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Emergency response? There’s an app for that…

Author: Scott Doan, Psomas

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-08-08
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Tablet 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 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?

Today’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:  The risk involved in wildland firefighting can be reduced if fire managers pay attention to weather behavior. There are a number of apps out there that can provide current temperature, wind speed and direction as well as relative humidity; these are  all important factors when fighting a wildland fire. Examples include The Weather Channel, Heat Index and Relative Humidity, Acurite and AccuWeather.
  • Showing potential airbag stress-points on a wrecked vehicle:  Undeployed airbags are a significant danger to firefighters when trying to extricate victims from a wrecked automobile.  Applications for mobile devices that identify airbag locations as well as crash sensors could save lives.
  • Calculating the flow of fire nozzles: Traditionally this has been calculated by a fire engineer while at a Fire Engine pump panel in front of a fire. Mobile applications exist that calculate pump discharge pressures based on nozzle type, hose diameter, hose length, appliance friction loss, and elevation.
  • Accessing a common operating picture via an emergency incident GIS viewer: Fire incident commanders responding to an incident typically take down essential information transmitted to them via radio, jotting it down on note pads or even on their hands. In some instances, they don't have the critical information that the dispatchers have at their fingertips to manage operations or incident responses. Sitstat, an emergency incident GIS viewer, addresses this inefficiency by providing information in an easily used manner to incident commanders in the field and in other locations. A “common operating picture” is provided on tablets, smart phones and on wall monitors. The rich interface is intuitive and provides the incident commander with key information for response decision-making. GIS viewers dynamically show the location of all emergency units and their availability status.  When at an incident, the user can zoom the map to the incident and see the location of each of the response units and the context of the site within the surrounding area.  Site plans can be opened with a single click. 

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.  The ease of application deployment and the rate of new applications being developed enable users to keep current with the latest technology solutions.

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Granted, the laptop can complete all of these tasks as well, but let’s take a look at the price point.  Ruggedized tablets commonly cost in excess of $4,000. 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.

The 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.


Scott Doan is the Public Safety Specialist for Sitstat, the new GIS venture of Psomas’ Spatial Technology Solutions Division. SitStat is an emergency incident GIS viewer designed to meet the needs of first responders. A 30-year fire service veteran, Doan was previously division chief for the Alameda County Fire Department in Northern California. For more information on SitStat, see


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