This is Why Tablets, RFID, and Temperature Sensing Technologies are Sparking More Interest from Firefighters, EMTs

Accountability for people, equipment and supplies has never been more mission critical, and gauging the temperature of a situation shouldn’t be a guessing game.

A firefighter uses a Zebra TC52 mobile computer with an RFID sled to scan inventory in a locker room
by Jennifer Berg
April 01, 2021

Did you know that public safety agencies were among the earliest adopters of rugged tablet technology over 20 years ago? It’s true. Xplore Technologies, which was acquired by Zebra in 2018, directly involved firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMT) and other first responders in its design, development and field testing efforts to ensure the (then pen-based) mobile computing platforms would provide the real-time guidance, security, reliability and intuitive experiences users needed to make better, faster decisions.

To this day, we collaborate closely with firefighters, EMTs, fire chiefs, marshals and command staff to ensure they have the tools needed to make the right call on every call. Every time we engineer a new rugged tablet platform – or even a new feature – we take into account the very specific human factors, data capture, distribution, collaboration and compliance requirements of each individual and department. We also consider the role that technology must play in supporting increased service capacity, even as labor and budget levels remains stagnant. This helps to ensure that customers such as the Nicholasville Fire Department have a mobility solution they can rely on for a very long time for a large number of applications, including navigation, HAZMAT management, task management, incident reporting and even backup communications (if radios were to ever go down).

However, tablets are just one of the many technologies that have been adapted to the needs of these front-line heroes.

Firefighters and EMTs are Starting to Mobilize More Units with Advanced Technology Tools

As demand for fire service support has surged to record levels in recent years, so has demand for technologies that improve responsiveness, situational awareness, asset management and multi-agency coordination.

The volume of large-scale incidents such as wildfires seems to multiply each year, which challenges crews in and of itself. However, the reality is that firefighters do far more than just fight fires. They are among the many first responders on the front lines of natural disasters, chemical spills and active shooter situations, and they are the ones leading interventions when public health incidents arise, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing opioid crisis.

The challenge is that nearly every fire department and EMS provider is short staffed. Did you know that 900,000 of almost 1.2 million U.S. firefighters work in volunteer or combination departments? Or that U.S. fire chiefs often respond with only 10 or fewer firefighters to a fire call, which is not compliant with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards? These are pain points shared by agencies in other regions of the world, too, especially as recruitment remains difficult. Much of the current fire service is reaching retirement age, and burnout among EMTs is leading to more turnover than ever. So, fire chiefs are seeking ways to help smaller crews accomplish more each day without compromising health and safety. They are also looking for technology tools that enable them see what’s happening at each call from a remote command position so they can help their crews maintain better control of situations.

Of course, many agencies don’t have the resources to rip and replace all legacy systems at once or introduce technology in areas traditionally supported via manual processes. This is forcing fire chiefs to be very strategic with their budget spend. From our experience, they are prioritizing technology solutions that can have a high impact on day one, and with excellent results, including comprehensive mobility solutions, temperature sensing technologies and radio frequency identification (RFID) systems.

There are Plenty of Unknowns in the Field. This Can Help Eliminate Some of Them.

Clearly, the demands of the job are changing at a speed never seen before, and the level at which firefighters and EMTs must perform can be daunting. As complexity grows, so does the need to streamline efficiencies in the most fundamental way. As the Nicholasville Fire Department realized, a single simple change such as giving first responders purpose-built rugged tablets can make a huge difference on an entire operation. As soon as its crew arrives on the scene of a medical emergency, it can immediately start collecting information on the tablet to pass along to additional responders. The built-in camera allows for them to take and share pictures with partner agencies for their incident response planning, which helps speed up care once on the scene and later when patients are transferred to a hospital for further treatment. The tablet can also be used to scan license plates and driver’s licenses at the scene of automobile accidents to ensure fast, accurate reporting to law enforcement, insurance and other interested parties. (I’m sure you can imagine the consequences of just one wrong manual letter or number input on an incident report, for both the agency and victim.) Even fire marshals boast at how much a camera-equipped tablet can streamline inspection processes and help minimize disputes later.

