When I wrote an article last month about a movement among some fire departments and rescue squads to drop their pagers in favor of an emergency dispatch solution from Omnilert that allows messages to be transmitted onto a host of commercial mobile devices, it threw some readers into a tizzy. How could these fire departments be so irresponsible as to replace dedicated public-safety alerting systems with commercial ones? And how could I be so irresponsible as to not be critical of it?

Well, gentle readers, I didn't dig down deep enough — mea culpa. So I've gone back to find out exactly what these folks are using the Omnilert system for. I had a hard time believing they were putting the lives of people in the hands of commercial technology. And I was right. I spoke with Jim Dinsch, information systems coordinator with the Countryside Fire Protection District in Illinois, one of those fire departments that ditched their pagers in favor of a system that transmits to a wider variety of devices.

He said the fire department is not using the system as a replacement for its primary alerting system. The agency has kept in place its own complete primary alerting system and pagers and uses the text-messaging system — which replaced its own alphanumeric paging system — as an adjunct.

And it has turned into a valuable adjunct, Dinsch said. The system is more reliable than the agency's old alphanumeric paging system. "When a message is sent to a pager, it's sent one time, at the moment you hit send," he said. "If the pager has reception at the moment, it gets the page. If it doesn't, that message is lost. Text messaging on cell phones hold onto messages until they have reception and then send them and confirm that it arrived or it sends again."

He concedes that messages could be delayed because the technology relies on commercial text messaging — hence the fact that the agency hasn't replaced and won't replace its primary alerting system. But he also noted that the commercial messages transmit much farther than the fire department's own primary alerting system and the flexibility of the system — the ability to use a BlackBerry or any Web interface to send alerts — is giving the agency a valuable tool. It can communicate all sorts of important information, ranging from shift changes to requests for additional personnel at a fire scene to any commercial device. The agency wanted to accommodate workers who didn't want to carry around a pager in addition to their cell phones and other devices.

Public safety, just like the enterprise community at large, is faced with workers who want to bring their own cell phones and smartphones into the workplace and leverage them in their daily work functions. The challenge for the enterprise and public safety is being able to manage them all.

Agencies like the Countryside Fire Protection District are accommodating, while not compromising the safety of the people they are sworn to protect. In the first-responder community, commercial technology cannot and should not replace critical functions, but it can't be ignored either. Too many innovative capabilities are coming out of the sector that simply make jobs more efficient.

Hence, every agency must find the right balance and be careful not to become too reliant on commercial technology. It's easy to become complacent because commercial technology works so well on a daily basis, but that one time it doesn't could mean the difference between life and death.