Aug 03 2022

Firefighters Efficiently Manage Mobile Devices While Saving Lives

Laddermen increasingly rely on smartphones and tablets as tools to contain blazes.

Tennessee’s Memphis Fire Department has 57 fire stations, each with its own printers, computers and other IT gear. The department also owns and operates 250 Panasonic Toughbooks and 350 Apple iPads, recently adopting new mobile technology to augment its traditional radios.

But the MFD has only four IT support professionals. A service call can mean an hour in the car, assuming the troublesome equipment is in a fire station and not, in the case of mobile devices, in a truck or ambulance somewhere.

“Of course, we encourage our people to report issues,” says acting Lt. Carey Berryman of the MFD technology team. “One of our mandates is to keep them available to the community and make sure technology doesn’t take a truck or ambulance out of service.”

“When you have as many stations as we do and as many employees, it’s impossible to meet everyone’s needs by running around the city,” Berryman says. “We need to be able to get in there remotely and fix the problem.”

These days, when a fire or emergency medical services (EMS) unit reports, for example, that the GPS in its Toughbook isn’t working, Berryman’s team can log into the laptop remotely and troubleshoot the issue. To that end, as the MFD and other fire departments roll out more mobile devices, they’re adopting mobile device management (MDM) solutions.“

Traditional radios are great for reliable voice communications, which are often a lifeline for fire personnel during an incident,” says Alison Brooks, research vice president for IDC’s worldwide and U.S. public safety practice. “But they lack the granular, real-time, data-heavy situational awareness provided by smartphones and other devices.”

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Remote Troubleshooting in the Field 

For its part, the MFD adopted SOTI MobiControl Cloud to manage its 600 Microsoft Windows-based and Apple iOS mobile devices. According to Berryman, the department had three main requirements: It had to be able to troubleshoot mobile devices remotely, distribute necessary electronic information from a central location and install software programs without collecting all the devices for configuration.

“We haven’t had to yet, but we can also use MobiControl to remotely lock or wipe a device in case it gets lost or stolen,” Berryman says.

The department’s Toughbooks interface with the MFD’s computer-aided dispatch system to direct trucks where they’re needed. Sometimes, the GPS port in the laptops’ CAD software gets misconfigured and trucks are flying blind.

“We’ll get a call saying their Toughbook isn’t tracking,” Berryman says. “We’ll then connect to that laptop remotely and change it to the right port, and it starts working again.”

READ MORE: Evolving technologies can enhance emergency responses in smart cities.

When it comes to maintaining software on the MFD mobile devices, Berryman’s team maintains groups in MobiControl corresponding to the applications their jobs require. For example, firefighters and EMS personnel use different software than inspectors or even trainees. But sometimes, there’s a department-wide update.

“We’ll get word that we need all our crews to have access to a particular application for hazmat information, for example, and we don’t have to track down every device,”Berryman says. “I’ve been able to push apps to all our devices in just 30 minutes.”

And because the MFD’s MobiControl solution is cloud-based, Berryman can log in securely from work or home to respond to users’ needs. “Putting the right application on the right device for the right person at the right time is very valuable,” he says.

Lifecycle Management and Monitoring to Stop Headaches

The Aurora Fire Department (AFD) in Colorado deploys Apple iPhones and iPads to its personnel. It standardized on iOS devices because it found the handoff seamless between its Apple Business Manager portal and VMware AirWatch MDM platform (now VMware Workspace ONE).

“The driving force behind mobile devices was efficiency in the field,”says Vanessa Mulqueen, public safety business solutions architect for Aurora. “We knew other departments were utilizing tablets to their fullest capability, and many of the vendors that sell public safety applications either have mobile apps or their software is designed best for mobile use.”

Over years, the AFD has adopted many of those applications, including Accela Fire Prevention, for inspections and preplanning,Tablet Command for incident management and ArcGIS for maps and geographic information. It also deploys apps for patient reporting, learning management, internal alerts and office productivity—basically, almost everything needed to work from anywhere.

“Our firefighters are not tied to their rigs,” Mulqueen says. We wanted to ensure they had the best chance of doing their jobs, no matter the condition. We were able to locate holes in the workflow that tablets could fill.”

DIVE DEEPER: How will public safety be affected by the 3G sunset?

Each AFD mobile device runs Palo Alto Networks GlobalProtect VPN for accessing internal city sites.Through AirWatch, the AFD can implement other security measures, such as forcing a passcode or restricting a device’s ability to connect with unapproved Wi-Fi networks.If a device is lost, the AFD can track it on a map, wipe its contents and even display a “Property of Aurora” message with a contact number to call if found.The AFD manages roughly 125 Apple iPhones and iPads through the system.

Like Memphis’s fire department, the AFD maintains user groups within AirWatch, so personnel get only the software they need. The department also uses data from its MDM system for lifecycle management.“

I can export a list of all devices running a certain OS or software version, so we can follow a replacement lifecycle to ensure devices out there are never too old,” Mulqueen says. “This helps us determine which ones should be replaced and when.”


The share of people worldwide who say technology increases the productivity and efficiency of emergency services

Source: Motorola Solutions, “Consensus for Change,” September 2021

More Than Smartphones - Essential Tools for the Field 

In December 2018, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security partnered with public safety agencies, including the fire departments in Houston and surrounding Harris County, Texas, to demonstrate the deployment and management of interoperable mobile devices—and not just smartphones.

As part of the Next Generation First Responder demonstration, the agencies integrated smartphones, Internet of Things sensors, body-worn cameras and associated applications into a unified MobileIron-based MDM system to increase coordination, improve safety and boost situational awareness.

“We did a hazmat demo where responders wore sensors, and it was one of the first times data was being pushed back to command in real time without having to radio it in,” says Patrick Hagan, emergency operations technical specialist for the Houston Fire Department.

DISCOVER: 5 considerations for mobile device management.

In the aftermath, DHS published a case study describing the demonstration’s MDM solution, with recommendations for other first responder agencies.“

Although MDMin its simplest definition refers to the control of one or more mobile devices…its scope is continuously evolving and expanding,” DHS wrote. “The MDM solution used for the NGFR included additional capabilities, such as mobile device attestation, user-based metrics testing, end-to-end encryption, data tunneling and vulnerability analysis of mobile apps.”

In his current job, Hagan manages a fleet of drones the department uses for situational awareness. As their capabilities evolve to transmit more real-time video, and as the use of such video must meet requirements for privacy and security, Hagan says the department is exploring an MDM platform for its drones.

“Now we’re also getting into technologies like virtual reality goggles and HoloLens headsets,” he says. “What if we lose a credentialed device like that? All the things an MDM can help with, we’ll need to extend that to newer technologies coming online.

Jason Cook

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