Tablets and handheld mobile computers are also valuable communication tools, especially in remote areas. The multitude of built-in wireless technologies – 4G/5G, WiFi and push-to-talk (PTT) – help to ensure crews stay connected with one another at all times. The reliable signal also helps ensure front-line responders can access mission-critical back-office systems for response planning, incident reporting and real-time decision making no matter how far away from the station they may be.

Temperature-sensing technology is also proving vital to decision making in the field, specifically as it relates to the viability of medications, blood products and other regulated perishables.

MedStar Mobile Healthcare delivers lifesaving emergency medical attention to nearly one million people in Fort Worth, TX, and surrounding communities. As part of its Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services (CAAS) certification, MedStar must ensure the medications and medical devices it keeps in its ambulances are stored and maintained at a certain temperature. The company’s leaders also wanted EMTs to be confident that the temperature-sensitive items hadn’t been heat compromised prior to administration. The last thing anyone wants to do is inadvertently make a situation worse for a patient.

So, MedStar contacted Temptime, which is now a Zebra company, a few years ago to learn more about the ways in which temperature indicators could be used on individual items to give crews visual indicators when a temperature excursion happened. Though effective in flagging potential issues, the company quickly realized that it would be better served by a tool that could provide temperature data history, not just information on relative temperature exposures. MedStar leadership decided to switch to Temptime’s Bluetooth-enabled, cloud-based data logger that would automatically record and report ambulance temperatures at certain intervals for easy access by staff both inside the ambulance and back at the station. MedStar was able to improve its medication handling protocol and reduce the quantity of medication required to be destroyed because of suspected temperature excursions. It also built crew confidence in the viability of on-board inventory.

Clemson Fire and EMS was in a similar situation when it decided to install Temptime Bluetooth-powered temperature monitors in its ambulances to ensure temperature-controlled medications were being properly stored. The insights garnered from the technology solution enabled department heads to make strategic adjustments to the ambulance’s cold storage environment to reduce waste. For example, it learned that its mini refrigerators need to be powered by an inverter in order to maintain stable temperatures and properly preserve valuable medications. (You can read more about Clemson’s key learnings, solution and subsequent ROI here.)

With the Right Technology, It’s Easy to Track and Trace Everyone and Everything

Accountability is a huge buzzword within today’s fire service, in part due to the supply chain issues that emerged during the pandemic. Departments have had to invest in solutions that improve inventory management amidst prolonged shortages, increased HAZMAT exposures and rising utilization rates.

However, budget constraints have long challenged public sector agencies to this extent, including Pasco County Fire Rescue and the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District. Both Florida-based agencies approached Silent Partner, a Zebra Independent Software Vendor (ISV), with the same goal: find a way to track inventory and assets in real time while ensuring first responders have the required equipment and medications for emergencies.

Comprised of 29 stations with 675 members, Pasco County Fire Rescue has one of the top 10 busiest stations in the country and covers 850 square miles of urban, residential, industrial and agricultural areas. In 2019, it started looking for a better way to get a handle on asset management because expenses for supplies were continually increasing – and budget allocations weren’t keeping up. Plus, its manual system of logs and pick tickets allowed blind spots in the chain of custody for things such as narcotics, and it was up to first responders to come in and sign out the medications and other supplies they needed for their trucks.

So, a trusted partner recommended that it consider an RFID solution for automated tracking and 24/7 management of warehouse inventory. Since deploying the technology, each stationhouse has been able to boost control over stock levels, which has saved over $3,500 monthly. It has also been able to more efficiently allocate equipment, supplies and medicines to first responders, which has helped to improve accountability and safety. (You can get the full scoop in this Success Story.)

Similarly, the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District just down the coast was able to cut costs for disposables and medications by 50% and cut time spent on inventorying assets by over 95% after introducing an RFID-based inventory management system.

