One Hot Idea

Bob Sherman blazes down the info highway in an endless search for towering infernos

The call came in at 4:00 a.m. Pacific time. A man in a phone booth in Seattle had a question. He needed an answer fast.

The question: Do chickens wear contact lenses? If so, why?
Three thousand miles away, Bob Sherman booted up his computer in North Miami Beach and went to work. Eight minutes later he was inside a U.S. Department of Agriculture database in Washington, D.C.

At 4:12 he called back his new client and took down his Visa card number. Only then did he answer. Yes, hundreds of thousands of chickens wear rose-colored contact lenses. Poultry experts discovered long ago that tinted eyewear reduces pecking brawls in jam-packed commercial growing houses.

Five weeks after the early-morning call, this arcane tidbit surfaced on ABC's 20/20. The mystery man in the Seattle phone booth turned out to be a producer for the TV show.

For the past thirteen years, private detectives, paparazzi, professors, and public officials have sought out Bob Sherman, Florida's premier information broker. As founder and president of Computer Assisted Research On Line, Sherman hunts answers to oddball questions, traces people and property, and works with some of the country's biggest networks and newspapers chasing the hottest stories of the hour.

Now hundreds of South Florida firefighters and fire buffs are getting to know the 56-year-old ex-newshound. Sherman's newest venture, Gold Coast Fire Net, supplies a growing clientele with 24-hour-per-day news flashes and updates on everything from brush blazes to 30-story infernos -- local and national -- as they are actually occurring. Subscribers pay $5.50 per month for the service and carry high-quality alphanumeric pagers. The minibulletins pop up on the pagers' tiny screens 30 to 40 times per day.

"I think it's the cat's pajamas," says John Maury, a supply officer for Boca Raton Fire Rescue Services who first heard about the technology from a friend at Metro-Dade Fire Rescue. "When I first got this thing, I thought the whole country was burning down. At night I leave the pager in the family room. But first thing I do in the morning, after I take the dog out but before I go to the bathroom, I review the overnight pages."

Maury notes that subscribers to Gold Coast Fire Net knew hours before the public last Monday that a forest fire had closed off the Keys, thus enabling them to avoid traffic hassles. Last month customers heard about the crash of a Boeing 757 off the coast of the Dominican Republic a full 45 minutes before the Associated Press filed its first story. And last year, Maury says, news of the bomb explosion at the Oklahoma City federal building came over his pager nearly a half-hour in advance of the first CNN broadcast on TV.

Interviewing the mastermind behind Gold Coast Fire Net is an exercise in interruption. The pager next to his milkshake glass keeps humming to life with two-line blurbs. One is out of Dekalb County, Georgia, where fire is shooting through the roof of a three-story brick building. Walls and floors are collapsing, ten fire engines on the scene, four ladder trucks. In Washington, D.C., a firefighter has been hit by a car outside Engine 25 headquarters. And closer to home, the pager screen says, "Metro-Dade Fire on scene of Code 2 fire for three units at 6870 SW 44th St. Also a Code 2 for three at 291 NW 177th St."

Later a tenement fire in New York halts Sherman's chuckling banter. From the information on the pager screen, he recognizes the neighborhood. It's the same part of Queens he scoured as a young nighthawk news photographer for the New York Daily Mirror. In December 1964, he moved to Miami with Life magazine, just in time to cover the famous Murph the Surf jewelry heist.

Today Sherman spends his days and nights in a small house near the Skylake Mall in North Dade, surrounded by banks of police scanners, computers, and phone lines. The radios squawk and the calls pour in from as far away as Tokyo and Paris. Nudge him a bit and he'll tell how he successfully sued AT&T in 1966 to become the first American with a truly portable telephone. (Prior to that, mobile phones were registered, and anchored, to cars.) With a bit more urging, Sherman describes how he unscrambled and monitored the Secret Service radio frequency at the 1988 Republican national convention in New Orleans, while working as an editor for a national newsweekly. (Men in dark suits invited him to Washington to explain how he did it.) But Sherman, a veteran hacker and technology buff, says it is human sources, not gizmos, that give him the edge. "Never burn a source," he warns. "I haven't."

That advice is particularly germane to the one-year-old Fire Net, which Sherman touts as "Florida's Premier Incident Notification System." Sherman depends on Gold Coast clients to phone in tips. Each client has an identification number, and if the tip goes out on the pagers, the source's ID code gets broadcast along with it. The result is a friendly competition among subscribers to feed Sherman hot news fast.

For out-of-town fires, Sherman trades information with a loose network of volunteer and commercial pyrophiliac groups stretching across the nation from Chicago to Seattle to Los Angeles to Phoenix to New Orleans to Atlanta. For historical, cultural, and architectural reasons, New England is the biggest hotbed for fire buffs. East Coast Paging Systems, a Boston-based commercial outfit similar to Sherman's, boasts about 4000 pager-carrying members.

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