Dave Ianonne Explains First Arriving’s Absolute Focus On Digital Signage For First Responders

February 2, 2022 by Dave Haynes

I’m a big fan of digital signage companies that identify a niche and go after it with a lot of focus – in product development, sales and service delivery. A lot of companies are generalists who broadly do digital signage, which I think can be deadly … because you’re then competing mainly on price and UX.

That’s why I really like a company called First Arriving, that is very specifically in the business of providing digital signage solutions to first responder departments and other local government agencies that have a lot of moving parts in their operations.

The Richmond, Virginia company started out doing marketing services, and kind of fell into adding on digital signage about five years ago. Now it’s the main focus, and First Arriving’s products and services are widely used by the people who run towards emergencies in the U.S. and Canada.

This is not just HR stuff on screens in the break and meeting rooms of fire halls and other venues. The company has scores of integrations with the other technology and information platforms that feed into first responder operations, creating visual dashboards that give crews steadily updated, on-point situational awareness to 911 emergencies.

I also like that these guys are not just selling into that vertical market. Many of the staffers at the company are former first responders, or still active as volunteers. I spoke with Dave Ianonne, who founded the company and was himself, for many years, a volunteer firefighter.

Subscribe to this podcast: iTunes * Google Play * RSS


Dave, thank you for joining me. Can you summarize what First Arriving does and offers? 

Dave Ianonne: First Arriving is a company that started as a marketing company, targeting public safety primarily, and a few other secondary markets, and then we moved into digital signage by chance back in 2018 with an acquisition and that is by far our fastest growing part of our company, and then we’re building products off of that digital signage concept in the future. 

But essentially we’re a marketing and technology company, now more of a technology company more focused on public safety, and rapidly expanding into local government as well.

Okay. So based on what I’ve seen on your website, the marketing stuff you were doing, websites and all that stuff was for first responders?

Dave Ianonne: We do a variety of things, websites, we manage a few different associations. We do recruitment videos for volunteer fire departments across the country, typically through federal funded grant programs, so a wide variety of typical things which an association management or marketing agency would do, and the websites tie the technology piece well as a SaaS based business. 

How did you get into this? 

Dave Ianonne: I was a firefighter and a journalist and I combined those two things when the internet started, to launch a website called firehouse.com, which was pre-Facebook back in the day, was the largest website for firefighters in America, and then we built some websites for law enforcement, EMS and security and other industries. 

So that’s how I got started, and we built a very large social network for firefighters in the mid 2000s, and that kind of spun into starting to do services directly for agencies as opposed to being a media company. So we saw the writing on the wall with the media space specifically, especially large magazines and large websites when Facebook came along. So we started doing direct delivery of services to manufacturers, associations, and so forth. 

Interesting. So you’ve evolved as technology has evolved?

Dave Ianonne: Exactly. Yep, I couldn’t tell you what digital signage was five years ago other than seeing it at McDonald’s. 

I’m a big fan of what you do because I consult companies and write about them and I get a lot of material from software companies saying, here’s our stuff and here’s what we do. I look at it and say, I’m sure their technology is fine, but it’s a very general offer and they’re basically saying, they do digital signage and I always encourage companies to find a niche, and mine the hell out of it and be the guys in that niche. 

You guys are the poster child for that more than anybody else. If I was a first responder department of some kind, I would automatically go to you because this is what you do. This is what you know, it’s not like one of the things you do. 

Dave Ianonne: We definitely feel like we’ve got public safety and local government as a real niche, and we’re starting to get into other areas. We’re in a gold mine in Nevada, for example, we’re in a Disneyworld’s local government, so we have a variety of different tactics and markets to serve, but we’re not trying to be a consumer focused WYSIWYG based digital signage platform. 

Our platform is the opposite of that, it’s all custom. We give a lot of tools to our customers to update their content from very simple ways like Google Slides and Google Sheets to more advanced, direct messaging, broadcast alerts down to the individual dashboard itself, the individual digital signage itself all the way globally. So we’re constantly unleashing tools to give people access, to manage their content, and we have a lot of content with over a hundred integrations that feeds in automatically. So a typical fire department might be using five or six or more different technology platforms and we’re able to give them a quick dashboard view of the key metrics from all of those platforms in one dashboard. 

