Accuracy is not optional: How one Oregon fire district keeps its AVL, CAD system and fleet working together for the fastest response times
Clackamas Fire District No. 1 relies on mobile solutions from Cradlepoint to expand capabilities and ensure reliable connectivity, no matter the challenge
Sponsored by Cradlepoint
By Laura Neitzel, FireRescue1 BrandFocus Staff
The 911 call comes in at 2:07 a.m. A panicked driver reports that he lost control of his vehicle on a snowy rural road and veered off a steep embankment. He is not certain of his exact location, but he is certain that he is injured. Without a quick rescue, the driver may succumb to his injuries or the cold.
This is just one of many scenarios in which dispatchers rely on automatic vehicle location (AVL) to locate and dispatch the emergency vehicle with the fastest and most efficient route to the scene. Given the low visibility and the off-road location of the vehicle, the emergency crew must also rely on the accuracy of the GPS from the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to guide them to the exact location of the driver’s call.
With over 225,000 citizens and 235 square miles of urban, suburban and rural territory in its service area, Clackamas Fire District No. 1 responds to tens of thousands of emergencies per year. Whether a car crash, structure fire, medical crisis or other emergency, Clackamas Fire needs constant mobile connectivity to GPS data so that dispatches are based on timely and accurate information. To ensure this, Clackamas Fire relies on mobile solutions from Cradlepoint.
“With the Cradlepoint technology, if someone is in a car wreck and they call in a 911 with their cellphone because they can ping the device and get lat-long location, that’s what sends the information to CAD, which sends it to the unit via Cradlepoint,” said Mark Horst, former technical services administrator for Clackamas Fire. “That’s how they find the caller.”
Seeking a reliable solution
Five years before rolling out a new CAD system, Clackamas Fire began extensive research and testing to find the best platform to keep their emergency vehicles constantly and reliably connected to the CAD data, no matter the location of the ambulance or apparatus.
First, they tried connecting via AirCard – a wireless modem that connects mobile devices to the internet through cellular networks – but they found the 2G and 3G technology neither reliable enough nor rugged enough to withstand the daily rigors of emergency response.
After additional testing of a new solution, Clackamas Fire decided on Cradlepoint NetCloud Service for Mobile. NetCloud Service includes a cloud-managed router with an embedded LTE modem that provides high-performance WiFi in and around the vehicles and a cloud-based management system that offers IT staff an efficient and easy way to configure and manage routers installed in the vehicles from a remote location.
Because the new CAD system dispatches units based on their location, AVL accuracy is critical to a successful match. The Clackamas Fire IT team uses NetCloud to cross-reference AVL information with CAD recommendations to ensure that dispatch information is correct and the right vehicle is deployed.
Before deploying the Cradlepoint platform, Horst tested the accuracy of the AVL compared to the department’s old CAD system. While driving 55 mph in the center lane, as he passed mile markers on the road, the GPS map would also show his vehicle passing those mile markers. When zoomed, it even showed his vehicle traveling in the center lane.
It’s that accurate, Horst says, and because the AVL information shows on both the map at the dispatch center and on the mobile computers in the fire apparatus, everyone can see where everybody is in real time, all the time.
Connectivity is critical to the success of the system. Clackamas Fire IT department designs and configures the in-vehicle router to transmit a WiFi signal as far as 600 feet away. This saves critical time in the case of a medical emergency, such as cardiac arrest. Medics can stay connected to the Cradlepoint router via WiFi and transmit patient data to the emergency room directly from the patient’s side instead of having to return to the ambulance.
In areas where the cellular signal may be spotty, Cradlepoint devices can extend the range of one device to an entire fleet by creating a mobile network using a single vehicle router with a more optimal position. As long as one apparatus maintains connectivity to the cellular network, all vehicles in the fleet can stay connected.
In an after-action review of a wildland fire in 2018, Clackamas Fire discovered that the first incoming unit was blocked by a hill and lost network coverage, says Horst. But as the other units came into the fire scene and staged and staggered off the hillside, the Cradlepoint devices were able to boost the WiFi from one apparatus to the next, essentially acting as a signal repeater.
In addition to saving lives and property, being able to set up the repeat and to connect multiple devices to a single unit also saves money.
“Instead of us paying a cellular plan for five devices, we can now pay a cellular plan for one device and connect 20,” said Oscar Hicks, IT director for Clackamas Fire.
When seconds count, there is no room for hiccups in the technology. The reliability of the Cradlepoint routers is enhanced by having dual SIM slots so each can operate on more than one carrier’s cellular network. Even if the vehicle travels between service areas and the agency has more than one carrier, the Cradlepoint router will automatically switch carriers in order to maintain uninterrupted connectivity. As Horst put it, the router “fails over” automatically, so if you lose one carrier, you get the next.
In addition to having dual SIM ports, the Cradlepoint routers are also simultaneous dual-band, meaning they have twice the bandwidth and can operate on two different frequencies and two separate networks at the same time without interference or loss in performance.
The higher frequency penetrates through steel and brick walls, says Horst, and the lower frequency enables the medics to transmit live data from the patient’s side right into the ER, so the doctors know exactly what’s coming their way.
“Rather than having to tell them on the radio, they see it live,” he said.
Cradlepoint routers are also enhanced with antennas for greater performance, reach and access.
“We have a location here in Clackamas County where you drop down this canyon and then go back up the hill,” said Horst. “At the bottom of that hill, my cellphone disconnected, but the Cradlepoint device did not. The mobile data computer stayed connected because it has a higher gain from the antenna. It just works.”
Included within NetCloud Service for Mobile are cloud configuration and troubleshooting with Cradlepoint’s network management software, NetCloud Manager. The software enabled the Clackamas Fire IT team to adjust the system according to the department’s specific needs. With this management capability, the Cradlepoint system seemed much more intuitive from day one, says Hicks, helping the IT team to roll it out quickly.
“With NetCloud Manager, we can configure all our devices in groups and/or individually. Once you get a configuration designed as you bring new ones on, you just plug it in and put them in a group, and it pulls all the configuration remotely,” he said. “It saves hundreds of hours. Deployment is super simple.”
Although Clackamas Fire has been more than satisfied with its 4G LTE routers, it is in the process of trading up to Cradlepoint’s new COR IBR900 Series Gigabit-Class LTE routers which are 5G capable. Hicks expects they will find even greater efficiency gains with the new model, although he says that is not the priority.
“The [fire service] culture is one of always trying to provide the best service on the worst day of your life,” said Hicks. “They [fire crews] need to be able to focus on the things they need to focus on. What they’re not thinking about is that when they click on that computer, it’s connected to the Cradlepoint that is getting them that information. I’m confident that when the tones go off in our fire stations the guys have the tools they need so they can save and protect 24 hours a day.”