How to buy fire software

By Jarret Winkelman
Incident Response Technologies

As technology becomes increasingly critical to public safety agencies, some decision makers are feeling the pain of replacing or overhauling flawed systems all too often. Selecting a new software product should not be an overnight decision. If the software is to live up to your department's needs, intensive research should be undertaken to ensure that your investment will be beneficial in the long-term.

Here are five tips to make your software selection process more complete.

1) What does it do?
With new features and options being brought to market daily, it is easy to get caught up in all the things that software can do. Your first and most important thought should be "what do I need to do?" Get specific with your answers. For example; do you need to schedule personnel, or dispatch and track resources? Perhaps you simply want a digital version of a currently paper-based report. Whatever the case, establishing this list of requirements will aid in limiting your search.

2) Hardware and network requirements
For a software solution to perform properly, an appropriate hardware and network infrastructure must be in place. Some software solutions are installed locally on a single computer. In this case, compare the software vendor's hardware requirements with your machine. Other solutions will require a server or local network to operate. If your department does not already have such a system in place, adding one can be pricy. Another option is to find a vendor that offers the software as a service. In this case, the vendor manages the server, and the software is accessed through a web-connection. This can be a reliable and economic solution for agencies that lack the IT personnel or infrastructure to manage their own installation.

3) Additional features – getting the most for your money
Now that you have established what you need the software to do, there may be some additional things that you would like the software to do. Talk to the vendors that have made the cut so far and find out what extra options are available. They may have some ideas that you did not think of or even knew existed.

4) Customizations and compatibility
If you currently use software for performing other tasks, do you need the new software to be compatible? For example, are you shopping for an incident management solution that can interface with your Computer Aided Dispatch system? Or, do you need the solution to be compatible with a regional or national database (such as NFIRS). Even if you do not have a current need for compatibility, a future need will almost certainly exist. Find out whether the software can be interfaced with other solutions. It is also worth asking about ways a current or potential software vendor could manage all of your solutions. If they do not offer a given product off the shelf, could they custom build it for you? If the price is comparable, it may be easier to manage multiple products through a single vendor. You may even reduce maintenance or subscription fees by utilizing a single vendor.

5) How much does it really cost?
Software is notorious for unexpected fees. Remember, an investment in a software solution should be for the long-term and the vendors know this. Be sure to find out the initial costs as well as potential ongoing fees or costs. If the solution will be installed locally or on your agency's server, will there be ongoing maintenance or support fees? What is the cost when a new version of the software is released? Who pays for training? If the software is provided as a hosted service, are the support and maintenance fees included in the subscription? What if you need a modification or custom module added later, is there a standard hourly rate? A good vendor will be able to provide a proposal outlining all initial and on-going fees associated with their products. You may also investigate pre-development deals when vendors are looking for capital to fund a new product development. You may be able to purchase or reserve the product at a greatly discounted price, and in most cases the money is refundable if the solution does not meet the advertised specifications.

Jarret Winkelman is an owner and regional sales director at Incident Response Technologies, LLC. IRT provides affordable administrative, scheduling, training, and incident management solutions to public safety agencies. Mr. Winkelman currently serves as the assistant chief of a volunteer EMS agency and has diverse experience in the search and rescue, fire and EMS fields.

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