Emergency response? There’s an app for that.

By Scott Doan.

firetruck-cab-2men-webTablet computing, specialized apps, and cloud-based data sharing have changed the face of communication in a number of industries. But step into any fire engine, and you probably won’t see many iPads. More than likely, you’ll see fire fighters viewing data and sharing info on a dated ruggedized laptop.

These rough-and-tumble computers commonly cost in excess of $4,000, and are designed to keep ticking in harsh conditions. They have served many First Responder units well for over 15 years, but are they really the best option for the modern fire fighter?

tablet-hand-1-webToday’s new recruits most likely grew up with touchscreen technology, swiping and tapping between apps on smart phones and tablets like a jazz pianist taking a solo. There are scores of apps designed to streamline decision making for emergency personnel: mapping weather conditions, showing potential airbag stress-points on a wrecked vehicle, calculating the flow of fire nozzles, and accessing a common operating picture. Putting a tablet computer (in a rugged, waterproof case, of course) in the hands of a fire fighter allows them to make quicker, more informed decisions. With applications that are optimized for the tablet, the touch screen provides quick screen controls and a vibrant display of detailed information.

Granted, the laptop can complete all of these tasks as well, but let’s take one more look at the price point. The price of tablets from Apple, Android, and other manufacturers is so low that a department could potentially afford six or seven for the cost of a ruggedized laptop. With this hardware cost savings, not only is the user interface improved, but tablets can be much more broadly distributed to more units than are covered by the ruggedized laptops.

Increasing access to information through tablets and touch screen devices is the future. Getting there is likely an incremental step. Providing tablets in units that currently do not have ruggedized laptops represents the first priority. Phones with their smaller form also provide a viable information access point for many of the new public safety apps.

firefighters-young-breakroom-smaller-webThe greater challenge is replacing the existing ruggedized laptops because the software they are running is often not tablet and phone ready. Either the existing software needs to be migrated to work on today’s devices or the Department may need to change to more modern software. Embracing modern computing can vastly empower our emergency personnel. Just ask a new recruit at any fire station.


About the Author

Scott Doan is former division chief of the Alameda County Fire Department and is now a Public Safety Specialist at Psomas.