There is an ongoing discussion about the value and real capability for the iPad in the Fire Service. Some agencies are fearful of making big changes quickly, and the iPad represents a significant shift from traditional PC/toughbook style applications. Others are more adventurous, and their experiences are proving useful as fire departments consider best practices for tech in the apparatus and in the field.
As one example of forward thinking, the Charlottesville, Virginia Fire Department has replaced the mobile data terminals in all of its vehicles with iPads. According to the department, iPads are less expensive and take up less room in the cab than traditional mobile display terminals or MDTs. In addition, iPads give officers and firefighters access to vital information rapidly and with a new level of accuracy.
How are departments making these decisions? Surprisingly, it is the rank and file – and more specifically the younger members that are driving these solutions into the fire station. Younger members are digital natives – they’ve grown up with computers and technology. Determining the best practices for use of tech and the fire service comes naturally to them, and they don’t typically suffer from the conservative nature that is so established in many industries, including the fire service. In fact, younger members are often shocked when they come on the job and discover MDTs running software that was developed 20 or more years ago. Those systems also suffer from the lag-time of traditional access, with log-ins and loading times taking up valuable seconds when en route, or on-scene.
There are also questions about iOS vs Android in the market, and as with any product line, both environments have their supporters. For the fire service, the stability and upgradability of the iPad made for a more secure and quantifiable environment. Because the Android market is not vetted by Google, developers can release any product they feel is ready for the market without review. And, as many hardware vendors only license a specific version of Android, the upgrade path for various tablets is unknown.
One area of vulnerability is the durability of the iPad. Clearly, the iPad is less durable than a “toughbook” or similar laptop PC. Even when packed into a sturdy carrying case, the risk of damage when dropped is higher than with with a traditional PC. Apple offers a fix-it or replace it warranty (AppleCare) for the iPad and has done some specific arrangements with fire departments to reduce their concerns, but it’s too early to know how often iPad devices suffer from breakage due to drops or encounters with harder surfaces than their own.
The other side of the coin is portability and speed of use. The iPad is more versatile than rugged laptops. Their light weight and smaller form factor makes them more conducive to being carried away from an apparatus when the need arises, and the mounting device being used by Charlottesville allows them to be turned, so the apparatus operator and officer both can view the screen.
Perhaps the biggest factor in favor of the iPad is that it costs about 20% of what a rugged laptop would cost. Not only is the device less expensive, but the software created for iOS is also proving to be far less expensive. Add up a typical department’s apparatus, software requirements, and staffing, and the cost factor of converting to the iPad becomes quite attractive.