The Smartphone: A Versatile Tool for Incident Operations

By Patrick S. Mahoney

The fire service is awash in technological solutions to very old problems, and the pace of change is quickening. Innovations in tablet computing and smartphones are already making inroads in a number of industries (e.g., healthcare) and are poised to make the fire officer’s job performance more effective, efficient, and safe. Innovations have driven this revolution, which has in large part changed the way we relate to information through technology.

The typical smartphone will include a central application (app) store where the user can find and purchase thousands of programs available for the device. The phone will download and install them automatically; no special skill is required. To use the programs, the user has only to touch the screen. However, this easy system has not yet made its way into the fire service to the extent that it could. A vast world of information on demand awaits.

All smartphones have phone, e-mail, and Internet capabilities, but now your “phone” may also feature a gyroscope, a compass, a global positioning system (GPS) receiver, multiple accelerometers, a still camera, and high-definition video cameras (yes, plural). The modern smartphone is probably the most versatile and useful multitool any firefighter can have on scene.

Connection speeds vary, depending on your service and how urban or rural your area is, but the overwhelming majority of urban and suburban areas in this country are now covered by high-speed mobile data services from the various cell phone carriers. On-scene firefighters can employ these services to great effect.


The Internet is a great resource for on-scene intelligence, especially when it comes to fire and hazardous materials incidents. Many county tax assessors even put information online about privately owned buildings, including square footage and construction details. This can be useful to the incident commander at a structure fire and can even expedite preplanning. Often, we respond to building fires or transportation accidents and need contact information that is not readily available. Just find the company’s Web site and look for information there. Like contact information, material safety data sheets (MSDSs) may not be readily available and are often hard to come by early in an incident. Google the chemical name or Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) number; just remember that this may not be specific to the product in your incident and should only be used for background information. The world’s greatest repository of information is at your fingertips and available for the asking. Let Google be your data source and your phone its conduit.


Incident commanders face a dilemma. We all know, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports continually remind us, that a 360° survey is needed at every fire. Squaring this with the dictum of maintaining stationary, isolated command is difficult. But on your phone’s GPS program, you can switch over to the aerial (satellite) view of the building and zoom in. At a glance you can see the building’s contours; the terrain on which it sits; and exposures, vegetation, tanks, parking areas, and other details. Depending on the sunlight angles in the overhead satellite view, you might even be able to discern the telltale curve of a bowstring truss roof. This does not replace the important 360° survey, since it does not give you a real-time picture of conditions, but it does help you understand the context of resource requests and progress reports. A division officer can now ascertain the present conditions while the incident commander puts it in perspective and maintains his stationary, quiet, isolated position (photo 1).

(1) Photos by author.
(1) Photos by author.

The mapping function can also be useful at large hazardous materials incidents where areawide decisions must be made. Put the incident in context by finding out what is around the hot zone. You might know your territory well, but you will never know it as well as the satellite view that shows you the creeks, alleys, and neighborhoods at once. This is especially true where the hot zone itself precludes a good understanding of the geography of the incident. Where responders are kept out or have limited approach pathways, a satellite view might be the only option for early understanding of your situation.


Your phone has another built-in feature that makes things a lot easier: the camera. The continually increasing resolution of the phone-based camera has made cameras more ubiquitous and more portable. Fire reports that require serial numbers, model numbers, dates of manufacture, and other data from involved equipment or vehicles previously required firefighters to use smudged, often wet, notepads to scribble down this information on scene and attempt to transcribe it later. You can be more accurate and neater by simply taking pictures of data plates, vehicle identification number (VIN) plates, and other useful signage (photo 2). The same can be done for the patient history, where information is scribbled on a notepad or other media that may be contaminated. Do not bring that back into the station and attempt to discern from your smudged notes what you actually meant. Take one glove off, reach in your pocket with your bare hand, and photograph the notes and other data on notepad. Dispose of all the contaminated or otherwise messy items along with your other waste, and use the picture later when you write your report back at the station. This is also useful for transferring patient information from a medical first responder to an ambulance crew; give the ambulance the original after taking a picture. No copy is needed.



The app stores of the various phone service providers connect app developers to app users and allow the automatic installation of programs on phones. There are a lot of niche apps tailored to specific disciplines like the fire service. A lot of those apps are useful for training and staying abreast of fire service news, but a smaller number can be integrated into incident operations. Some familiar names have contributed free or cheap apps, but not all are available for all smartphones. A number of generic apps are available for such tasks as looking up placard numbers in the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) and calculating friction loss. There are more specialized apps for certain situations we get ourselves into; a few of them are discussed below.

For the hazmat technician, the Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER), published by the National Library of Medicine, is available in an easy app that allows you to search and browse for products and hazards. This is a very useful app but does require some practice to use and is more appropriate for the technician than the operations or awareness levels. However, numerous ERG apps are available for the operations- and awareness-level practitioners.

For rescue, a number of apps are useful on scene and in training. One manufacturer has made available its rope rescue and confined space entry and rescue field guides in app forms. Carrying the more traditional bound field guides in the apparatus cab often results in their becoming misplaced, battered, or so badly damaged that they are often unusable. However, with this app you will have a crisp and clean copy wherever your phone is. Several extrication field guides are also available, including one that offers simple schematics for most hybrid vehicle models.

A word of caution about field apps: A lot of apps offer questionable guidance and charge you several dollars for what you can get for free elsewhere. The app store is value-neutral and does not police the content of the apps offered, so make sure that the publisher is one you can trust (e.g., the National Library of Medicine) and you feel comfortable with what you see in the app. As with anything in the fire service, the key to making good use of your phone is to practice with it beforehand. You should explore thoroughly any app you plan to use on scene well before you need it.


Technology offers us better tools all the time, but you and your department have to be willing to venture into new areas to find them. Just a few years ago, the smartphone and the tablet computer did not exist, and it was odd to think of a phone or computer as an integral part of on-scene operations. The tools we have now offer a much different reality. Even so, I have heard of departments that do not allow their people to carry phones at all; this is akin to banning paper because someone might make paper airplanes or doodle on the sheets.

One reason given is the alleged fragility of these phones: It is often assumed that any piece of high technology must be just waiting to break. This fear is usually overblown. Apart from the phone’s own robust design (it is, after all, designed to live in your pocket for a couple of years), there are a number of protective cases available. They range from the very lightweight and mostly aesthetic to the heavy-duty rubberized plastic models that are more firefighter friendly. Many carriers also offer cheap insurance to cover accidental damage or breakage.

Technology changes faster than you can orient yourself to it. The phones keep getting more and more advanced, and the software developers are writing apps to match these capabilities. For some of the less technically inclined firefighters, this may be intimidating, but remember: It became so popular because it is so easy to use.

PATRICK S. MAHONEY is a lieutenant and company officer with the Baytown (TX) Fire Department. A member of the fire service since 1998, he will finish a master’s degree in fire and emergency management administration from Oklahoma State University this fall. Previously, Mahoney served in training positions in career and volunteer fire departments.

More Fire Engineering Issue Articles
Fire Engineering Archives

No posts to display