Data to go
After exploring the newest technologies for mobile data applications, this fire department chose to deploy a combination of devices, including hand-helds, that share one wireless public data network.
For some time, the fire service has used various forms of mobile data terminals in apparatus, and our Livermore-Pleasanton, CA, Fire Department was no exception.
But we wanted to do more. We wanted to have a completely mobile corps of officers and fire inspectors who could maintain connectivity to their offices throughout the entire day, even when phone jacks were unavailable or impractical. We wanted them to send and receive email, access personal schedules and department records, download fire weather information, and perform the myriad other Internet- and intranet-related activities that fill their days.
Our command and fire prevention officers were already using laptops and some PalmPilots in their quest for mobile productivity, but the department’s goal was to fully integrate laptops and hand-helds with apparatus terminals. We needed a wireless data technology that was more robust than the 4.8kbps-bandwidth data channel we were using over a local 800MHz band.
We quickly found that in this emerging area of technology, there was no single clearinghouse for what other public safety agencies had found to be successful. Ultimately, our research to overhaul our wireless capabilities led us to explore several issues:
o hardware form factor.
o compatibility with the applications we wanted to access.
o bandwidth of the available wireless data networks.
o the ongoing cost of wireless transmission.
Research the variables We knew that the technology we were looking to implement was constantly changing, so our final selection had to have the ability to grow with our future needs. Our first step was a wide-ranging search of Web sites that discussed wireless technologies and mobile data devices and of magazines devoted to these industries. This initial review identified several categories of vendors we would have to work with:
o mobile hardware.
o hand-held device hardware.
o wireless transmission equipment.
o wireless data services.
With all of these variables to consider, we didn’t feel comfortable using only one vendor, despite the promise of a painless solution for us. If we were to meet all our goals, we would have to research all five areas and integrate them into a final solution.
Such work isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart, but I’ve always kept pace with technology and allowed the agency to be an early adopter. With a good technical staff and technology support from city hall, we believed that we could achieve our goals, which included:
o empowering the mobile worker with tools that work for each need. In our opinion, there’s no one tool today that can do everything.
o accessing existing and proposed departmental systems for dispatch, records management, mapping, email and schedules, and accessing the Internet for fire weather information.
o sharing wireless data access across multiple devices, because we couldn’t afford multiple accounts per end-user.
o delivering high wireless bandwidth and good implementation software, so users wouldn’t compare accessing data to watching paint dry.
The benefits of CDPD Our review finally led us to Cellular Digital Packet Data, the system that best fit our current and foreseeable needs. Used by several national cellular phone carriers, this system currently moves data at 19.2kbps, with increases in the works. CDPD covers about 3,000 cities in the United States, so most of the country’s metro areas are covered. In the Bay area, CDPD coverage is so good that external car antennas aren’t always needed. There’s also coverage over much of California, allowing us to use the system during mutual aid.
The service is accessed via a CDPD “modem,” a Type-II PC card with an antenna, which can be used in many PC laptops and hand-helds, or a Web-enabled cellphone. These cards, which cost between $300 and $500, can be swapped between fire apparatus mobile terminals, laptops and hand-helds without powering down. As a result, only one card needs to be purchased per user.
The cost for the service itself varies, with limited access for the Bay Area at about $25 per month and unlimited access at about $50 per month. While this fee gives you access to the Internet, there’s an additional monthly charge to connect the CDPD system to your department’s local-area network via a frame-relay circuit.
With so many ways to access data, security is an important concern. Each user’s card has a unique network number that allows access through the department’s and the carrier’s firewalls. In addition, all CDPD communications are encrypted, even when roaming – a real plus for staff members who travel or field units out of town on mutual-aid responses.
Modems and middleware After choosing CDPD for data services, we had to select our modem cards. In talking to several public safety agencies and the engineer for our CDPD carrier, we quickly found a recommended company that makes CDPD solutions for public safety. In addition to Type II CDPD modem cards, Sierra Wireless makes in-truck booster boxes that bump up the card’s power from 0.5W to a full 3W. This boost allows access to an external antenna and installation of an optional GPS chip for automatic vehicle location.
At this point, you might think we would just have to install our modem cards, and we’d be ready to go. Unfortunately, the more we learned about wireless technology, the more we began to understand the limitations of bandwidth capacity.
To improve this situation, several vendors make “middleware” that compresses and otherwise massages your data request to slim it down before it goes out over the wireless network. This slimming process is especially critical for those of us using the full version of Microsoft Outlook for Exchange Server or wanting to browse the Internet. Corporate Outlook is a full-featured product that prefers to run on 100-Base T local-area networks; using it at CDPD speeds is worse than watching paint dry.
