The Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department is replacing the mobile data terminals in all of its vehicles with iPads. According to Chief Charles Werner, the iPads are less expensive and take up far less room in the cab than MDTs. In addition, iPads give officers and firefighters access to vital information more quickly and more accurately, he said.

“One of the problems we have with the traditional mobile data computer is that it is delayed—you have to log in … and that doesn’t work when you have to respond immediately to calls,” said Werner, a member of the editorial advisory council for Urgent Communications. 

The idea for the migration came from the department’s rank and file, Werner said.

“This actually happened because firefighters found the application, and they came to us and said, ‘Why don’t we try this?’” Werner said.

The application to which Werner refers is Active911, created by the Philomath, Ore., company of the same name. The app delivers alarm, incident and route information. Active911’s mapping function tracks responders—both apparatus and personnel—in real time, and it displays the location of fire hydrants. In addition, clicking on map icons allows firefighters to access basic building information and download large files, such as floor plans. 

Users must be registered for the fee-based service. Pricing is tiered based on the size of the department. Small departments—those with 5 or less users—pay nothing. Larger departments pay $10 per subscriber annually, and volume discounts are available for very large departments. Werner said that his department will pay about $750 for its annual subscription.

According to Werner, the Charlottesville fire department tested the application during a four-month trial period to ensure that it would be reliable. The fact that the app was developed for the iPad platform provided a level of comfort, he said.

“One of the things that I have found through my experience is that the vetting process on the Apple side is much more stringent than it is on the Android side,” Werner said. “So, Android apps tend to be less stable, and there also have been issues with security.”

The app was created by Joseph Sullivan, a former volunteer firefighter who today is Active911’s president. Sullivan’s department used text messages to let them know when an alarm had sounded. One big problem was that his iPhone often listed the texts as coming from what appeared to be a random number that Sullivan didn’t recognize, so he didn’t respond to the call.

“It was like my buddy was texting me … it wasn’t like an alarm,” he said.

An even bigger problem was that the texts often didn’t arrive in time.

“Once, I showed up at the fire station as someone was washing down the truck,” Sullivan said. “I said, ‘What’s going on? Why isn’t everyone jumping on the truck? We have a fire to go to.’ He said, ‘That was an hour ago.’ I thought that I could build a service that was better than this.”

Sullivan shared an anecdote that involved mountain rescuers who used the app’s GPS capabilities to great advantage. The dispatcher knew where the stranded climbers were, because of the location information that their smartphones provided, but communicating that to first responders who are working in rugged terrain isn’t always easy—dispatchers can’t tell them to turn right at the next street and left at the one after that.

“Before sending them up the mountain, they had the rescue team turn on the Active 911 app and then drop their smartphones in their pockets,” Sullivan said. “Their chief, who was on the ground with his iPad, could see where the climbers were in relation to the victims. He then directed them, and watched their icons move across the map.”

Despite the advantages that iPads and apps like Active 911 offer, one significant concern for Werner is that the iPad is a fragile device, especially when compared with mobile data terminals and rugged laptops. As a result, there is going to be breakage, even though the devices are housed in a rugged case that is mounted inside the vehicles, Werner said.

“You can drop a [rugged laptop] to the ground, pick it back up and it’s going to work,” he said. “You have a 50-50 chance, if you drop your iPad.”

At the same time, iPads are more versatile than rugged laptops—their light weight and smaller form factor makes them more conducive to being carried away from the vehicle when the need arises, and the mounting device being used by Charlottesville allows them to be turned, so the apparatus driver and officer both can view the screen.

But the biggest factor in favor of the iPad is that it costs about 20% of what a rugged laptop would cost, according to Werner.

“We can afford to replace them a number of times,” he said. “We’d have to go through a lot of them to get back up to what we were spending before.”