Not All “Mobile” Computers are Mobile – and Not All Rugged Tablets are the Same

What to keep in mind when shopping for public safety technology

Firefighter using a rugged tablet with a hard top handle to document information on scene
by Bob Ashenbrenner
March 03, 2019

For years now, the public safety sector has been on the forefront of real-time data use. But, unlike most other industries, the intent has not only been to enhance productivity or shorten response times – though both have been welcome impacts of new technologies.

The first – and perhaps most important – goal has been to keep law enforcement, EMS, and fire and rescue teams safe while simultaneously protecting the people and interests of the communities they serve. That requires better preparedness and situational awareness; both of which are contingent on the availability and proper utilization of real-time data. Real-life emergency response demands real-time data sharing, whether via dispatch communications or jurisdiction-wide records systems. Where older installed-in-vehicle systems delivered these advantages until the officers left their seats, new mobility tools allow the officers to maintain a connection anywhere they go.

But time, IT mandates, and budget resources don’t always allow for trial and error testing of mobility tools. Many agencies are at a crossroads as they add mobile devices: Vehicle-mounted laptops and notebooks, along with mobile data terminals (MDT) have long been connected to cellular data networks in patrol cars, fire trucks, and ambulances to communicate with dispatch, access the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS) or patient electronic health records (EHR) and provide GPS navigation for fast incident response. However, the benefits of these types of computers are restricted to the vehicle. That is a problem considering that the majority of the work done by law enforcement, fire, and EMS professionals – and arguably their most critical work – is completed outside the vehicle in what can be extreme environmental conditions.

While laptops, which have been in patrol cars for decades, can technically be taken out of the vehicle and used as a portable PC, officers rarely ever take those heavy computers into the field during a routine traffic stop or more serious incident where they need to be quick and agile in their response. The devices aren’t terribly mobile by definition and certainly aren’t conducive to easy data capture or retrieval outside the vehicle with their bulky size and keyboard-only entry method. Plus, many public safety professionals claim that these laptop or notebook screens aren’t really readable in an outside environment. Have you ever seen a SWAT response team carrying a laptop? Probably not. They almost always use a smaller form factor such as a rugged tablet or handheld computer because of the lightweight mobility and constant connectivity.

So then why should other officers – whose jobs are just as important – be forced to rely only on laptops for their field computing tasks? Even if they’re rugged enough to stay in service for many years, they are not truly “mobile” enough to serve the modern officer’s needs.

This is leading many agencies to ask: “I’ve deployed my first responders with field computing technologies that are not really built for their type of field work. Now what?”

Attempting to mobilize with a piecemeal compilation of legacy computers, new mobile and IP devices, high security info systems, and accessories is wasteful and ineffective; it does not deliver enhanced safety.

Fortunately, you can rectify the situation by resetting your mobility strategy and building a cohesive end-to-end mobile solution with these simple steps. (No, you will not have to abandon all of your current hardware or software in the process.):

1. Formulate a mobility strategy that represents your own workflow and daily flow.

During the RFP process, the daily flows of each end-user in the office/vehicle/field drive the criteria for a mobile computer. Think through many of the mobile workflows and start building a solution to support each: dispatch, inspection, eCitations, CJIS access, incident reporting, inter-agency coordination, etc.

2. Know your exact mobile device needs before you start shopping.

Just like a detailed grocery list prevents you from forgetting necessities during a shopping trip, building a minimum requirements checklist before you start researching mobile technology options will ensure you don’t overlook any key ingredients for your mobile strategy. Choosing a mobile device that doesn’t have the right feature set – or can’t fulfill all of your requirements in a single device – will only lead to disappointment and result in multiple “shopping trips” that waste time and money.

Many mid-size cities, towns, and counties have similar workflows and, therefore, similar mobile device requirements. Identify jurisdictions that mirror yours, and understand the lessons they’ve learned in their mobile journeys thus far. Their list of do’s and don’ts will help you focus your requirements and conduct a SWOT analysis of your own current technology portfolio to make early decisions regarding:

Operating system preference – The applications you choose will drive your OS decision.  Most public safety agencies choose to run Windows® for compatibility and security. Though there are new applications arriving on Android™ today that may benefit some organizations. Fortunately, fully rugged Android tablets and handhelds are now available.

