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5 Reasons Why Fire and Rescue Departments are Replacing Panasonic Toughbooks with Tablets

There’s no doubt that fire and rescue crews want to mitigate the inherent risk of their jobs in any way possible. That’s why we’ve seen the industry so quickly embrace technologies – such as mobile devices – that extend communications, data, and safety systems to the apparatus and command vehicle or ambulance and then ultimately increase situational awareness at the scene.

But when lives are on the line, failing technology can hurt both people and operations. Just ask the Reading Fire Department crew in Pennsylvania. Their fast-failing Panasonic Toughbooks – they initially hoped – would aid in crew preparedness en-route to a call, improve on-scene coordination with other first responders, and better facilitate the patient handover to hospital-based medical teams when necessary. Instead, those “tough” notebooks significantly hindered first responders’ access to data and operational capabilities.

As Deputy Chief Sean Hart of the Reading Fire Department explained, “Unfortunately, the laptops failed fast and they weren’t easy to use outside the ambulance even when they did work. On many occasions, our crews had to revert to the old desktop-based reporting process. That reignited the same operational issues that we thought we had resolved by introducing the ePCR system.”

Reading Fire Dept. Case Study

However, it’s important to note that these “operational issues” extend far beyond the back office, and they certainly aren’t exclusive to Reading FD. In fact, these mobile PC failures don’t just complicate reporting or other routine administrative tasks; they compromise the safety and integrity of emergency response and public safety operations. 

That’s why Reading Fire Department leaders started seeking out a more durable and dependable computer platform that would be conducive to real-time documentation and records review while crews were responding to a call, performing their duties at the scene, and while en-route to the next call or to the station. It’s also why thousands of public safety agencies worldwide – challenged by underperforming mobile technologies for one reason or another – are following suit.

Many early adopters didn’t realize at the time that not all mobile devices are compatible with public safety environments. Some devices – even some rugged computers – lack the durability to survive the harsh handling and hazardous operating conditions of fire and rescue operations. Other devices, even if rugged enough, are not compatible with agency software or back-office systems. Even worse, some devices – such as notebooks – simply can’t be “mobilized” with responders when they’re on foot in the field. They’re just too heavy or wieldy and introduce too many safety risks of their own.

Yet, today’s first responders – though highly skilled at their jobs – are more reliant than ever on mobile technologies to increase their situational awareness, and therefore their safety levels, on every call. Fire and rescue agencies just can’t afford to continue investing in multiple, “single-purpose” devices for each of their operating locations, especially given the failure rates of many of those devices. The good news is – as Reading FD and many other Xplore customers will attest – rugged tablets give agencies a way to move past their “old ways” by providing a single device, all-purpose PC solution fit for all public safety environments.

Here are five reasons why the rugged tablet is the one mobile PC platform that’s been able to save fire and rescue departments from operational failures when the stakes are high, especially as notebooks and other mobile devices increasingly fall short:  

5. Secure Communications and Connectivity

It’s not enough to deploy a mobile device that can connect to data systems while in range of a 4G LTE wireless signal. Crews need uninterrupted connectivity to dispatch and other first responders no matter how remote the incident location. They may also require secure access to GIS data and critical reference materials such as building schematics, a site’s incident history, pre-determined emergency response mapping, and standard operating protocol for high risk operations such as search and rescue or extrications. Fortunately, rugged tablets feature built-in 4G LTE, Wi-Fi, and GNSS technologies that allow for seamless network switchovers, as well as multiple integrated security modules, such as Smart Card/CAC readers and fingerprint scanners. High performance rugged tablets also come equipped with lots of I/O ports, including True Serial RS232, multiple USB 3.0, and the Ethernet connectivity that the  Community Volunteer Fire Department in Houston, TX, uses to securely manage the medical team’s ambulance-based narcotics vault.

4. Compatibility, Easy Integration with Enhanced Firefighter Safety Modules and Key Applications

When firefighters enter a burning building, they’re immediately exposed to the very dangers threatening the victims inside – including smoke inhalation. And while crews are properly equipped with oxygen tanks, their breathing capabilities can be compromised for a number of reasons. That’s why modules that can bolt onto a rugged tablet, such as this Telemetry System from Dräger, are becoming such critical lifesaving tools. The officer in charge – standing outside the scene with the rugged tablet in hand – can monitor how much air is left in each tank, determine if a firefighter is in trouble, and issue an order to evacuate an individual or entire team. Without a tablet-based solution such as the one in this picture, the officer would have to use a large and potentially cumbersome pseudo-manual telemetry board is used to do this job. Now, the radio located in the firefighters’ breathing apparatus kit feeds data back to the radio module attached to the rugged tablet – versus the manual telemetry board – and enables the officer in charge to acknowledge the wearer’s distress signals, automatic distress signals and withdrawal signals.

