A Manager’s Guide to MICROCOMPUTER Software

A Manager’s Guide to MICROCOMPUTER Software


The time has arrived! You’ve just returned home with the stereo equipment of your dreams. The finest quality amplifier, speakers, turntable, and even a tape deck.

You wire the amplifier to the speakers. You connect the turntable and tape deck. You plug in the power cords. You’re finally ready. You flip the power switch. Nothing happens! The only sound you hear is a slight hiss from the speakers.

It’s the finest quality stereo hardware you can afford, but it won’t play a note of music without stereo software, prerecorded records and tapes.

Last month, we took a tour through a typical microcomputer’s keyboard, CPU, RAM, ROM, and disk drives. But hardware is only the beginning of the story. Like our stereo example, computer hardw-are is practically useless without programmed instruction sets called software.

This month, we’ll explore microcomputer software and its use in fire and emergency medical service (EMS) agencies. We’ll look at system software and discuss the six categories of software application that every fire and EMS agency should consider.

In the next issue, we’ll study methods that fire and EMS managers can use to determine their agency’s software needs, and will wrap-up with some practical advice for choosing the best microcomputer system for your agency.

SOFTWARE: The good news

Just as budget cuts, complex training requirements and demands for more services were about to drive fire and EMS managers insane, a powerful new management tool became available. Microcomputer systems are speeding paperwork and providing fire and EMS managers with critical information. The information generated from micros has even helped managers make the transition from record keepers to decision makers.

Microcomputer systems are easy to use and inexpensive. Chances are 90% of your agency’s computer applications can be implemented on a microcomputer using six software packages purchased from a local computer store. Best of all, you don’t have to become a computer expert or learn programming to make the power of a microcomputer work for you.

A history lesson

The first computers were huge, power-hungry assemblies that filled rooms with vacuum tubes and clacking relays. These early machines used no software. Instead, information paths were hard-wired and could not be altered without mechanically rewiring the computer.

One of the first computers, for example, was hard-wired to provide information for aiming artillery guns. The computer calculated the angle and direction of the gun based on a target’s range, the wind direction, and other variables. Unfortunately, this computer could be used for only one purpose. To perform other tasks, it would have been necessary to completely rewire it.

As computers evolved, advances in CPUs (central processing units) and other components allowed information paths to be altered electronically rather than mechanically. Soon, computers were able to perform a variety of functions as different programmed instruction sets were entered from keyboards, cards, and paper tape.

Today, programmed instructions, or software, are stored magnetically on flat floppy disks, hard cylindrical disks, and magnetic tape. Software now enables computers to perform a variety of functions, not the least of which is making a computer system easier to use. Let’s take a look at two types of software, operating system software and applications software.

Operating system software

While it’s easy to visualize the wires that connect the keyboard, CPU, RAM (random access memory), ROM (read only memory), and disk drives, the flow of electrons between these devices must be precisely managed. Operating system software performs this management task. It allocates memory, manages file handling, and coordinates the operation of hardware components by establishing operational ground rules for electronic interaction.

Since microcomputer software is often stored on a disk, efficient management of disk based software is extremely important. For this reason, a microcomputer operating system which manages disk based software is referred to as a disk operating system or DOS.

APPLE DOS, TRSDOS, CP/M, and MS-DOS are all examples of disk operating systems.

  • APPLE DOS provides the operating ground rules for software that runs on the APPLE II family of microcomputers.
  • TRSDOS supports programs written for Radio Shack’s TRS-80 microcomputers.
  • CP/M is an operating system de-
  • (continued on page 22)

    (continued from page 20) veloped by Digital Research and is used by a variety of microcomputers including KAYPRO, EPSON, NORTH STAR, MORROW, etc.

  • MS-DOS (and the similar IBM version PC-DOS) manage programs written for the IBM Personal Computer and other IBM compatible microcomputers such as the COMPAQ, HEWLETT-PACKARD 150, COLUMBIA, CORONA, etc.