So you’re pretty much staying in your lane, so to speak, and if a regional QSR came along and said, “Hey, could you do digital signage for us?” You’d probably be saying, “Yeah, maybe we could, but it’s not our thing”?

Dave Ianonne: It depends on what their need is. But yeah we’re trying to stay in our lane and really be focused on the B2B, local government, public safety space, and anything that kind of an offshoot of that. So there’s security and construction safety, and a lot of different options that’ll keep us busy for a long time. 

What’s your installed footprint? 

Dave Ianonne: In terms of number of customers, I think we have almost 700 customers, about 3000 digital signage across the country and a couple in Canada as well. So the average customer has four or five dashboards in their station, offices, the chief’s office and some in the field on tablets and desktops. So we do serve tablets and desktops as well. 

During the peak of early COVID, we gave our customers a free desktop license across the board to put in their emergency operations center so they could see what the fire departments were doing on the streets, pulling other dashboards from the local government that could all be viewed in one single place. So we probably rolled another 500-600 during the peak of COVID back in 2020 but as a courtesy, we didn’t charge customers for that at all. 

I’m guessing at that number, there’s still a lot of opportunity out there to sell this into, god knows how many volunteer fire departments and formalized fire departments are out there in North America alone?

Dave Ianonne: Yeah, there are 3000 fire departments. There are just as many police departments. There are some 80,000 local governments. So we’re currently pacing for that number to double this year, and let it double again next year. 

We really didn’t have a full-time marketing staff and sales staff until early last year, it was a bootstrap kind of operation. We acquired this on a shoestring budget from a furniture digital signage company that had built this as a pet project of one guy who now works for us. They built it and had some clients, they’ve had it for a couple of years actually. They weren’t familiar with the public safety market, even though they had quite a few customers and we started reselling it and then, somehow three months later, I owned it. It was very rapid. I actually found this platform because I was looking for a digital signage company for my own fire department to just simply put photos of new members on a TV screen. That’s how I found this platform, and then just business wise, we happened to acquire it a few months later.

So you’ve got an immense amount of potential growth you could see? 

Dave Ianonne: Oh yeah, for sure. We expect to be at 10,000 screens by the end of next year, and as you scale up into local government, we have quite a few local governments and the fire department might have 10, the police department might have 10, the entire local government might have 50 or 60 in parks, departments, courts, and a wide variety of different organizations and at the core of it, they’re all using this because all other platforms get ignored. Emails get ignored, texts get ignored. 

You come in for duty, you go to the TV screen and you know exactly what’s going on, who’s working, what events are today, what vehicles are in and out of service, what the weather is and it constantly gets updated. Chiefs can push out video messages or text messages to all the screens or to a single work site. So we try to give people access to as much information as it makes sense to digest without overwhelming them. 

So if I’m in a typical firehouse or EMS station or whatever those are called, what’s the mix of things that you’re going to see on a screen or sets of screens? 

Dave Ianonne: The core of it is scheduling, so who’s on duty or who’s coming in for duty, weather, live radar, we offer folks what events are coming up, what their response times are, so they do metrics against each other in terms of how quickly they get out the door and what their typical turnout times are. Quite a few departments have a live feed of their unit status so they can see other stations, are they on a call? Does that mean I’m more likely to get a call for instance, and then certainly when a call comes out, it pops up on the screen. It shows a map via a platform called Esri, which is a big maps and data player in local government. 

So it displays the running round and also hydrants nearby. So they get a quick glance of where they’re going. It shows Google street view. So it gives them kind of a situational awareness of where they’re going into or what the details are. So it’s a wide variety. 

We have people use it for everything from, where they need to be event wise, to who owes what to the house fund, which is the daily meals that people do in a firehouse. So they track pretty much everything. They get very creative in how they use it for sure.

You talked about a hundred plus data integrations. Having those integrations would be absolutely essential because nobody’s got time to just sit down and blink away at a browser or an update for this stuff, it’s like when things are happening, they’re happening, right?

