Jan 25 2011

All-Terrain Notebooks

Camden County, N.J., boosts dispatching accuracy with vehicle-mounted ruggedized notebooks.

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Getting firefighters to the right location as quickly as possible -- that's the bottom-line benefit that Camden County, N.J., is seeing from its recent investment in vehicle-mounted ruggedized notebooks for 60 of its fire engines.

The county's new Panasonic Toughbooks are integrated with its computer-aided dispatch system so that firefighters have immediate access to all the available data about an emergency call.

"This investment has increased our accuracy," says Jim Jankowski, chief of communications for the Camden County Department of Public Safety. "If there's any question about what the address is for the responding units, they have it in front of them."

Until recently, county dispatchers could communicate with emergency responders only by radio, and this caused occasional errors such as misheard or transposed numbers in addresses. Now, firefighters can read the address for themselves on the Toughbook's backlit touch screens. The dispatch system displays all the information that the operator has entered, and users are able to look at the past history for an address along with any special notes.

Jim Jankowski and Mark Simonetti of the Camden County Department of Public Safety intend to extend a Toughbook deployment to ambulances.

Photo: Kara Gwyn/Wonderful Machine

"Our firefighters are very pleased with [the Toughbooks]," Jankowski says. "They like to see the cross streets and the other information that the dispatcher has. They don't have to ask for additional information or compete for radio time with other emergency responders."

Rugged and at the Ready

Camden County is at the forefront of a trend, as more local fire departments install computers in their vehicles. "Police penetration has been a focal point for these ruggedized notebooks going into vehicles," says David Krebs, director of mobile and wireless research at VDC Research. "Ambulances and fire departments are an area that is less penetrated and represents a broad opportunity."

Krebs says it's critical for fire departments to spend the additional money for ruggedized systems even though they cost as much as three times more than regular notebooks.

"Any type of mission-critical vehicles -- a police car, a fire engine or an EMS vehicle -- if you throw in a regular laptop, it's not going to perform in these environments because of the vibration and even some spill of liquids. Regular computers are not suitable for these types of use cases. Also, a lot of the applications require a touch display and also displays that can be read in broad daylight."

Located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden County consists of 37 municipalities with 500,000-plus citizens. The Department of Public Safety's communications center handles 9ll calls and dispatches county police, fire and emergency medical services.

Last year, Camden County bought 60 Panasonic Toughbook CF-30s to deploy in fire department vehicles. The county spent $468,000 from a Department of Homeland Security grant on the ruggedized notebooks and vehicle mounts. Each vehicle got a Toughbook, a TESSCO antenna, a Sierra Wireless modem and a Ledco mount.

This year, the county plans to buy 50 more ruggedized notebooks (Toughbook CF-19s) to equip its ambulances. The county expects to spend between $450,000 and $460,000 on this follow-on automation effort.

"We would absolutely recommend going with the ruggedized systems," Jankowski says. "Firemen can be very, very unforgiving. We've had no mechanical problems with the Toughbooks. They've been working perfectly.

Adapting Installations

One challenge for Camden County was installing the computers in the cabs of the fire engines, which vary in size and configuration.

"You can't buy one generic mount because there are so many different kinds of fire apparatus. It's not like buying notebooks for police cars, where they are all Crown Victorias," Jankowski says. The fleet includes ladder trucks, rescue vehicles and chief cars.

Mark Simonetti, an IT administrator for the county's Office of Emergency Management, took digital images of the cabs of the fire engines and sent them to the installation subcontractor so the correct mounts could be ordered.

"The installation was a logistical nightmare," Simonetti says. "Every fire department chief wants the installation in a separate location. Some want it on the passenger side. Some want it between the driver and the passenger so it can swivel back and forth. We had to customize the install for each apparatus."

Today, Camden County dispatchers and firefighters are exchanging textual information using the new Toughbooks. But when the county finishes an upgrade to its computer-aided dispatch system, also planned for this year, dispatchers will begin sending maps and other images such as building plans to emergency responders.

Although Camden County hasn't measured the number of dispatch errors that have been eliminated by the Toughbooks, it has seen a reduction in radio traffic during peak demand.

"We can tell during thunderstorms -- when there is really peak radio traffic -- that we're able to push runs out to the mobile data computers without even dispatching them," Jankowski says. "We've seen a big increase in our efficiency during thunderstorms. There's been a noticeable impact."

Not Tough Enough

With the price of notebooks plummeting, some public safety agencies are experimenting with the use of regular -- rather than ruggedized -- notebooks mounted in their vehicles. But Bobby Williams, fire chief for the Spokane Fire Department in Washington, favors ruggedized systems.

4 to 5 years
Typical lifespan of a rugged notebook, whereas standard notebooks last only one to two years in public safety field deployments

Source: Computer Systems & Methods

"Some agencies choose not to go ruggedized. They figure that the notebooks are so inexpensive that they can be disposable, so they don't worry if they get broken," Williams says. "We chose ruggedized notebooks from the start because of the wear and tear they get in our vehicles. The guys that are using them are in protective gear. They're in warm environments in the summer time. ... Our ruggedized systems have worked very well for us.''

The Spokane Fire Department had 30 General Dynamics Itronix GoBook III notebooks installed in its vehicles since 2006 and integrated with its computer-aided dispatch system. These are the department's second-generation ruggedized notebooks, having first purchased Itronix GoBook XR-1s back in 2002.

Williams says the fire department is evaluating new ruggedized notebooks and hopes to upgrade its 30 systems this year if its budget allows.

"We've been very satisfied overall with our ruggedized notebooks," Williams says. "Our fire prevention bureau also has ruggedized systems, and our police department uses ruggedized mobile data computers.