In-Vehicle Computers Become Important Emergency Tools

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ESRI provides mapping data for many software products, including the Adashi Command Post. (ESRI photo)
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The American-made Hub-Data911 M6 model can be customized to fit in any fire engine or ambulance cab.

These days you are just as likely to see a computer inside a fire engine or ambulance as you are back in the firehouse. In-vehicle computer technology has become an important tool to help firefighters and officers get to incidents, find out more once they get there and mitigate any problems they run into.

Computers in apparatus also have opened up a new can of alphabet soup that firefighters must learn to work with: GIS, Geographic Information System; GPS, Global Positioning System; CAD, Computer Aided Dispatch; and AVL, Automatic Vehicle Location.
No matter what the initials, computers in fire and EMS vehicles all require three components – hardware, software, and mounting options.

The Panasonic Toughbook is one of the biggest sellers in the industry, with a 50 percent estimated market share for fire departments and 70 percent for EMS providers, according to company officials. Panasonic’s senior business development manager Dave Poulin said that’s because fire departments are very conscious of return on investment.

“You can buy something that costs money or you can buy something that returns value,” Poulin said. “When you have a mission-critical application, every second saved is important. And when we are talking about a Toughbook, we are talking about minutes saved. Three o’clock in the morning in a rainstorm, you hit a button and you know it works.”

He said Panasonic’s biggest seller is the CF-30 model. It’s a larger rugged laptop with a touch screen and integrated GPS and broadband access. But, he said, fire customers are also looking at the CF-19, a smaller “tablet” version. “It’s specifically for rescue and patient care reports,” he said, although it still handles the same mapping on vehicle locations and dispatch functionality that the CF-30 offers.
And then there’s the H-1, which is purely for EMS. “It’s designed around a medical market that needs a rugged device,” Poulin said. “It has [bar code scanning] for medications and fingerprint scanning and other needs for EMS.”

While Panasonic’s market share is impressive, fire and EMS departments looking to put computers in their rigs have other options. There are many smaller manufacturers, including Novi, Mich.-based OEM Micro, which designs and builds in-vehicle computers for fire departments in the Midwest and has been extending its reach. OEM Micro President David Downs said his company’s computers are rugged and adaptable to any apparatus cab.
“They are welded construction, with enclosure assemblies,” he said, “and the components inside are shock-mounted with locking connectors to make certain that during the performance of the job, the vibration and shock and bouncing won’t cause something to come loose.”

Waterproof Keyboard

Downs said OEM Micro’s latest model, the MTC3, comes standard with a touch screen, a backlit, waterproof keyboard that can be mounted and moved just about anywhere and brighter-than-laptop displays. The MTC3 can be inserted into and removed from a docking station, but it’s considered a “rigid-mount” computer, not a laptop portable. That means it includes all the connectivity and features of a larger computer, including a full-size processor that runs off vehicle power.

Customers looking for something more permanent can also turn to Alameda, Calif.-based Hub/Data911. Marketing Director Lee Warner said the company offers a fixed-mounted, three-piece solution – CPU, monitor and keyboard. The newest generation product is the M6, made at the company’s headquarters.
“We are a manufacturer, we do everything right here,” Warner said. “That’s one of the things that’s unique about our company. We will help you with a data solution that works for you. We do the installation. It’s like we hold your hand, not like a giant corporation. We have 24-hour support, so when you call, you always talk to someone.”

Warner said the fixed-mount option is important for safety, as laptop computers on fire apparatus can come loose in sudden stops or crashes and injure the occupants. The M6 can be mounted just about anywhere it’s needed. “They can even have a second display in the back, the CPU can go under a seat, in a glove box, wherever they want it to go,” Warner said. “The keyboard is moveable and removable, it’s illuminated, and you can keep it in one place, put it in your lap, whatever  you want to do.”

Even the hard drive is removable. “For updates you literally swap out the hard drive,” he said. “You don’t even need tools.”

Hub/Data911 also sells software for CAD, digital video, record management and other applications. But Warner said the company can work with any software a customer wants to use. Customers can also order mounting equipment through  Hub/Data911. “We don’t make it ourselves,” he said, “but we work through vendors and your sales person sets up the whole thing for you.”

Mounting Hardware

Mounting hardware is the renewed focus of Warminster, Pa.-based Havis Inc., formerly Havis-Shields before its merger with LEDCO-CHARGEGUARD earlier this year. Havis Director of Business Development Nic Milani said the new company is all about the mobile workforce and ensuring safety and comfort.
“If you work at a big company [and complain] to HR that your back hurts because of your chair, they first thing they do is give you a really expensive chair and make sure you are comfortable,” he pointed out. “But if your back hurts because your computer isn’t mounted properly in your fire truck, they tell you to suck it up.”

