Your grant money is coming next year and your firefighters cannot wait to get those old radios, map books, and mobile data terminals (MDTs) out of their vehicles. You’ve assigned a team to research the options in new communication units, and you plan to just wait on their recommendation. Right? WRONG!

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You need to be proactive and ensure that you are selecting the best communication method and computer style for your agency and community. It is not enough to just follow the lead of another agency (you could end up repeating its mistake!). There is a lot to consider, and it’s your job to make an informed decision-one you won’t regret.


Selecting the communication method from vehicle to dispatch is relatively easy. Most likely, you will choose cellular digital packet data (CDPD), radio frequency (RF), or a company that offers a similar cell phone type of tower service where CDPD is not available.

CDPD allows communication from the vehicles through the use of cell phone towers with minimal up-front costs, but the coverage can be limited, depending on your area, and the monthly bills start to add up over time.

If you opt for or already have an RF system, then I assume you already have the towers because the initial costs are so high. If the towers are not yet equipped for data transfer, contact the manufacturer for assistance. There are pros and cons to each method, and your research will provide you with many more details than those just mentioned.

Mobile Software

Now, you’ve determined how your vehicles will communicate with Dispatch. Right? WRONG AGAIN! For the vehicle’s mobile data computer (MDC) to communicate through the in-vehicle modem and airways to computer aided dispatch (CAD), you must introduce the mobile software. Numerous software vendors promote their mobile, records management, report writing, and CAD software. Automatically picking the vendor whose CAD software you are now running could be a costly mistake. You should look for the reputable vendor with the proven track record and the software that will best serve your department and community needs. Speak with other agencies about the features and benefits of the mobile software they are running, as well as any problems they may be experiencing. Most software vendors provide samples you can use to determine which would be the most user- friendly for your department.

Among the applications for which fire departments are using computers are the following: dispatch, report writing, mapping, indicating road closures, building/prefire/block plans, weather conditions, haz-mat information, incident command software, e-mail, video capture, aerial photos, indicating hydrant locations, and many others. Among the localities using this system are Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Coral Gables, Orange County, Boca Raton, and Maitland, Florida; Beverly Hills, California; and Queensland, Australia. Many others are in the demonstration phase.


Choosing the type of MDC will be your biggest and most important decision. Will you go with a rugged modular MDC, a rugged laptop, or a standard laptop? Many agencies are not even aware that there are options. When reviewing your options, consider sunlight visibility, which is measured in a Latin term called “NITS.” It is recommended that the screen have at least 1,000 NITS for daytime viewing with sunglasses on. At night, you should be able to dim the screen so that the user will not be lit up like a Christmas tree. The screen should be touch-enabled and dual airbag-compliant; and it must meet the military’s shock, heat, and vibration specifications. In a command vehicle, screens should be mounted as high on the dash as possible so the user can keep his eyes on the horizon at all times. Keyboards should be sealed so they can stand up to the occasional exposure to liquid, and they should be illuminated for nighttime use.

  • Standard laptops. They have one basic advantage-price. The drawbacks include a very limited list of available features and benefits and a high incidence of downtime over their short (two- to three-year) life span. Most notably, the screens are not touch-enabled (a must for in-vehicle computing) and are unreadable during the day (200 NITS at best), and the user must lean/bend/twist to type because of the awkward and space-consuming mounting system. Theft and abuse are common with anything portable. Standard laptops also have heat failures and serious airbag issues-they were not meant for fire apparatus. In fact, very few police agencies have had success with standard laptops.
  • Rugged laptops. Depending on the brand (most are made in Asia), the rugged laptop generally will have average to good sunlight visibility (400 or so NITS) and a resistive touch-enabled option. It is similar to the standard laptop but (obviously) is more rugged; most models meet all military specifications. The rugged laptop is much more expensive, and it is difficult to mount or have it stand up to the vibration in rescue vehicles/engines. Neither does it have all of the features and benefits firefighters require.

Some agencies try to implement strict safety regulations for administrators using a laptop in the car, but these restrictions generally hinder the user and are usually ignored. Unless the screen is closed while driving, there is a chance that it or the entire unit may become a projectile, because the laptop most times cannot be user-friendly and airbag-compliant at the same time. There have been numerous cases in which units were launched, injuring police personnel and passengers. Liability is also a major concern. Thoroughly consider whether you need out-of-vehicle units; 95 percent of agencies have found that they did not use the mobile feature associated with laptops.


A modular MDC unit was built for one purpose-rugged vehicle use. The bright screen is usually around 1,300 NITS, can be mounted in numerous locations, is touch-enabled, and is 10.4 or 12.1 inches in size; some meet Ford’s Crown Victoria’s and other vehicles’ airbag specifications. Some screens have the latest capacitive touch technology for precise, clear, no- glare, long-lasting viewing capabilities. The separate sealed and backlighted keyboards can be placed on the user’s lap, on the steering wheel, or in a typing tray for user-friendly ergonomic typing. No awkward or bulky brackets are needed because they have slim modular designs. The rugged system lasts years longer than any laptop. Some systems can be upgraded, accounting for huge savings over time. The rugged CPUs mount out of the way anywhere in a truck; some can even go in the glove compartment of some vehicles. The cost is comparable to or a little more than that of a rugged laptop.

With some of the modular MDCs, you can run two separate screens off the one CPU, reducing the costs for departments that want screens in both the front and the back of some trucks and command vehicles. This same technology is used by police agencies that want the advantages of a modular MDC but don’t want to give up the mobile feature of a laptop. They purchase an inexpensive laptop and store it under a seat or in the trunk, strictly as a CPU connected to the screen and keyboard specifically designed for the car, and reap the rewards of both.

As you can see, there is a great deal to consider when selecting a new communications system. The good news is that whether you choose laptops or modulars, RF or CDPD, all represent a significant improvement over your existing systems. Ultimately, your informed decision should be based on what is best for your agency’s needs, comfort, and safety-and. thus, what is best for the public you serve.

JOEL C. EBERLY is the former southeast representative for Data911 and also serves as a captain in the Army National Guard.

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