Mobile computing for your truck

A crash course in making the switch from paper-based resources

CarolinaFireJournal - Mike McMonagle
Mike McMonagle
04/26/2010 -

As we all know, “emergency response” involves more than just fighting fires or tending to someone who has been injured.  That is not to say that suppressing a fully involved structure fire or resuscitating an unresponsive heart attack victim are simple feats. Rather, they are the public-facing actions that are typically prefaced by behind-the-scenes information gathering and analyzing that is oftentimes performed while en route to the call. Whether it is a paramedic accessing past medical records, or a firefighter reviewing a building layout for a facility before arrival, the information that is available will ultimately shape the means by which the emergency — whatever it may be — is approached and handled.


Out with the old

Since the invention of the printing press almost 600 years ago, society has depended upon paper-based communication as a trusted means for disseminating information. From books and journals to letters and pamphlets, the written word has steadily relied on the blank page for recording, reporting, and corresponding.  Over time, however, these pages will inevitably collect, and storing them can become quite inconvenient.

In the emergency response field, this concept is most easily demonstrated by the bulky mapbooks and pre-plan binders on board fire apparatus, by the many medical forms and trip sheets used by ambulance operators, and even by the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) for hazardous materials used by both EMS and fire departments. While these are all important resources for first responders, they are, in many respects, antiquated means for storing and accessing such critical information.

Even further, these methods have grown increasingly more tedious and time-consuming to maintain, especially as many emergency vehicle fleets continue to grow in size to accommodate growing commercial and residential communities. A city fire department, for example, may have anywhere from 15 to 50 plus vehicles in operation. Updating a printed mapbook for each vehicle would require a good bit of time and effort for the department. If only one or two pages of the mapbook are being replaced, it is still a major undertaking. 

Relying on a paper-based system can quickly turn into a budgetary nightmare for today’s economically strained emergency response force. Aside from the labor hours that are needed for a department-wide update, other factors such as the cost of paper and ongoing maintenance for printing and copying (toner, ink, service calls, etc.) can rapidly drain the already limited funding that is available and arguably better off spent on equipment upgrades. Recently, a department in Delaware reported spending close to $4,000 a year to lease a large copier for the sole purpose of mapbook replication.

In with the new...

In order to more systematically and conveniently store, and likewise retrieve information such as pre-incident plans or medical records, many emergency responders have opted to installing computers on board their vehicles. While the terminology may vary — one department’s mobile data terminal (MDT) may very well be another’s mobile computer terminal (MCT) — the bottom line is the same: in-vehicle computers present an effective means for storing and accessing critical information while in the field and on the scene.


Make sure your computer is mounted properly to avoid serious injury to your passengers.

Different than your average work or home computer, computers for the emergency response field are oftentimes exposed to elements — i.e. heat, humidity, vibration, dust, spills — that would wreak havoc on the more domestic models. To accommodate for this, several computer makers have developed models rated at either “semi-rugged” or “fully rugged.”  These designations are used to indicate the extent to which the machines are capable of enduring different conditions and still maintain their functionality and ultimately protect the hard drive.

Manufacturers will typically advertise that the model has been certified as MIL-STD-810, which means it has passed the Department of Defense’s military standard durability testing. While Panasonic’s Toughbook line has positioned itself as an industry favorite, other manufacturers such as Dell, Data911, Xplore Technologies, Motorola, HP and Itronix — which was recently acquired by General Dynamics — all have models that fall under the fully rugged umbrella.

Some features that you will characteristically see in these fully rugged laptops are a magnesium-alloy casing, spill-resistant keyboard, sealed coverings on any external connectors/ports (USB, VGA, etc.), a shock absorbent hard drive, and an outdoor readable displays, often with touchscreen capabilities. For some independent research (and a good laugh), head to and search for some tests that users of the Panasonic Toughbook and other models have been put the laptops through.

Toting such heavy duty hardware into the field will also require some thought into securing the computer in the vehicle. Sadly, in this circumstance, duct tape and Velcro won’t cut it, as some of these fully rugged models weigh in at six to eight pounds. When on the road, a tight turn or accident can quickly transform an unsecured piece of equipment of that weight into a weapon in the cab of your apparatus or ambulance.

Many options for mounting hardware will provide not only a stable means to secure your laptop within the vehicle, but also provide a convenient way to connect the computer to many external components, such as a power supply or a GPS receiver. Although many of the laptop models on the market have been optimized for ease of use in the field (such as the Toughbook CF-19 tablet or the Toughbook H1 tablet), larger models (such as the Toughbook CF-30, Motorola ML-910, or HP 2450p) can essentially remain docked in the mount and powered on, so as to avoid delays in accessing your information that would be experienced by having to power up the computer for each call.


While Panasonic’s Toughbook line has positioned itself as an industry favorite, other manufacturers such as Dell, Data911, Xplore Technologies, Motorola, HP and Itronix, have models that fall under the fully rugged umbrella.

One thing to note, however, is that mounts are not the same across the board. Most mounting manufacturers will have customized mounting units to accommodate different vehicle models. For example, an installation in a fire department’s chief’s vehicle will require different mounting hardware configuration than would be installed in an ambulance cab.

With computer and mounting hardware covered, we are left now with the most important step: selecting the software that will best meet your department’s needs. Choosing the right software for your department should actually be considered first, as it will inevitably help you discern — if not altogether mandate — which computer model you will need. For example, software tailored for EMS operations or Fire Marshal inspections might benefit more from a tablet-style model as they are likely to be used more in the field and not solely while mounted in the vehicle.

Many software vendors have developed systems that are tailored to the emergency response field: EMS software for equipment tracking, fire pre-incident planning and inspection software, GIS/mapping software with GPS functionality, electronic versions of the ERG and other hazmat resources, etc. The aim of these products is to make these important resources more easily accessible and useable by the departments that rely on them in emergency situations. 

While some of these systems are able to function without any server connectivity, many do require a wireless connection while out in the field. When choosing a software product, make sure to factor in any ongoing costs associated with the cell cards for your computers if such a connection is needed. These types of products may simplify updating and sharing information across the department — or even with neighboring departments running the same software — but they also expose the user to the risk of server disruptions or network outages. The other software option is for products that are stored and operated locally on the computer itself. These may include some network-based features, but overall they will function in the field without relying on a server connection.

Choosing a hardware and software solution for your department is not an easy task. In a time marked by budget cuts, it might be tempting to purchase a system based on its price tag, and not its utility. The fact remains, however, that at the end of the day, you will only get out of your software what you put into it. The only thing worse than purchasing a cheap and lesser quality system is having to budget for its replacement a year or two later. 

Take the time to truly assess the desired functionality and tools you expect to gain from whichever system you adopt. As emergency responders, you owe it to not only yourselves, but to the future victims and patients you will serve, to get equipped with the most efficient and effective tools available. In the long run, you might just save a life because of it.

Mike McMonagle is an account representative with Iron Compass Map Co., based in Lancaster, PA. Iron Compass is the developers of OnScene Xplorer, the fully featured in-vehicle mapping and pre-incident planning software for emergency responders. For more information, visit
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