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 computer and printed it. I was able to hand [over] the sheet of paper with everything about this guy on it. It was so soon after we had gotten them that I actually walked into the office the next day, looked at my boss and said, 'Very successful test.'"
This particular use of the device highlights one drawback to normally adequate modes of communication.
"We do use alpha pagers, and we considered [using] the computer terminal to page somebody," Billig said. "But when you're at the hospital, and the other person's at the fire house, and you need to talk to them [but] can't get through on a cell phone ? and you need to send a large amount of text ? this is another way for us to do that."
Where you won't see the FDNY using the devices is in the field.
"I wouldn't say that you're going to see a fireman in a fire building using a BlackBerry," Billig said. "He wouldn't be able to push the buttons with the gloves on. But in administrative roles, you will see it."
Chief of Operations Sal Cassano is participating in the test phase and told Billig he uses the BlackBerry in another, less public way.
"The man gets hundreds of e-mails a day," Billig said. "He has other things to do as part of his responsibilities as the chief of the department. He can't spend his whole day in the office in front of a computer going through e-mail. It allows him in the evening at home to actually have all those e-mails at his fingertips."
Down to Business
The number of devices currently supported by Consilient2 allows the FDNY to experiment with a variety of RIM offerings.
"The Consilient2 server product will support multiple types of devices and networks for BlackBerry," RIM's Guibert said. "Those can be data-only devices with Cingular, or could include data and voice combined devices with Cingular, but also AT&T Wireless, T-Mobile or Nextel."
Currently RIM has deployed three types of BlackBerry devices to the department, all of which offer different modes of secure communication. The RIM 957 runs on the Cingular Mobitex network as a data-only device; the BlackBerry 6710 runs on Cingular's GSM/GPRS network as data- and voice-enabled device; and the BlackBerry 6510 runs on Nextel's network as a data- and voice-enabled device.
Security is a big issue when exchanging information, whether text or voice, and both RIM and Consilient acknowledge the need for secure communications. Based on the open-source Java standard, Consilient2 uses 3DES encryption, which along with the BlackBerry's FIPS-140 certification offers a secure way for the FDNY to transmit e-mail across a wireless network.
The FDNY plans to continue using the devices. The second phase of the pilot will involve deploying BlackBerries to a broader user group in administrative levels of the FDNY's headquarters.
Catherine Pickavet is a freelance editor and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.