Protecting property and saving lives are all in a day’s work at Lacey Fire District 3 in Washington. But the emergency response team needed to be rescued itself earlier this year when a budget squeeze halted replacement of the notebooks that deliver critical information to vehicles in the field.
Help came from a somewhat unlikely source — sleek ASUS Eee Slate EP121 tablet computers, which might be more commonly found in a briefcase or backpack than in the cab of an ambulance or fire truck.
“The challenge was that we had to replace ruggedized terminals we had been using for many years, but for less money,” says Matt Chambers, fire equipment technician for the fire district, which includes the city of Lacey and 70 square miles of Thurston County at the tip of Puget Sound. “We were going out on a limb by trying the tablets, but so far they’re working fine.”
Seven years ago, Fire District 3 purchased rugged Panasonic Toughbook computers for its fleet of emergency vehicles using a combination of federal and county grants. But as the county’s dispatch software changed and new features such as GPS, mapping and auto-updating became available, the Toughbook models became obsolete.
Because new Toughbooks cost up to $4,000 per unit and budget cuts loomed on the horizon, the department last year turned to Lenovo notebooks as replacements, Chambers says. Soon after the first purchase, however, Lenovo stopped making a notebook with a touchscreen, which Fire District 3 requires for easy access to information.
Last spring, the department decided to try a tablet in its medic unit where space in vehicle cabs is at a premium. To ensure compatibility with its dispatch software, the department needed a Windows-based device. A fairly large display was another requirement. As it turned out, Chambers says the ASUS EP121 was the only tablet that met all the department’s needs. And the price point of the ASUS tablets allowed the department to stretch its $10,000 budget and purchase 10 devices.
Initially, there were a few hiccups with the tablet deployment, Chambers says. Power settings had to be adjusted to ensure that the tablets stayed on 24x7. And because of the shiny display screens, it took some experimentation to find the best angle at which to mount the devices. Once those issues were solved, the ASUS tablets have performed with few problems, he says.
When firefighters receive a call to respond to an emergency, the address is displayed on the ASUS tablet, and mapping software suggests a route to the location. The tablet displays updates about the emergency situation while the responding vehicle is en route. Information about the status and availability of additional resources also shows up on the screen, which medics and firefighters can navigate with the touch of a finger.
“Most of it is information we wouldn't send over the radio to reduce radio traffic,” Chambers says. “With the mobile data terminal, the information is there as it’s needed.”
Reaction to the ASUS EP121s from staff in the field has been largely positive, but with some reservations — mostly from veterans who miss the old technology, Chambers says.
Medic/Firefighter Dan Nadeau, who is among those who have been using a tablet the longest at Fire District 3, has no qualms about the devices.
“[The tablets] work phenomenally well,” says Nadeau. “It’s very user-friendly, there’s nothing to learning it. I love the touchpad — I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The use of tablet computers is rapidly expanding into a vast array of environments and applications, says Andrew Borg, an analyst with Aberdeen Group. While tablets were originally pitched as entertainment devices, they can meet the needs of many organizations.
“Having a large touch-based interface with telecommunications built in fills a real latent need,” Borg says. “And for organizations like firefighting, the cost difference from ruggedized units make the tablets almost a no-brainer.”
According to Chambers, a traditional ruggedized notebook may still be the best solution for Lacey Fire District 3, but the tablets have kept crucial information flowing to emergency vehicles.
“The hope is that because they cost less, we’ll be able to update the tablets more often and keep up with new technology and features,” Chambers says.