tyler Technologies grew out of a 2009 commitment by Asheville City Council to fund a Business Technology Improvement Project to replace the organization’s aging mainframe-based system with a state-of-the-art streamlined tech upgrade.
The new system is targeted to business transactions within the city’s financial, human resources, contract management, purchasing and inventory, and utility billing functions. Dramatically eliminating paper forms in favor of digital ones reduces the time spent on each step of a transaction such as a business license application, as well as the time it takes to navigate the approval process. In a summary he wrote for the City of Asheville’s E-News in 2009, Information Technology Services Director Jonathan Feldman noted that experts estimate the switch can save more than $3 in staff time and material costs per form.
“It reduces the staffing needed for these processes, and it reduces redundancy.” Feldman says, adding that more accurate and accessible data means that city departments can close revenue gaps that may have been difficult or impossible to find with a paper-based system.
The system has been deployed in all city departments, with department heads and employees meeting with the IT department and experts from Tyler Technologies to determine how best to apply the software in their departments. In January, the city’s payroll division will join the offices using the system, followed by utility billing in July.
And like the city’s MapAsheville GIS mapping system developed in 2006, the city’s use of the Munis system will continue to evolve as more and more applications for the technology emerge.
“It’s pretty massive,” Feldman says. “It’s not just IT doing this. It’s a huge collaboration. Each department has to take ownership of how it applies to their product.”
Development Services Director Robert Griffin praised the upgrade as a boon for his department, which is in charge of processes like construction permits and business licenses. Griffin says the Munis system cuts down on the time it takes for a business privilege license to be processed, and even sends him emails when there is a form that needs his attention.
“It allows us to be more efficient and more responsive to the outside customer,” he says.
November 5, 2010