Mobile Technology becomes operational tool for fire service

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Written by
Daniel Grew

Mobile Data Technology Manager

Mobile Technology becomes operational tool for fire service

When Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service (DWFRS) upgraded its Mobile Data Terminals (MDT) to rugged devices in 2018, we were also one of the first fire services in the country to install demountable devices in the rear of the appliances to accompany firefighters when they leave the vehicles. Three years on and these demountable notebooks have become more than a computer;

they are viewed as an “operational tool” by the firefighters, the same as breathing apparatus or the rescue equipment they use. We knew from the very start that we wanted a device that had scalability. Whatever the future request from the firefighters, I wanted to be able to say yes and we needed a device that was capable of meeting that need.

We initially evaluated over 20 ruggedised and non-ruggedised devices prior to selecting the Panasonic TOUGHBOOK 33 notebook. We decided that a best in class ruggedised device, over a conventional consumer grade tablet, would enable many more applications to be provided in the long-term to improve the firefighters’ working environment and provide a much better return on investment.

In particular, we chose the notebook because it could evolve to meet future needs - with double the memory, the latest Bluetooth technology for the future addition of third party peripherals and an integrated RFID reader to enable secure but easy-to-use authentication.

In addition, it was a device that we didn’t need to worry about. We know these devices just work. There are no worries about how they are performing and whether they will work when they inevitably get wet. We have over 200 devices and we are still in single figure failure rates more than three years down the line.

DWFRS has just under 100 demountable devices in its vehicles that we call Risk Information Tablets (RITs).

Over the past three years, the use of the devices has continued to evolve and a lot was learnt in a short time following deployment. On day one it’s hard to understand exactly what the device needs and how it will be used but once you put it in the hands of the users it quickly becomes clear.

The firefighters needed faster and easier access to the devices, when kitted up and at the scene of an incident. As a result, our team adapted the log-in and authentication process without compromising on security. As the crews became more familiar with the devices, requests for additional improvements and applications began to roll in.

Today, the devices are used for an incredibly wide range of applications. They can be used to assist fire crews with detailed schematics of vehicles to help them rescue trapped people, accessing site specific risk information, as well as location information on water pipes and hydrants, alongside tools for carrying out community fire safety assessments.

Additional applications include the integration of What3Words for specific locations, access to internal systems for email, video communications and intranets and even a simple screen cleaning application where the screen becomes non-responsive for 20 seconds to allow the user to quickly wipe water and grime from the display.

When we get feedback, we look to rework the process to make it more useable or see what we can add to make the users’ lives easier. For example, recently we had one very valuable piece of feedback when a firefighter said that they take the device out of the vehicle to use it at an incident but then put it back in the vehicle before they go into action because they require both hands to be free.

As a result, we are looking at shoulder straps that will let the devices continue to be available during an incident. They can hang at the firefighter’s side, keeping both hands free, but be available instantly when required.

Other future possibilities include providing each crew member with a small tracking device that will enable the RIT to be used to monitor the location and safety of crew members.

Ability to monitor, manage and maintain

For our IT team, the ability to monitor, manage and maintain the security of the devices has also been a great benefit.

To ensure the fire crews have constant data connectivity while on emergency call-outs, mobility and diagnostics software is used on the devices. It monitors the connections, devices, applications and networks in use to ensure information and applications are available when needed. It also provides the tools to pinpoint connectivity issues quickly and accurately to keep mobile users productive.  

With the devices used outside of the vehicles, ensuring data security is a priority. DWFRS the ability to centrally track and secure the devices. The technology is embedded within the chip-set and once activated using a cloud-based console, can remotely identify, track and de-activate a device if it is stolen or missing.

To allow us to efficiently maintain the devices at multiple sites across the counties, the devices also have a range of applications to help the IT administrators monitor and analyse data from each device by looking at performance for signal strength, battery life, network performance and application usage. These tools help us to ensure the devices are being used efficiently and can help predict when maintenance such as battery replacements are required, keeping the devices in the field for longer and making planned maintenance easier and more effective.

Unlocking even more potential

The journey from initial hesitation from the firefighters  to acceptance and then recognition of the value of mobile technology had been steadily progressive. It’s not a computer anymore. It’s seen as an operational tool and one that we can continue to unlock the potential from to make the firefighters even more effective.

With the MDT and RIT solution using ESN-approved devices, we are also now ready for the switch to the new Emergency Services Network as it comes online.

Watch the full success story here

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