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Shopping for Public Safety: Rugged Tablets a Must Have Technology

This week, law enforcement officers will be converging on Charlotte, NC, to go shopping. This isn’t your typical weekend getaway shopping trip, though. Admittedly, the annual CopTech Forum is a fun event because the latest and most groundbreaking technologies will be on display. However, no one takes this trip – or buying decisions – lightly. The technology purchased over these three days will directly impact officers’ ability to do their jobs. These technologies will aid in the safety and security of communities within their jurisdiction for months, and years, to come. They will be used to mobilize entire police forces, and all law enforcement-related processes from dispatch to routine patrols, incident response to investigations.

There’s immense pressure to invest in technology that is future-proof and scales with the requirements for long-term expandability. Any mobile computing platform purchased must be able to support agencies’ unprecedented – and unpredictable – data demands for years to come. The mobile PC must also be compatible with any future technologies used in support of police activities: body cameras, Internet of Things, emerging wireless communications standards, etc. Law enforcement budgets typically don’t accommodate frequent technology replacement requests, even though many commercial-grade mobile PC devices being pitched to public safety IT departments are designed for replacement every one to two years. They just don’t deliver the expandable processing power, storage capacity, or even operating system compatibility that agencies will ultimately need. The constant learning curve that comes with introducing new or difficult-to-use mobile devices means that officers will either be distracted on the job, resulting in slow decision making, missed threats, or inaccurate documentation of incidents.

Even if a chosen computing device is rugged enough to stay in service for many years, that doesn’t mean it’s truly “mobile” enough to serve the modern officer’s needs. Consider this: The vehicle-mounted laptops that have been in patrol cars for decades can technically be taken out of the vehicle and used as a portable PC. But do officers actually ever take those heavy PCs into the field during a routine traffic stop or more serious incident where they need to be quick and agile in their response? Are laptop or notebook screens even truly readable in an outside environment? The consensus is no. Have you ever seen a SWAT response team carrying a laptop? Probably not. They almost always use a smaller form factor such as a rugged tablet PC because of the lightweight mobility and constant connectivity available at all times.

Rugged Tablet PCs will play an important role in the future of law enforcement mobility

So then why should other officers – whose jobs are just as important – be forced to rely only on laptops for their field computing tasks? Laptops don’t give them true real-time access to the data they need to do their jobs while on foot. Nor can they make real-time decisions as easily or document evidence in the moment. They have to return to their vehicle every time – or rely on unreliable paper-based note-taking. Neither is conducive to the smart, fast, and coordinated response capabilities required given today’s evolving security challenges.

Whether you’re going shopping at CopTech next week or plan to make a mobile technology purchase in the coming months, it’s important to do your homework before you buy. Unlike Black Friday shopping, law enforcement agencies can’t afford to make these types of purchases based on the lowest price alone. You get what you pay for. Or, perhaps even more important, is that what you don’t get at that price can be costly in the long run.

My colleague Bob Ashenbrenner made some very important points in his recent 911 Magazine article “Not All "Mobile" PCs are Mobile - and Not All Rugged Tablets are the Same.” When it comes to buying and using technology…

  • “The first – and perhaps most important – goal has been to keep law enforcement, EMS, and fire and rescue teams safe while simultaneously protecting the people and interests of the communities they serve. That requires better preparedness and situational awareness; both of which are contingent on the availability and proper utilization of real-time data.
  • Real-life emergency response demands real-time data sharing, whether via dispatch communications or jurisdiction-wide records systems. Where older installed-in-vehicle systems delivered these advantages until the officers left their seats, new mobility tools allow the officers to maintain a connection anywhere they go.

He then provides some critical advice that I encourage every public safety technology buyer to take to heart. While you’re on the plane to North Carolina or prepping for your first vendor meeting, take a few minutes to read his step-by-step action plan for resetting your mobility strategy and building a cohesive end-to-end mobile solution that fully support public safety’s mobile computing requirements and your agency’s individual workflows.

Then download this Public Safety Mobile Computing Feature Checklist and compare each short-listed solution to these minimum specification requirements. Do your “favorites” really check all the boxes? What other features or custom capabilities do you want – or absolutely need?

Remember, you’d probably do quite a bit of Comparison Shopping and planning before heading out on your Black Friday trip. This is no different (and arguably, a more life-changing purchase). Take advantage of all the information resources available to you to educate your decision makers on the pros and cons of each technology option. Understand what you need – and why. Conduct rugged vs. non-rugged device pricing comparisons using a Total Cost of Ownership Calculator such as this one prior to creating your “short list.” And choose a “partner,” not just a vendor, who can help you build a total mobility solution far beyond the one piece of the puzzle they manufacture.

Download the Public Safety Feature Checklist