Mobile data and mobile device security – This may include VPN access, multi-factor authentication, fingerprint readers, Common Access Card (CAC) readers, TPM, Kensington physical locks and other internal and external measures.

- Data entry tools – Do you need the flexibility of keyboard and touch for data entry? Do you need a digitizer pen or will a stylus do the job?

Size and weight – Do you prefer a larger 10-12.5-inch screen for easy, full-page viewing of documents and apps? Or can you make do with a 5-inch screen? Can your EMS techs juggle a 5+ lb notebook and still provide patient care in the field? Or do they need a lighter weight 2-4 lb solution?

- Wired and wireless connectivity – How many I/O ports do you need? Which I/O ports do you need? Will your teams have access to Wi-Fi hotspots at all times, or do they need multiple wireless network and ancillary device connectivity options such as 4G LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc.? Do you need pass-through antenna capabilities with devices mounted in a vehicle?

Rugged requirements – Which MIL-STD-810G and Ingress Protection (IP) rating levels are enough – and how much is too much? It depends on how often your mobile device will be exposed to water, dust, humidity, or corrosive elements, for example, and how prevalent shock or vibration will be in the vehicle based on the kinds of roads or surfaces it could be used on. Will the device be used in potentially explosive environments? Make sure it’s also ATEX or C1D2/C1Z2 compliant for Hazardous Locations.

3. Consider your mobile computer options.

Many law enforcement, fire, and EMS departments are public agencies operating under either federal, state, or municipal guidelines and, therefore, purchase from a pre-approved list of hardware and software vendors. While that list may ultimately dictate how you buy your rugged mobile device, it shouldn’t limit your research and evaluation efforts. Mobile technology investments have long life cycles, so it’s imperative that you thoroughly understand the immediate mobility gains and future expansion options available with each rugged tablet, laptop, notebook, or smartphone under consideration. No two mobile computers are created equal, and not all mobile computers are truly mobile. Portability and mobility are not synonymous:

- In-car computer systems are permanent. They tradeoff on size since the computer is housed in the trunk, versus a notebook that takes up space mounted in the center console. But they only allow in-vehicle data access.

- Rugged laptops are technically portable, but require both hands to use outside the vehicle. Impractical really, since these heavy notebooks need a flat surface and consume both of the officer’s hands – which is not the safest approach. That’s why “portable” notebooks are almost always left in the car or truck, which doesn’t give first responders the true real-time access to the data they need to do their jobs while on foot. It may also hinder their ability to make real-time decisions or document evidence in the moment. They have to return to their vehicle every time – or rely on unreliable paper-based note-taking. Neither is conducive to the smart, fast, and coordinated response capabilities required given today’s evolving security challenges.

- Consumer-grade mobile devices, regardless of form factor, just are not as well suited for the public safety environment. In fact, a VDC Research survey found that 88% of public safety agencies believe that they need at least some rugged mobile devices – consumer tablets won’t suffice, and may not survive, in many of their daily use cases. You want your team to worry about victim or patient care – not special care of fragile devices in the field.

- Rugged tablets, on the other hand, easily satisfy all mobility, ruggedness, size, weight and full computing requirements of these public safety environments. Beyond having the right-sized physical components (a big enough screen to view full documents, but lightweight enough to carry in one hand), rugged tablets run all of the familiar software and apps in a mobile environment. They’re also equipped with multiple I/O ports and compatible with a plethora of Wi-Fi, 4G LTE, Bluetooth, and GPS signals to provide a reliable connection throughout your jurisdiction. The best even come equipped with pass-through technology for three or more antennas (WLAN, WWAN and GPS).

Rugged tablets are purpose-built and scalable as your system-wide mobility expands and workflows demand. They are emerging as the preferred mobile device of choice for public safety agencies of all sizes and missions, with handheld computers not far behind for certain applications.

4. Don’t stop at the device itself.

Choosing the right software, apps and accessories is as mission-critical as the rugged mobile computer. If your handheld smartphone, for example, requires you to replace accessories as often as the device itself, then you will find the total cost of ownership (TCO) accelerates quickly. Insufficient planning for software and accessory requirements will lead to cost creep and possible end-user adoption challenges or even deployment delays. When evaluating mobile computer options, also consider:

- In-vehicle docking solutions – How will you mount the mobile device safely in the patrol car/fire truck/ambulance? Does your fleet feature multiple vehicle models and therefore need multiple docking/mounting options? Do you need to connect to a mobile gateway for in-vehicle data? Or special mounting for a motorcycle?