It’s important to note that while some microcomputers have been designed to load two or more operating systems, most are capable of supporting only one DOS. If your microcomputer was designed for a CP/M operating system, you will not be able to utilize programs written for an IBM-PC or other microcomputers using MS-DOS.

Because of these restrictions, it’s good to know a little about the capabilities of operating systems before you invest in a microcomputer. Let’s take a look at the most popular disk operating systems used in fire and EMS agencies.


In 1984, the most popular DOS used by fire and EMS agencies is APPLE DOS. In a survey conducted by On-Line Resources in early 1984, 33% of these agencies reported using APPLE DOS.

APPLE DOS is an eight-bit operating system that has been in existence since the APPLE II became popular in the late 1970s. APPLE DOS is easy to use, supports color, and has a sophisticated graphics capability.

Unfortunately, APPLE DOS will manage only 143K bytes (143,000 characters of information) at a time. This limitation becomes critical when attempting to interface APPLE DOS programs with a hard disk drive. APPLE DOS treats most high capacity hard disks data storage devices as a group of separate 143K data files. It’s a severe limitation if you plan to store a lot of data on one topic.

Fortunately, APPLE has responded to the limitations of APPLE DOS by developing a new DOS for its APPLE II family of microcomputers. ProDOS, as it’s called, overcomes the storage limitations of APPLE DOS by managing up to 16 megabytes of data, depending on the type of storage medium used. ProDOS is now being shipped with all new APPLE II micros.


Twenty-five percent of fire and EMS agencies reported using MS-DOS by MICROSOFT (or the compatible PCDOS by IBM). While some have found MS-DOS commands to be cryptic and more difficult to learn, this disk operating system supports a broad base of powerful 16-bit business programs. MS-DOS will handle 360K storage on floppy drives and manage all of the storage area available on most microcomputer hard disk drives. It also supports color and graphics.

MS-DOS microcomputers and MSDOS software have recently enjoyed rapid growth in popularity. Surveys by software service companies report that half of the 4,000+ MS-DOS software packages now in existence were developed within the last six months.


In third place is an eight-bit operating system that was once considered “the standard” for business programs. CP/M is currently being used by 20% of all fire and EMS agencies. CP/M users can choose from a library of over 6,000 software packages. Many of the business software packages available in MS-DOS are upgraded versions of CP/M programs.

CP/M users can easily interface with hard disk drives for storing large files. Though this eight-bit operating system is less powerful than the 16-bit MSDOS, it has recently been growing in popularity because of large price cuts. Several companies offer complete CP/M microcomputer systems (hardware and software) for less than $2,000.


In fourth place is the Radio Shack operating system called TRSDOS. Currently, Radio Shack has two TRSDOS versions. A 5V4*inch format supports Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Models I, III, and IV. An 8-inch version supports Radio Shack’s TRS-80 Models II, 12, and 16.

TRSDOS is similar to CP/M and enjoys a large base of business software as well as dealer support from a network of Radio Shack stores nationwide. One of the major advantages of TRSDOS programs is that Radio Shack has designed them to “talk” to one another. For example, the Radio Shack data base program PROFILE II can be used with the Radio Shack’s SCRIPSIT word processor to generate form letters.

Radio Shack’s new TANDY 2000 micro, however, has been designed for the 16-bit MS-DOS rather than the eight-bit TRSDOS. Many industry observers sense that Radio Shack may be moving away from its proprietary eight-bit operating system to the more powerful MS-DOS.


Figure 1 shows the results of the OnLine Resources surveys conducted in 1983 and 1984.

The most obvious trend is the upward rise of the MS-DOS microcomputer. From 1983 to 1984, use of this operating system, especially on the IBM-PC, rose 500%.

Although the 16-bit operating system may seem to have an advantage, there was, surprisingly, a 250% increase in the use of the CP/M operating system. While the IBM-PC was the system of choice for MS-DOS users, no one microcomputer accounted for gains in the CP/M operating system. Price and portability seem to be encouraging sales of CP/M micros.