Dave Ianonne: Exactly. It’s real time. Some of our integrations are every couple seconds, especially when you get to the volume of calls and things like that. We take data just about any way you can possibly imagine from real-time API to nightly update it, CSV files. So if it’s data, our general mantra is we can take it and do something with it.

There’s a lot of investment and time to figure it all out, right? 

Dave Ianonne: Oh yeah. We have a fairly significant development team in-house as well as some South American developers that we have. So it’s a constant, not just maintaining the integrations, but building new ones. We’re constantly adding new integrations as we onboard new customers. They actually help with those relationships. 

We have a lot of customers who go to our integration partners and demand more of them to put up on our screen. So that’s very helpful. 

Now, there would be other software companies that were feeding different functionality into these kinds of operations, are they ever contemplating while we could do digital signage too? Or do they do what you do and stay in your lane? 

Dave Ianonne: I’m sure that some of them could.

We have some dispatch platforms that we work with where their dashboard doesn’t offer the same number of features we do, and when the call comes out, their dashboard takes over our dashboard while the call is dispatched. So we have some unique relationships with that. But certainly if there’s ever going to be a competitor, it’s going to be there’s all kinds of scheduling platforms and things like that but our view is we’re Switzerland. We want to take in everybody. 

So we have probably 25 different scheduling platforms, and if one of those scheduling platforms decided, “Hey, I want to do a dashboard”, they probably would not let the other 24 in. It gives us kind of an advantage at that point. So if the fire department is using that platform now, but moves to a different one in two years, they don’t need to lose their dashboard.

You mentioned you’re a firefighter, I believe you’re a volunteer firefighter? 

Dave Ianonne: I was, yeah, I’m still involved administratively, but for the most part, I was active for about 25 years as a firefighter. 

Don’t want to climb up ladders anymore? 

Dave Ianonne: No, in my youth, that was better. 

I find that interesting in that in most cases, I would say in digital signage, the companies are run and the technology sold by people who maybe know an industry, but are not from that industry, like they sell into retail, they sell into QSR or whatever, but they’ve never been an operator, and maybe they made fries when they were teenagers or something like that, but you expressly understand the space and I get a sense from your staffing profiles that you have any number of people who are either still active in first responder communities in some way, or definitely know it. 

Dave Ianonne: A lot of staff are, I am. My business partner is. On the marketing side, we have quite a few people who do that. Even on the technology side, we have a sales rep who’s married to a firefighter. We have multiple SMEs who are firefighters. So being able to walk the talk is a big piece of that, and as we grow passing that education onto our new sales teams and marketing folks who don’t come from that industry, because it is a very specific niche, so when the chief is talking to somebody, they want to know that person understands the fire service, and isn’t just trying to sell them some random technology. They want to hear the use cases and understand how it’s going to benefit them from a communications standpoint. 

And I’m going to assume the sales cycle is fairly long for some of these just simply because they’re government?

Dave Ianonne: It’s the government, but it’s also individual fire departments. It’s volunteer fire departments. 

I like to say we have the only SaaS based product that people can see, that’s the big benefit of digital signage. We have customers who come and say, “Hey, I saw this other fire department. I don’t need a demo. I need five of them”, and the sale is done, and certainly we have very large customers in Fort Worth, San Bernardino, California, where it might be a two year sales cycle because it’s a significant capital expense, not just all the license fees and the hardware, but also they’re going to buy the TVs, they have to get them set up, they have to get the infrastructure involved. So it’s really all over the place. 

And there’s RFPs and everything else in the larger ones too, right? 

Dave Ianonne: Some. We’re able to sole source for a lot of reasons because in a lot of ways we have so many integrations and no one really has that number of integrations. So we’re fortunate, at least for now, not to have a big competitor who can come in the door and say, “I can do A, B and F and X”, and that’s what that department needs. So we sole source quite a bit. 

We are starting to see more and more RFPs, especially on the local government side, certainly that were involved, but I’d say RFPs are maybe 10-15%. 

And what’s the breadth of the services that you offer in the context of digital signage and kind of related to it? 