Carrying assistance – When your job is hands-on and you’re on your feet for long periods of time, you’ll likely appreciate mobile devices that offer shoulder straps, hand straps, rubberized handle grips and other carrying solutions.

Battery charging options – How much battery power do you think you’ll need to run your devices without interruption 24/7/365? Are hot swappable batteries available? How quickly do the batteries charge, and are multi-bay chargers available?

Software compatibility – The public safety world needs mobile-focused software.  Fortunately, many of the dozens of Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) are adding mobile-focused modules to their offerings that enrich the end-user’s experience with rugged tablet touch screens, for example.  Unlike modules originally written for desktops or notebooks that are simply ported onto tablets, these new mobile apps are starting to support in-line insertion of photos taken with a rugged tablet’s hi-res camera and data entry after a driver’s license is read by a built-in barcode scanner. These contextual apps also support records and reporting, CAD, criminal data lookup and citation management, to name but a few critical workflows.

Ancillary tools and accessories: Do you need a compatible mobile printer for ticketing? Desktop docks for detectives or battalion commanders?

5. Balance your budget – but give more weight to the benefits of your investment.

We are all price conscious and want to get the best bang for every buck. But, unlike Black Friday shopping for mobile computing solutions, law enforcement agencies can’t afford to make these types of purchases based on the lowest price alone. You get what you pay for. Or, perhaps even more important to remember is that, what you don’t get at the “lowest” price can be costly in the long run. I acknowledge that public safety has always been a money-constrained sector, but most agencies will sooner or later find that the TCO of a consumer-grade device is at least double that of a rugged tablet. Even if the initial purchase cost is higher for a rugged tablet, its long-term durability and widespread compatibility with the rest of your mobile software, devices, and accessories will keep TCO down. This calculator will help you run numbers specific to your situation. You can also ask sales reps for TCO breakdowns and talk to your peers about their experiences (or read case studies about their gains and savings).

6. Remember that the future is mobile.

Impediments to true public safety mobility – inappropriate form factors, fragile devices, heavy notebooks, weak data radios, limited mobile workflow software, etc. – are a thing of the past. The decision to go mobile today is just that – a decision to go mobile. Real-time information, streamlined reporting and constant communication make your service to the community faster, better and safer.

Just don’t forget to think ahead: There is justifiable pressure to invest in technology that is future-proof and scales with the requirements for long-term expandability. Any mobile computing platform purchased today must be able to support agencies’ unprecedented – and unpredictable – data demands for years to come. The mobile computer must also be compatible with any future technologies used in support of police activities, such as body cameras, Internet of Things (IoT) and emerging wireless communications standards. Law enforcement budgets typically don’t accommodate frequent technology replacement requests, even though many commercial-grade mobile devices being pitched to public safety IT departments are designed for replacement every one to two years. They just don’t deliver the processing power, storage capacity, or enterprise-grade operating system compatibility that agencies will ultimately need. The constant learning curve that comes with introducing new or difficult-to-use mobile devices means that officers will either be distracted on the job, resulting in slow decision making, missed threats, or inaccurate documentation of incidents.

Make smart near-term buys that lay a foundation for a full mobility solution with long-term relevance.  That may be just a handful of rugged tablets to power a new dispatch system. But it gives you time to fine tune your solution, define best next steps and measure ROI. Then, as budgets allow, you can expeditiously deploy more tablets and workflows into the field with confidence. Don’t worry if you’re not able to leverage all of a rugged tablet’s bells and whistles in the first 12 months. You will have all the necessary processing power, storage capacity, wireless network compatibility and expansion modules available to support each incremental step you take toward full workforce mobility over the next 3-5 years.

Not sure which mobile computer form factor is best for your public safety workflow and environment? Need help identifying the best software, features or ancillary tools for your agency’s applications?

Visit IWCE 2019 booth #1016 or contact Zebra's government team for an in-depth analysis of your mobility requirements.

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Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen
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