The APPLE DOS operating system dropped from just over half the FS/EMS market share (51%) in 1983 to just under a third (33%) in 1984. Computers using APPLE DOS were predictably APPLE (continued on page 24) I Is, though several agencies reported using the APPLE compatible FRANKLIN micro.

Figure 1

Figure 1

(continued from page 22)

Sales of TRSDOS micros remained fairly consistant, 21% in 1983 to 18% in 1984. However, because of shifts in other micros, TRSDOS computers dropped in popularity from second place to fourth place.

Sales in the “other” category, including several brands of microcomputers and mini-computers, dropped from 9% in 1983 to 4% in 1984. Fire and EMS agencies seem to be moving to standardize on one of the four more popular disk operating systems.


Now, let’s get down to business. Just as an operating system helps to manage your microcomputer’s hardware, application software helps you to manage the work you want a microcomputer to perform.

Useful application software packages are available in each disk operating system. In fire and EMS agencies, application software can be used to process incident data, training records, or vehicle maintenance records. Application software can help manage your agency’s budget, store your pre-plans, and help you communicate with other fire and EMS agencies through computerized fire and EMS information services.

Regretfully, the majority of microcomputer owners use their machines for a single application. If you study the job of a fire or EMS manager, however, you will find legitimate uses for six types of application software packages: data base, spread sheet, word processing, training, graphics, and communications. Let’s examine each.

Data base

THE PROBLEM: The city’s false alarm problem has escalated. You have been ordered to analyze the false alarm patterns and make a report to the chief.

THE OLD WAY: A trip to the file cabinet provides 1,500 fire incident reports for the last 12 months. You clear a large area on the floor. You read each report individually, selecting those that indicate some type of false alarm. You locate the time of alarm and place the report on one of 24 piles representing each hour of the day. When you’ve separated all false alarm reports in this manner, it’s time to count the number of reports in each pile. Repeat this process for month, census tract, and source of the false alarm.

THE MICRO WAY: You remove a computer disk from the file cabinet. Since you have already entered your incident data, you simply select for “false alarm” reports and choose the “by hour of the day” reporting format. The computer goes to work. You pour a cup of coffee to enjoy it for 10 minutes as the computer types your report. Repeat the process for month, census tract, and source of alarm. Extra cups of coffee are optional.

Simply put, data base software manages information. Any information your agency collects on a form can be placed in a computer using data base software. Here’s how you operate it:

We’ll use an EMS example. An EMS manager is interested in establishing a data base of EMS responses. Using data base software, he can take the EMS incident form his agency uses and put it on the computer’s screen. If the first data element on his agency’s EMS incident form is labeled “run number,” the first element on the computer’s screen can be labeled “run number.” A space to the right of each label allows room for entering data.

Other data elements such as date, unit number, census tract, type of emergency, etc., can be added as required. To standardize categories, save storage space, and speed data entry, data elements should be coded. For example, type of incident could be coded: Acardiac; B-vehicle accident; C-nonvehicle trauma; D-medical; etc.

Figure 2 show’s a simple EMS incident form as it might appear on a computer’s monitor. While this form may be too simplistic for an EMS operation, it can be used to show’ the management information power of a data base.

Data from each paper EMS incident form is entered on the computer’s version of the form. When the information from one paper form has been entered, the computer operator presses a key to tell the computer to store the new ly entered data and present a blank form for more data entry.

Once the data from several hundred EMS incident reports has been entered in this fashion, the microcomputer’s data base software can manipulate it in many different ways. Just look at some of the management information available from our simple EMS incident data base:

  • Average response time by census tract and by unit.
  • Types of emergencies, totaled for the community, by census tract, by unit, and by hour of the day.
  • Average out of service time, by unit and by response district.
  • Destination hospital by type of emergency and by unit.
  • Runs by hour of the day, by day of the week, etc.

Armed with this type of information, a manager can become an accurate decision maker capable of using personnel and fiscal resources wisely. Best of all, fire and EMS managers will have the information they need to promote and defend their decisions.

Another advantage to using this type of applications software is that the same data base package can be used to create many other data bases. Training records, hose records, equipment inventory, personnel records, vehicle maintenance, prevention records or any of a hundred other data bases can be created with one data base software package.

