Tablets on rigs: 2 options for getting started

Onboard tablet computers are a gateway to fast, concise information for any scene. But getting started can be daunting; here's how to ask the right questions and make the right decisions.

HOW TO BUY YOUR NEXT TABLET: From how to choose tablets that are right for your firefighting crew, to the apps needed to effectively serve your citizens, we walk you through the steps you need to take when choosing your next device.   


Using computing technology is certainly not new to the fire and emergency services world. The CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations) software products have been valuable hazardous materials response and planning tools since the first products were introduced in 1986. 

Eventually, mobile digital computers (MDCs) began to replace mobile data terminals (MDTs) as portable computing devices, such as laptop and notebook computers, became smaller and possessed greater computing power. Today, a growing number of public safety agencies are replacing their MDCs with tablet computers that use either the Apple operating system on the iPads or Android operating system with brands like Samsung, Asus, and Panasonic

In Marin County, Calif., the fire agencies have been using Panasonic Toughbook computers mounted on docking platforms in each vehicle at an average cost of $9,000 per vehicle. Several of those agencies have migrated to using the Apple iPad, which cost them approximately $600 per unit. Those departments have indicated that the iPad provides a better display, less expensive applications, better network connectivity, and a slimmer and cleaner installation. 

Departments that previously have not been able to afford MDC technology, or could only provide limited installation in their vehicles, are finding that this new generation of mobile computing technology provides them with a cost-effective solution to their information management needs.

Start with the end
Regardless of whether you're looking to replace your current MDC technology or starting from scratch, begin with a fresh approach. Launch your project by first identifying what you want your new technology to do for you and your people. 

As author Stephen Covey writes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Begin with the end in mind."

Some of the more common applications for tablet computers include:

  • Management of fire safety and prevention inspections, including managing an inspection fee schedule.
  • Access to building and site pre-plans, schematics, emergency-response plans. Who wouldn't want to do away with hand-drawn map cards with outdated information about hydrant locations?
  • Access to the departmental standard operating guidelines. No longer do people have to manage high-risk, low-frequency events from memory; you can look it up and take action exactly like you said you would when you wrote the SOGs.
  • Access to critical reference materials for incidents involving hazardous materials, technical rescue, extrication, and search and rescue.
  • Access to real-time weather data including dynamic radar imaging and weather alerts.
  • Video conferencing capabilities. Every person with a wireless device can become part of the team providing visual and voice data back to the incident commander: you see and hear what they can see and hear. Conduct situation status briefings without having to recall your key tactical leaders to the command post and temporarily removing them from their key leadership functions.
  • Access municipal records such as tax records (to quickly identify building or property ownership), permit records, utility maps, storm sewer maps and an incident history for that location.

"If there's an emergency at 2 a.m., we have instant access to the lay of the building," Oldsmar (Fla.) Fire Chief Dean O'Nale, told the Tampa Times. "The location of doors and windows, contact information for the building owners — everything."

In November 2012, Odlsmar Fire purchased four iPad 2s, at a cost of $399 per device. Each unit has a data plan that costs $40 per month per unit.

Option 1
You have a couple of options. The first is to conduct your own market research for tablets and applications that meet your needs. Your research will need to include several steps.

Learn about the companies you're looking to work with on the project.

  • Are they reputable and committed to individual customer satisfaction?
  • Are you working with the manufacturer or a reseller?
  • Are they visionary, committed to making technological advances?
  • What is their experience in working with fire and emergency services agencies?

Decide on the type and model of device — tablet or notebook, Apple or PC.

  • Ease of use.
  • Integration with other computer technologies in your department.
  • Device ruggedness. How does the product perform in extreme weather conditions and harsh environments?
  • What protective cases are available for device, either from the manufacturer or from after-market vendors?

Decide on the applications needed for fire department tasks.

  • Inspections management.
  • Integration with your Computer-Aided Dispatch System.
  • Emergency incident management.
  • Access to technical information resources, such as hazardous materials or technical rescue.
  • On-scene personnel accountability.

Research the quality of the equipment.

  • Know the expected life of the product and choose one that's built to last.
  • Does it have touch screen technology (in this instance the key board is optional)?
  • Is the display readable in extremely bright sunlight?
  • What is the power draw on the battery? Is there an automatic shut down to preserve the battery for critical applications?

Review the devices' ability to upload and download applications and data.

  • Does each device need to have a wireless data plan? What is the coverage for your area? What will be the cost per unit?
  • Do you want to use centrally located wireless routers to provide wireless access for devices using a shared data plan? For example, using a 3G/4G mobile router, you can share a secure mobile Internet connection with colleagues who are within range. When responding to a large multi-agency incident, you can quickly set up a wireless network and allow your team members, who can include mutual aid resources, to access communications, information and share important files.
  • Will your devices need to be docked at a stationary location for the uploading and downloading processes?

Examine how the device will be powered.

  • Will you be charging devices from apparatus and vehicles?
  • Will you be charging devices from a stationary location?

Also, examine the technical support for devices and apps and repair and replacement rules.

  • Can the vendor provide 24/7/365 support for their devices or products?
  • Can the vendor provide user training for your people?
  • What types of service plans can vendors offer for their products?
  • What types of device replacement can vendors provide for their products?

Option 2
Another option is to outsource the project to one of the growing number of companies such as Sprint or Fire Recovery USA that provide turnkey devices and apps. This can be a cost-effective solution particularly for smaller departments that do not have an abundance of knowledge and experience in information technology procurement.

One fire department entered an agreement with Fire Recovery USA where the company provided the devices, apps, database and handle all billing. The company takes a percentage of every fire inspection the department conducts as its fee.

While these bundled services may be new to fire and emergency services organizations, they are very popular in the private sector, particularly for small businesses that need the technology, but lack the staff to make it happen.

I foresee increased growth in these programs as departments, large and small, struggle to meet their increasing information management needs while at the same time having fewer financial resources to do so.

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