Dave Ianonne: Digital signage is the big thing. So certainly the typical big screen TV, we deploy the equivalent of what shows up with a big screen TV to desktops and tablets. So we have a Chrome based platform that can deploy those devices, whether it’s a PC, Mac, either way. 

We’re starting to build some apps and some internet style products that feed the same information, but there is a different use case where you can navigate it more easily and get it pushed to phones and upload documents and do some things that are beyond just pushing information, but letting them access information directly. Because again, it’s all the same challenges. 

“I want a single source of truth for all my information”, but the average firefighter does not need the 10,000 foot view. They just need to see what’s in their face at that moment, so things like, “I need a document. I need to see what the weather is. I need to see who’s showing up tomorrow.” 

So do you have a professional services kind of thing where you look at the systems that a department works with and match that up with the APIs that you already have and build a show so to speak for them? Or do you say, “Here are the tools, you go at it”?

Dave Ianonne: We build everything. So when it comes to the APIs and things like that’s all on us. We don’t really charge our customers for APIs, unless it’s something that only they would only use. So if someone has an existing platform and they want to add new functionality that no other department is using, if we feel there’s a use case for other departments, we just roll with it. 

So they might want to display scheduling or their turnout time data a different way or squeeze the integration partner for some new data points that we couldn’t otherwise get, and we share that around and do a good job of getting that out there to all of our other customers. 

What about creating content, you do that?

Dave Ianonne: We don’t really create content, certainly on the marketing side we do, but on the technology side, it’s more about using their information. We certainly have tools and our expanding tools where we can push information at the zip code or state or national level, so national emergencies and written regional emergencies. That’s something that we’re rolling out soon in terms of us pushing content to them. 

What do you tell customers about what difference this will make for them, what this is going to do for them if they’re skeptical? 

Dave Ianonne: Streamlining will save them a whole rack load of time communicating. So people ignore emails, people ignore texts, or there’s just too much information put at them through too many platforms when really they just need to know this little nugget and this little nugget from those two platforms. So really it’s about just the mission critical information that they need to know right now to do their jobs without having to read a five page document, they missed an email. They were off for a week, so they missed a memo or they missed a meeting and they have no idea what’s happening with the different equipment or what’s the new standard operating procedure, especially during COVID, where things are changing almost all the time in terms of SOPs and procedures and all those types of things.

So that’s our mantra and that’s the challenge, whether it is local government or police or fire, the people who find us, everyone’s challenges are exactly the same, people just aren’t seeing that the critical information I need them to know, and in a lot of cases, people will put the top five things from a standard operating procedure in a simple Google Slide and put a QR code right on the screen that says, take this photo to download the rest of this document, but here’s the things you must know, and it’s right there in their face with a photo, with whatever graphic, et cetera. 

Is there any monetization of these screens in terms of just in the same way all these integration partners are selling stuff into firehouses, I assume there are specialty companies that make equipment and all the way up to vehicles, co they advertise on these networks? 

Dave Ianonne: No, and we don’t really push that. Certainly we’ve had people inquire about that and manufacturing facilities have asked us about that, but I think we generally try to stay away from that because the departments are paying us to push their information to their folks, and it’s not like someone’s gonna stand there and watch a commercial, especially because the screens are in a bunk area or they’re in the kitchen or they’re in the day room where someone’s already watching TV, so the noise would just be noise for lack of a better explanation. 

Yeah. I wonder though, and I don’t know much of anything about fire departments and so on, but I assume a fire truck costs a couple of bucks and the manufacturers of those things could sponsor screens going into firewalls and everything if they wanted to? 

Dave Ianonne: Yep. We’ve explored that, especially with our integration partners for packaging it in there, essentially sponsoring it for them or just making it part of their existing relationship with them. But it’s not something we’ve significantly focused on just yet. 

Where do you think you’re at in terms of the breadth of services that you provide? Are you still scratching the surface or are you pretty much covering things off at this point? 

Dave Ianonne: No, I think we’re still scratching the surface, especially as we talk about expanding the digital signage concept and information into other platforms like desktop and an app beyond what we’re doing right now. 