Spread sheet

THE PROBLEM: Your city manager has changed his mind about the budget—again. You have been instructed to cut another $10,000 and submit a new budget, typed and ready for reproduction and distribution to the city council.

THE OLD WAY: You call a light-duty lieutenant into your office and tell him to stand by to retype ☺the budget—as soon as you can figure out where the changes need to be made. You take out your trusty pocket calculator, a pencil, and a big eraser. Up to 10 categories are going to have to be changed to accommodate the budget cutting request.

After an hour of calculating, recalculating, erasing, penciling-in, recalculating, erasing, and penciling-in, you’re ready for the lieutenant. Since the lieutenant is not on the payroll because of his typing ability, it’s going to take awhile before you have a chance to proofread the new budget.

THE MICRO WAY: You insert your spread sheet software into the computer and call up this year’s budget. You move money, cut certain categories and increase others as you try several different possibilities. The computer constantly tracts all totals and subtotals. When it looks good, you press the print button and await an accurately typed budget. Since you have five minutes, you take the time to draft a memo putting the light-duty lieutenant back on shift.

Spread sheet software allows the user to calculate the impact of proposed changes. It’s a type of modeling software frequently used to help fire and EMS agencies calculate hydrant pressures on a grid, manage supply inventories, or project budgets.

Spread sheet software can be thought of as a matrix of cells. VISICALC, an early spread sheet program, consists of a matrix of cells, 254 horizontal rows deep by 63 vertical columns wide. Within any cell, the user may place a label (such as “salaries”), a number, or a formula. Formulas are allowed to refer to other cells and can be quite complex.

A line item budget can easily be entered on a spread sheet program. The first one or two columns are used to enter labels such as salary, overtime, health insurance, etc. The next column may be used to enter “% of change” figures, “dollar differences,” etc. Formulas can be used to add numeric figures in rows. Subtotals and the total budget figure are calculated by entering formulas that add all of the figures entered in a column. It may sound difficult, but it’s one of the easiest software packages to learn.

Recent improvements in spread sheet software offer expanded spread sheets and automatic graphic options. LOTUS 1-2-3 for MS-DOS microcomputers handles a spread sheet of cells 2,048 rows by 254 columns. It can also produce bar charts from data already entered in the spread sheet.

Word processing

Many fire and EMS managers are already familiar with the power of dedicated word processors. Few, however, realize that word processing software can make a microcomputer far more powerful than a dedicated word processor.

A microcomputer word processor can select information from a data base and use it to type personalized letters. Imagine being able to automatically type a personalized letter to the owners of all commercial occupancies found to have fire violations. The letters can site the date of inspection, the violation, and the specific code reference. Best of all, it can perform this function without constant human attention.

For those with spelling problems, special software packages have been produced to “proofread” spelling, highlight suspected mistakes, and suggest correct spellings. Again, this is done automatically.


All major operating systems support computer based instruction (CBI) software packages. Many packages will offer multiple test questions, scoring, sound, effects, color graphic representations, and even a convenient interface with video tape recorders.

Since fire and EMS agencies are 24hour organizations, these training software packages can drill on hydraulics, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, standard operating procedures, drug dosages, etc., all day long. Unlike a human instructor, these programs never tire.


A graphics software package can be used to produce pie charts, bar charts, and even produce color title slides for management presentations. These packages are easy to use and can produce their designs on a color monitor, a printer, or a precision drafting peripheral called a plotter.

Many fire departments are using graphic software to produce graphs and charts for annual reports. A graph produced on a plotter can be used as camera-ready copy at the print shop.


Communications software will allow a microcomputer to communicate with a mainframe or with other microcomputers through telephone connections. Several computerized information services have been developed specifically for fire and EMS agencies.

Using a device called a modem, a fire manager can solicit information, obtain fire and EMS software programs and share electronic mail (E-mail) with other fire and EMS personnel. Using a micro, modem, and communication software, you can be in touch with a world of information. It’s an invaluable management resource.

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