Rugged Tablet Compatibility

Rugged tablets are also highly compatible with a range of fire applications critical to operational success. For example, rugged tablets enable agencies to interface with computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and remote management systems (RMS) using a single device no matter where they are at the time. That can’t be said of handhelds or notebooks necessarily. Plus, the best rugged tablets are software agnostic and equipped with the specific data entry tools required for each departments’ scheduling, pre-planning, GIS mapping, ePCR reporting and EMS billing functions. These include the tablets’ built-in hi-res cameras that can be used to take photos for inspections and field investigations, as well as the glove touch and pen inputs for notetaking and reporting. 

3. Intrinsic Safety for Hazardous Locations

Rugged Tablet Compatibility

Once again, rugged tablets are leading in safety standards. This time, though, the pool of viable mobile computing candidates shrinks as only a few rugged tablets are ATEX or C1D2/C1Z2 compliant and truly safe to use in HazLoc environments – such as the one you see below. Non-rugged devices are not built with the proper safeguards against sparks, dust, and gasses found in many fire and rescue scenarios and should never be used in proximity to these hazards.

2. Mobility (and Serviceability)

No, a notebook is not a mobile device. It’s portable, yes, but not easy to use in hand when walking – or running – and working. Notebooks really need to rest on a flat surface and demand two hands on the keyboard. On the other hand, tablets can easily transform into notebook/desktop with a wireless keyboard when needed. And the argument for tablets is not just a matter of convenience either. Real-time communications and data access are mission critical. First responders don’t need to be running back and forth to the truck to retrieve manuals or review schematics and they certainly don’t need to carry – and have to fumble with – more than one communications or data device. Not only are rugged tablets lightweight (only 2-3 lbs) and easy to use when walking and working, but they’re highly resistant – if not completely immune – to the otherwise damaging effects of water, dust, extreme temperatures, vibrations, shock, and fluid contaminants. Plus they can be disinfected and cleaned easily and can be serviced without delay if and when needed.


The Rugged Tablet vs. the Rugged “Clamshell”: How Different Are They?

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  1. Versatility

The value of standardizing on a single rugged tablet platform that can be every PC you need it to be in the office, vehicle, and field – and do anything and everything you want it to – is truly priceless. The tangible and intangible ROI that public safety customers receive when they consolidate two, three, or even five computing and communications devices into a single rugged tablet PC solution is unmatchable by any other form factor. I can’t tell you how many public safety leaders that have complained about the costs and constraints of multi-device PC setups within their agencies. They might have a desktop PC at the station, a notebook or 20-lb fixed terminal setup as the MDT in the vehicle, and then either a notebook or tablet (sometimes even an iPad or Samsung Galaxy Note, which are never suitable for public safety) as the “field” device. Here’s the catch, these fragmented systems not only fail the durability test more often than not, many don’t even talk to one another as they should because of the security policies, age of equipment, or IT complications in synchronizing software.

Not only are rugged tablets backwards and forwards compatible with back-office operating systems and accessories, but they are they are software agnostic and easy to provision within your agency’s individual operating environment. Plus, most rugged tablets also come standard with secure docking options that replicate the devices’ ports, and tablets feature large and bright 10-12” screens for easy reading day or night, inside or outside. That makes the rugged tablet the ideal laptop and desktop replacement which means you can standardize on a single PC platform for all your workers and across all the places they work. Plain and simple, the rugged tablet is the only computing form factor that is engineered with the safety, mobility, communications, and connectivity requirements that fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies now demand. Just remember: As crews become more reliant on mobile technologies, agencies must become more diligent in how they evaluate, select, and deploy such solutions. One notebook failure in the firetruck can disrupt a well-optimized response process and leave crews scrambling to work “blind” to a certain extent – and at what cost? 

The Total Cost of Ownership for rugged tablets – both tangible and intangible – is lower than any other form factor, rugged or not. Plus, for the last 20 years, rugged tablets have been built for – and with – public safety professionals. Firefighters, EMTs, and law enforcement professionals have provided direct and frequent input to some manufacturers on what they want and need. That means that there is going to be a rugged tablet solution that will deliver exactly what your agency needs to overcome any existing mobility, communications, or operational challenges and you will have the resources needed to increase crew safety and situational awareness without compromise. 

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