When the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY) recognized the need for a well rounded communications arsenal, the Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry seemed to fit.
Unfortunately RIM was ill equipped to handle one problem: Because RIM only supported Microsoft Exchange Server, the number of clients it could serve was limited ? clients who, for example, ran on the Novell GroupWise platform.
Although the FDNY runs on GroupWise, FDNY officials wanted to use the BlackBerries because of a significant need for additional communications options, especially after Sept. 11.
"That disaster wreaked havoc on our mobile communications," said David Billig, FDNY's press secretary. "It was, in some cases, hours before we were able to communicate by cellular phone."
Billig said FDNY makes extensive use of radios, pagers and cell phones, but the BlackBerry serves as an additional communications tool because it can retrieve e-mail.
Linking Mobility and E-Mail
At first, RIM and the FDNY couldn't join forces, because they ran on two separate platforms.
"When we first introduced BlackBerry, we introduced it with support for Microsoft Exchange back in 1999," said Mark Guibert, vice president of brand management for RIM. "GroupWise is the third largest e-mail system in the corporate and government sectors. In the case of FDNY, they're a GroupWise house, and I think they saw the value in an incremental means of communication for emergency situations."
FDNY needed to connect its GroupWise e-mail server to RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server before it could even consider using the device. Cingular, a RIM distributor, took the first step to bridging the two.
"Cingular approached us about the FDNY and said they had a Novell GroupWise installation," said Trevor Adey, president of Consilient, which developed the Consilient2 client/server system. "They were in need of our Consilient2 software to connect their GroupWise e-mail platform to the Blackberry platform."
The convergence of Consilient and RIM allowed the FDNY to use the BlackBerry to send and receive e-mail over Cingular's network, and the BlackBerry's simplicity meant the FDNY could immediately issue the devices to high-level administrative staff.
"From the end-user's perspective, there are no real complexities," RIM's Guibert said. "The IT manager simply needs to install Consilient2 server software and map that to their GroupWise software."
Currently the FDNY is in a test phase, having only distributed 25 to 30 devices ? mostly to its Office of the Fire Commissioner, the chief of operations and the press office.
Shortly after receiving the BlackBerries, the press office realized how the devices would benefit disseminating information to the outside world.
Last year, a firefighter was badly injured in a house fire in Queens. As part of the press office's responsibility, officers go to either the scene of the fire, the firehouse or the hospital, depending on the situation.
Billig was required at the hospital that day and needed to be in communication with the press office to obtain information regarding the injured firefighter, his career and family ? and Billig had to have that information in hard copy.
"What I was able to do at the blink of an eye was have my people in the office e-mail the firefighter's bio, the company he works in, his wife's name, his kids' names ? we need all that information," Billig said. "The mayor and the chief of the department come out to visit, and we need to have as much information as possible for the mayor when they go up there, so they know what they're walking into.
"My office e-mailed that to me, and I was able to find someone in the hospital with a computer," Billig continued. "After reading it and making some changes to it, I e-mailed it to that