5 fire department uses for tablets
Tablet computers fit neatly between a smartphone and laptop and are doing more now than ever; here's how fire departments can get the most out of tablets
By Robert Avsec
My wife and I enjoy watching many of the law enforcement procedural programs like NCIS, CSI, Law & Order: SVU, etc., and everyone it seems is using a tablet computer — except for Special Agent Gibbs (NCIS).
Tablets have been around for decades, but have recently, along with smartphones, become an important business tool. Law enforcement agencies, it appears, have been quicker to adopt this technology, but there are plenty of applications for the fire service as well.
When paired with the right accessories and apps, a tablet can become a real work machine. When linked with a Bluetooth keyboard, a tablet can become nearly as functional as a laptop computer. There are also hundreds of apps available to help you take notes, plan meetings, edit documents and manage your organization's business functions.
The use of tablets can greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of many departmental activities through the use of required data fields, drop-down menus, and error-checking features. The ability to upload records, reports, and files to the cloud in real time ensures that the department's information management system is always current.
So here are five ways tablets can work in your department.
1. Increase productivity
Tablets can be the vehicle to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of many daily fire department activities. There is a wide variety of apps for tablets, from vendors such as FirePrograms and Phoenix Fire and FirePoint, that support activities such as inspections and investigations.
Tablets can replace the ever-present clipboard — along with hard-copy inspection forms and note pages — for personnel conducting fire safety inspections. Inspectors can use applications to conduct inspections, track inspection violations and be reminded about re-inspection tasks.
Investigators using tablet apps can gather documentation, including audio interviews, photographs and video files taken with the tablet, and enter them directly into the report module of the app. Investigators can have ready access to an occupancy's inspection records and emergency response history (from CADS) to aid in their investigation and report completion.
2. Improve records management
Tablets can enable the company officer to better complete their assigned station management tasks like hose testing and inventory management, fire hydrant testing, target hazard pre-planning, and training from anywhere those tasks take them.
Company officers can also gather the necessary documentation, including audio interviews, photographs and video files taken with the tablet, and enter them directly into the NFIRS reporting module of the tablet app to complete their fire report before leaving the fire scene while information is still fresh and readily available.
An app like Evernote lets you manually enter notes or dictate them verbally. You can also snap photos, create to-do lists and much more. And because it features text identification, the app can index typed and handwritten notes for easy searching later.
OneNote is another note-taking app that has one big advantage over competing note-taking apps: it's fully integrated with Windows. Files you upload to the cloud using the app automatically sync with Microsoft's OneNote cloud storage platform, which is baked right into the File Explorer in Windows 8. That means your notes will always be backed up and accessible from your work PC.
3. Share information
You want your officers to get out of the office — manage by walking around as it were — but you also need the information they have, often with little notice. You can't run the full version of Microsoft Office on your tablet, but there are plenty of solid alternatives to help you create, edit and share documents, spreadsheets and presentations when they're out in the field leading and guiding and directing people.
Dropbox is a good solution for Android tablet users who want instant access to all their files from anywhere. The service lets you drag-and-drop documents on your computer desktop to sync them across all your Web-connected devices.
Microsoft Remote Desktop works like a direct portal back to your desktop PC, letting you view your full Windows PC desktop right on your Android tablet. That means you can view files and run Windows applications such as the full versions of Microsoft Word or Excel, right on your tablet.
Google Drive is a cloud storage app that lets you view documents and spreadsheets on your Android tablet. New and edited files are automatically uploaded to your Google Docs account, so you can access them on any web-connected device.
WPS Office includes a word processor that lets you write, edit and save files, and email integration makes it easy to send and receive documents as attachments.
4. Be connected
Tablets can ease the process of planning and executing productive meetings. These apps make it easier for chief officers to interact with their direct reports working in several remote locations — fire stations within a battalion.
Instead of playing phone tag or exchanging dozens of emails to plan your meeting, using an app like Doodle makes it easy to confirm individual availability by sending out an email with several options so each person can weigh in on times and dates that work for them. After that, the organizer can finalize a meeting time and send a confirmation message.
GoToMeeting uses the camera on your tablet to let you virtually meet with anyone and even participate in group meetings. It's a good workaround for those times when an in-person meeting just isn't feasible.
5. Connect with the community
Tablets are a great tool to use social media to connect with your community. Think about the possibilities. Send real-time Twitter messages and Facebook posts that include pictures and videos from your public fire education events, from emergency scenes that impact traffic flows, and from fire scenes that include fire prevention message on how to prevent such a fire in their home or business. And those are just a few examples.
As with many technologies, the possibilities are endless and tablets are no exception. So check out how using tablets can help improve your department's big picture.