Milani said the solution is ergonomics. “In the fire truck the device is designed to swing out in front of the officer’s chair so they don’t have to twist and strain,” he said. “We are trying to get it in front of them in a comfortable spot. Once it’s in position, it’s locked into place, so if you were to get into an accident, that solution will not swing through the cab. It’s fixed.”

Havis mounting hardware, which has shock absorbing technology, is designed to withstand the rigors of a bouncing fire engine or truck-based ambulance. “The equipment is exposed to a larger amount of shock and vibration,” Milani said. “So we identify the problem and test for it.”

Power Management

Havis is also into the power management side of in-vehicle computing. The company’s CHARGEGUARD product is designed to shut off a vehicle if after-market additions like computers or radios are draining the battery. And the IdleRight fuel management system makes it unnecessary to have apparatus running on scene to keep the battery charged. “IdleRight monitors the vehicle’s battery charge, and when the battery falls to a certain level, it automatically restarts the vehicle,” Milani said. He claimed up to a 90 percent fuel savings in trials of IdleRight.

It doesn’t do much good to have a computer and sturdy mounting hardware if you don’t also have efficient software. Most software designed to run in fire and EMS apparatus have basic CAD and GIS features. The differences, then, are in the extra bells, whistles and ease-of-use features that companies add, such as access to pre-plans, floor plans, hydrant layouts and terrain information.
OptiMetrics, a defense contractor based in Ann Arbor, Mich. that has branched into the public safety sector, produces Adashi software. The Adashi Lite, Adashi First Response and Adashi Command Post products offer different levels of features, but all have easy-to-use interfaces for firefighters.
“Firefighters want simple,” explained Alex Menkes, director of civil incident support software solutions for OptiMetrics. “The way our programs are designed, it’s like a process. Each tab is the next step in what you need to do. You might have ten maps, each on their own tab, showing me how to get to a scene, then a close-up of the building, then an analysis of fire hydrants in the area. Customers set these up, all based on their data.”

Adashi Light is intended for EMS use and includes GIS information. “It allows you to bring in your own maps,” Menkes said. “It also integrates into your dispatch system, so I can receive a dispatch, tell it to auto-route me, and it will do that.”

Adashi First Response includes more detailed GIS information, as well as customizable features that can include weather details, additional address information and even routing that can be heard over the apparatus headset system. “They can get very precise about where they need to go,” Menkes said. “They can even edit it for, say, golf courses which might have a mailbox address, but which wouldn’t be where you necessarily want to send the response vehicles.”

Adashi Command Post is for users who manage larger incidents. It includes a terrain map, can generate dispersion models, and even show evacuation and transportation regions. It’s based on the National Incident Management System (NIMS) so officers can coordinate the responses of several sectors at once. “It’s drag-and-drop or touch screen, for the back of the suburban or for large command and control vehicles,” Menkes said. “We’ve done a lot of development to make sure it can handle it.”

Clayton I.D.S. of Columbus, Ohio echoes the easy-to-use mantra with its claim that even firefighters wearing gloves can handle its software. “We’ve seen other products that are almost mouse-driven,” Clayton I.D.S. owner Kyle Phillips said.
“These guys can’t be out in the field playing with a mouse and trying to slide up and down the windows and boxes with small buttons. Our software uses big and bold boxes for text information, big buttons for navigation.”

 Clayton I.D.S. offers mobile EMS, fire hydrant planning, pre-planning, inspection and prevention software for the fire service. Phillips said the mobile EMS software can link to dispatch information in order to pop up maps and other information, if the dispatch service allows it.

Soon, he said, the software will be able to produce map information in other ways. “We are getting ready to do screen scrape,” he said, “so our software will take or scrape the information from the dispatch screen onto our software.” He expects that feature to be available in a few months.

When it comes to the maps that in-vehicle GIS, GPS and AVL systems use, many companies turn to Redlands, Calif.-based ESRI, which provides mapping software to several thousand fire departments across the country. It doesn’t sell directly to those departments, but rather works with the companies that make the software. ESRI makes data and templates available in an online resource center for software developers.
ESRI Public Safety Manager Russ Johnson said his company takes into consideration the fact that many first responders are not, by nature, computer people.

“If we have to make them interact with a map, we don’t want them to have to do it more than one or two times,” Johnson explained. “So they touch an icon one time and a list of data about [an address or] facility is displayed. Then they select one more time to see the data they want to use to do an effective size-up before arriving.” 

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