Local government could be a market that’s 10 times the scale for us and a whole new slate of integrations, and more importantly, how those inter agencies talk to each other. So pushing data from the fire department to the city council, so the city council office can show how many calls the fire department ran yesterday, how much overtime they used, those sorts of things.

So it’s about pushing information and I think long term intaking the information and then splitting it up, and parsing it out as a data aggregation platform. 

Yeah. I’m just going to look outside my window and we’ve got a nor’easter that’s coming through and there are trucks out there salting the roads and sanding, and then there’ll be plowing and the whole nine yards and that’s a whole other kind of first responders, but it’s same kind of thing, right?

Dave Ianonne: Exactly. Where to plow, what roads need to be plowed. The dispatcher can get real time information via the AVL in the trucks, in terms of where their trucks are located. Some AVL platforms have that, some don’t. So real-time status of what vehicles are broken down, what equipment is, etc. 

Do you have software companies as competitors or do you pretty much have the market on your own? 

Dave Ianonne: If you Google fire department digital signage or police digital signage, there are certainly regular digital signage companies that are more consumer based who have a page in their website targeting those markets. So they’re certainly picking up business by chance and we find we’ve picked up probably a dozen customers in the last year who were using one of those standard digital signage platforms and just couldn’t get the flexibility they wanted, whether it was integrations or data aggregation and so forth.

So they switched to us and left those companies because those companies aren’t going to build the APIs or they’ll have the API tools that a third party like the fire department could do, but most of these fire departments don’t have the bandwidth to go build a custom API. Some certainly do, and they very well may, but not the vast majority.

Yeah. You could do a basic communications channel and, with HR messaging and staffing messaging and that sort of thing, but what you’re describing, what you guys do is like several many notches above that. 

Dave Ianonne: Yeah. You’ll get an IT guy at a guy or gal at a fire department who’s really gung ho and says, “Hey, I can just build this myself.” But again, that’s a very rare instance, and they get something super custom but not nearly at the same speed, where they want to add another platform. If that person leaves there, they’re stuck. 

Yep. That’s the age old story of digital signage. Somebody says, “I could do this, we don’t have to spend money on it” and that’ll get them started, but it’s not sustainable.

Dave Ianonne: Yep, and we don’t pitch ourselves as some high dollar platform. So they’re not paying thousands of dollars per screen per year, despite that’s the value they’re getting. 

Our pricing is probably similar to most digital signage platforms and our customers are very likely to last a very long time and not switch between platforms and not leave us once they realize the value. The only handful of times that someone’s left us, were customers from over five years, even before we acquired it, probably six or seven years where a chief changed and he just didn’t like it for some reason, or they got it and they’re not maximizing the use of it so they don’t get the value, no matter how much we tell them all the different ways to use it and throw case studies at them and have all these departments singing our praises.

If they don’t engage with the content and update it frequently, no matter if it’s us or anybody else, they’re not going to find it useful, 

When it comes to the volunteer departments, is it a challenge for them to find a budget? 

Dave Ianonne: No, we are at a pretty good price point. So the volunteer fire departments that have one or two stations, that’s not really our main focus. We certainly have quite a few of them, but we’re really going after the departments that want to have 5-7, they might have two or more stations so that’s our real wheelhouse, and then we’re starting to get into much larger agencies, like I said earlier, Fort Worth, Palm Beach County, San Bernardino county, we’re in dozens of fire stations, hundreds of boards, just for that one county. 

All right. This is great. I’m a big fan of what you guys do. I love anybody who’s got a really pure focus as opposed to, “We do digital signage. What do you need?” 

Dave Ianonne: I appreciate that. Like I said, five years ago, the only digital signage I knew was at McDonald’s so if you hadn’t told me five years ago, I probably would just would’ve laughed and been like, what? 

But then once we started getting into it and realized that the challenges we were solving for people and saving so much time in communication, I think we got really excited and this is our big area of focus and we’ve got a whole lot of investors who are interested in helping us accelerate the needle. 

Yeah, for sure. All right. Dave, thank you very much.


Leave a comment