Our wireless engineers led us to realize we needed two middleware solutions. For dispatch and records management access, we needed a “message switch” that could handle intelligent data transmission to dispatch and records systems. We chose wireless server software from Infowave, which makes several wireless “engines” that slim down the data sent from Outlook and the Internet to wireless devices.
Hardware how-tos Mobile hardware – both PCs and hand-helds – were the next pieces to fall into place. We decided to purchase laptops instead of desktop PCs for in-station use, but for in-apparatus use, we chose fixed mobile PCs instead of laptops for two reasons:
o Laptops are designed to operate off batteries, which limits their power for screens.
o Many laptops have closed designs, making it difficult to upgrade parts.
The fixed mobile PCs, on the other hand, operate off of either 12V power or 120V inverters. They offer sunlight-readable displays and can be built for expansion as technology changes.
Now we needed to choose our hand-helds – and here we feel we hit a home run. We were evaluating the new cellphones with data access and our existing Palm devices when we literally stumbled on a solution.
We had discarded the cellphone/data browser as being too small and incapable of connecting to all our departmental systems. We loved our Palms, but their monochrome screens didn’t work in all lighting conditions, and their slower processors made advanced graphics like mapping difficult, if not impossible. Plus, they needed third-party software to connect with Microsoft applications like Outlook, Word and Excel.
During this phase of the project, I happened into a large bookstore and picked up a copy of Pen Computing magazine. On the cover was a new device: Compaq’s iPAQ H3600 Series Pocket PC. After reviewing the article and online reviews, we found that:
o iPAQ was a breakthrough design.
o It ran Windows CE 3.0, which was a vast improvement over the poorly reviewed earlier versions.
o In addition to other applications, it included Pocket Outlook, Word, Excel and Internet Explorer.
o It had a bright color screen that was viewable in direct sunlight.
o It could sync to desktop systems with a speedy USB cradle.
o It used a new, fast processor that was a huge leap over any other hand-held.
o It could be outfitted with an adaptor that took Type II PC cards.
o It could run our wireless “middleware” solution from Infowave.
o It could run ArcPad from ESRI Software to display our maps.
Given this research, we committed to an initial order of seven iPAQ hand-helds with PC card adaptors for testing. With government pricing, we paid $450 each. Compaq launched the iPAQ in June 2000, but it was so popular that we didn’t see our units until September and the PC card adaptors until October.
These first iPAQs have exceeded our expectations and draw considerable attention from other Palm, hand-held and laptop users. They’re easy to set up without computer staff help, and they sync right up to all of our Microsoft applications. For example, we can easily transfer any Word or Excel document to the iPAQ, and we can answer Outlook email via desktop cradle or CDPD cards and the Infowave engine. That last option also allows us to browse the Web wirelessly.
ESRI’s ArcPad solution runs well on the speedy iPAQ, allowing users who haven’t downloaded the map from their office system to use CDPD and access ESRI’s new geography information network or our own ArcIMS map server via the Internet.
We’re also finding other Windows CE applications in areas like hazardous materials. We believe that operating in the Windows CE world will allow us to purchase or build a wide variety of “front ends” to our departmental applications.
A typical wireless day Once the iPAQ decision fell into place, we’d developed an integrated solution that met all of our needs at reasonable prices. Most importantly, we’d leveraged one wireless account card and its monthly operating cost across three devices: capable computers for fire engines, laptops and iPAQ hand-helds.
As mentioned earlier, we didn’t purchase desktop computers for managers and inspectors – they use laptops and, increasingly, the iPAQ. So, on a given day, a user may start at the desk with the laptop, sync information into the iPAQ, go out into the field for inspections or meetings with just the iPAQ and still access departmental systems and the Internet. For longer meetings, command post operations or working at home, users can instead use their laptops with the wireless cards.
This winter, as we replace the fire apparatus computers with new mobile data computers, we’ll also install booster boxes to allow full power to the CDPD card. Once on scene, the captain can eject the mobile computer’s card, insert it into an iPAQ and conduct inspections or public education. All the while, the user is completely connected to department data and can collect new information for its databases.
While our solutions aren’t for everyone, we believe that they’re a reasonable, cost-effective solution for us. Our choices work especially well in a Microsoft shop, and as much as it pains this Macintosh veteran to admit it, all the Windows solutions work well together.
It may be hard to envision fire captains and battalion chiefs using powerful in-rig computers and hand-helds, but remember what we all said when we first saw a cellphone – and now we can’t live without ’em.