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3 tips on selecting a mobile solution for emergency response

by Rob Karsch

July 23 2013

Rob Karsch is a retired police officer and current systems consultant at Motion Computing


Former first responder Rob Karsch knows the value of a solid mobile platform

As a retired police officer, I understand the importance of a reliable, effective mobile solution for emergency response. 

There are some important choices to be made when selecting a mobile solution, such as choosing the right device, communication strategy, and applications. Making a mistake in any of these three key areas can seriously reduce your chances of success.

The following are tips to keep in mind as you consider mobile computing solutions for your emergency response organization.

1.    Choose a communication strategy with the best coverage
Unlike a repair person who may be able to get away with carrying a device that has a lot of information stored locally, your “field worker” will need access to real time information and therefore will need reliable wireless connectivity. Before selecting a wireless carrier, be sure to compare the carriers voice and data coverage maps with the area your emergency responders cover. If you’re in a very remote area with limited cellular coverage, you’ll need to look into antenna boosters or possibly satellite-based communication as a backup.

2.    Get lots of input before choosing a mobile application
Find out what applications your peers are using to support their responders. One thing’s for certain: developing a customized application from scratch should be the last thing you should consider and only after exhausting all other options, which should include contacting industry associations with which you’re affiliated.



 

In addition to the considerations about the types of applications you want to use, you’ll need to consider whether those applications will be used locally or accessed remotely. Operating applications locally on a mobile device has the benefit of ownership as well as relying less on available bandwidth to access data, but it may require more computing power and be more difficult to maintain and troubleshoot.

A hosted or SaaS (software as a service)-based application, on the other hand, is normally purchased as a monthly subscription, and the computer processing and updating responsibility is pushed to the data center (i.e. cloud) provider, but may be compromised in a catastrophic situation such as a storm or homeland security threat.


3.    Keep TCO top of mind when selecting mobile computers  
For some organizations, mobile devices are viewed as commodities that can be easily discarded and replaced if broken. If you’re thinking about using the latest consumer-grade Android, iOS, or Windows tablet for your first responders, you should consider research findings from VDC Research Group that show while the initial price tag of a consumer device is much less than its rugged counterpart, when you take into consideration the cost of downtime and the limited uses of consumer devices in harsh work environments, the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a rugged device is a smarter financial move.

Here are some additional considerations to keep in mind with your device selections:

a.    Form factor. Handhelds, tablets, and laptops all have their places in the outdoor work environment. If your primary mobile application requires minimal data entry and primarily makes use of drop down menus and check boxes, keep handhelds in mind as viable options. If, on the other hand, there is a need for data entry, applications that run on full Windows operating systems, and/or the need for viewing maps or graphics, then tablets or laptops are going to be better options.

One of the advantages of a tablet is that it’s so flexible-- more portable than a laptop, and for workers who do a lot of data entry most tablets can be paired with a physical keyboard via Bluetooth. The one thing to watch with some tablets is the operating system. You’ll want to make sure it supports the mobile applications you’ll be using.

b.    Rugged vs. Semi-rugged. Lots of mobile computing companies will use the term rugged, when in fact their devices are better categorized as semi-rugged. Make sure to not only ask questions but test devices before making your final selection. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

i. Can the device be cleaned with disinfectants?
ii. What kind of a drop (and onto what kind of surface) is the device designed to withstand?
iii. Does the device have specific internal components that protect it against shock and vibration (i.e. not just a consumer device in a hard shell)?
iv. Is the device’s screen readable in bright sunlight and backlit at night?
v. Does the device use a spinning disk drive or a solid state drive?

c.    Battery life. Unless the mobile device will spend most of its time in a vehicle charging dock, battery life is a very important consideration. Many emergency responders work beyond the traditional 8-hour shift, so a 10- or even 12-hour battery life is important. Even better is selecting a mobile device that supports hot swappable batteries, so that in the event the primary battery is running low, a replacement battery can be added without losing any data.

d.    Docking and mounting solution. In-Vehicle computing is a big part of a mobile solution for first responders.  Making sure the docking and mounting solution is safe, space-saving, rugged and flexible is as important as the mobile device selection. 

Emergency responders are relying on mobile solutions in a greater capacity now more than ever before. Choosing a mobile solution that combines the right device, application, and form factor will go a long way in helping your response team work more productively and to focus on what they’re best at - saving lives, protecting our communities and serving the public.

(Ruggedized devices have already proven their worth in places like construction sites and the factory floor. Come see which companies are successfully deploying them at TabletBiz on November 13 in New York.)

 

Rob Karsch is a retired police officer and current systems consultant at Motion Computing

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