The District, which operates seven firehouses, has to keep thousands of different assets on hand to effectively respond to more than 7,000 calls each year in its district related to fires, accidents and other life-threatening medical emergencies. For a long time, it struggled to keep track of these resources, which are geographically dispersed across stations, master supply rooms, and Advanced Life Support (ALS) apparatuses such as fire engines, rescue units and boats. The manual process was time consuming and fallible. So, it started adding RFID tags to assets and giving asset managers and crews handheld mobile computers with RFID sleds that can automatically identify the location and confirm the status of any RFID tagged item in range. It can literally read hundreds of items within seconds, which helps asset managers know exactly what’s on hand at each location so it can balance (and reorder) inventory accordingly. This RFID solution has also reduced the risk of sending first responders into the field with expired medications, which helps to protect the health and safety of patients they’re called to stabilize. (You can read more about how the District’s using RFID and how it achieved an 100% return on investment in the first year here.)

Of course, supplies and equipment aren’t the only “assets” that fire chiefs want to be able to track better.

The leading cause of death for public safety professionals is heart attacks from overexertion and stress and, until a few years ago, the only way to know if a firefighter was being pushed to the limits is if he or she spoke up. That’s one of the reasons why the team at Battalion 3 developed its Fire Roster software for use with Zebra rugged tablets. The other? Passport tags just weren’t cutting it anymore when it came to keeping tabs on who was on scene and how long they had been in the fight.

As fire chief and BATT3 co-founder John Morrison once said, “Even the most organized incident commanders find it time consuming and tedious to cross-reference and manage these Passport tags alongside their dry erase board rosters…This old way of handling firefighter accountability and tracking is potentially dangerous.”

That is why his agency, the Coeur d’Alene Fire Department, along with two other fire and rescue agencies in his county – Northern Lakes Fire Protection District and Kootenai County Fire and Rescue – were eager to find a better solution. It’s been 10 years since BATT3 began developing the first all-digital command, control and accountability solution for emergency response and, today, it’s used by agencies all across the U.S. to minimize the risk of firefighter mayday, including Northern Lakes.

Every time a firefighter is dispatched from the command center, a clock is turned on in the BATT3 app and the indicator next to the person’s name turns green on the rugged tablet screen – similar to how a unit/engine tracker works. After 10 minutes, each crew member’s indicator will turn yellow and can automatically trigger a roll call. The command center can then call backup personnel as deemed necessary using an integrated computer-aided dispatch (CAD) program, which eliminates the previously time-consuming manual call-back method and enables chiefs to maintain a frequent, automated role call cadence for accountability. They always know the location of each firefighter and can identify immediately if someone is in distress.

The crew-tracking solution also records every action taken in the BATT3 app to automatically create a digital incident log. These “save”-triggered screenshots of the crew member’s name, unit number, and progress against the timer help improve the quality of incident audits. They also give fire chiefs the insights needed to improve training and adjust best practices for future calls.

A Final Thought

First responders are inundated with a constant stream of information that’s difficult to process for split-second decision-making. Yet, crews don’t have time to stop and think about the best next step to take or whether a proposed plan of action might compromise someone’s safety. They need guidance from a trusted source. That’s why it’s so important that anyone calling the shots has real-time access to incident-related data collected by all parties – including other responding agencies and dispatch – and collated by an intelligent analytics system that can help inform human decision making based on fact, not speculation.

Crews also need to trust that they’re safety is being prioritized at all times. Anything that wavers their confidence in their equipment or each other could shift their focus away from what matters most: predicting others’ needs and preventing further problems from arising.

If you’re in a position where you and your crews must now do more with less, invest in technologies that can quickly be integrated in your operations to help relieve some of the guesswork and busy work as well as the mistakes and oversights that lead to more work. With crew accountability every chief’s priority, technology that helps maintain 100% accountability should also be a top investment priority.

I know it’s a challenge to balance your budget in today’s climate, so find a technology partner that you trust to help you strategically implement solutions that will solve problems, not create more of them.

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Editor’s Note:

You can learn more about the Zebra solutions used by firefighters and EMTs today on this resource page. You may also find these related reads helpful: