After heavy hail hit 150 homes in Montgomery County, Ky., last March, the county’s emergency management director, Wesley Delk, set out to assess the damage. A key tool: an Android-based tablet computer that he used to take notes as well as geotag photos. He was able to add the pictures to a map later, showing where damage had occurred.

Delk and his deputy both use tablets for their daily work. “Now it’s engrained into the processes that we do,” he said. But it took about a year from the time Delk first started experimenting with work uses for his personal iPad until it became department policy to issue tablets.

Tablet computers are single-panel touchscreen computers that are smaller than a laptop but larger than a phone. Apple’s iPad made tablets popular with the public, and now users can choose from several consumer options: iPads, BlackBerry devices, Windows tablets or those that run Google’s Android operating system. Smaller tablets, such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Apple’s iPad Mini, also are available. And first responders whose work environment would be too hard on a consumer tablet can consider rugged tablets that are more durable.

Tablets are increasingly being adopted by the emergency management community for everything from note taking to sending warnings from the field. Tablets’ mobility and connectivity are big advantages.

The National Library of Medicine has a Web page with links to government and nonprofit mobile apps for emergency managers:

http://disasterinfo.nlm.nih.gov/dimrc/disasterapps.html

Emergency managers’ “duties extend beyond business hours,” said Geoffrey Bartlett, director of emergency management at Tufts University in Boston. “You can’t necessarily anticipate when you’re going to need access to your resources.” Bartlett goes to and from his office with an iPad instead of a laptop these days — and because the tablet is easier to carry, he has it with him more often than he would a laptop. Tablets also offer cellular data capabilities that laptops generally don’t have.

But tablets can have drawbacks, including security concerns and technical limitations. And many in the emergency management community are still determining the best way to use them.

Expanding Utility

There are many options for using tablets to make emergency management work more efficient:

  • Filling out and sending documents. In the past, when Delk did field reports, he would later have to go back to the office and transcribe them. Now, he fills out documents on his tablet and can send them from the field to others.
  • Situational awareness. GPS, weather apps and GIS can all help emergency managers in the field or with planning.

When Bartlett gets a warning about a severe weather watch, he opens a weather app to check the radar. He also uses a free GIS app that helps to measure distances. When a hazardous chemical spill occurred near campus, Bartlett pulled up weather information on his tablet to find out the wind direction. He looked up the isolation distances for the chemical that had spilled and used a GIS app to measure how far the chemical was from the nearest campus building.

“It was unprecedented to have all of that information and tools available at your fingertips, using one single tool,” Bartlett said.

  • Taking and searching notes. Bartlett takes notes with Evernote: “In addition to whatever I’m recording in the present meeting, I have access to my entire library of notes that I’ve taken at past events, and it’s searchable.”
  • Keeping key documents at hand. Bartlett stores a copy of the university’s emergency operations plan on his tablet. Digital copies of other reference guides are also available.
  • Sending warnings. Higher education institutions have to notify their communities of emergencies and certain crimes. “The sooner the information gets out, the more useful it is for people to take action to protect themselves. The tablet has become very useful for its ability to send messages” as the community has become accustomed to getting information quickly, Bartlett said. “We need to be as connected as our community.”
  • Monitoring social media. Bartlett uses his tablet to stay on top of what community members are discussing on social networks. “Given the age of a large proportion of our audience, it’s important for us to be able to stay connected and communicate using the channels that our community uses,” he said.
  • Just-in-time training. “There are so many possible tasks that may come up that it’s unrealistic to imagine that we’re ever going to pre-train everybody to carry around in their head all of the information and skills that they would need,” said Art Botterell, a disaster management consultant at the Silicon Valley campus of Carnegie Mellon University. Tablets allow emergency responders to deal with situations they haven’t been trained for, or those they have trained for but have never encountered.

Specialized Apps

One of the key attractions of tablets is that many tools people use at home can also help at work, including video-conferencing applications, GPS tools and file sharing services like Dropbox. 

“Nobody designed Google as an emergency response tool, and yet it’s difficult to imagine many emergency responders who don’t frequently use Google as part of their job,” Botterell said.

There are, however, specialized apps for emergency managers. Cargo Decoder, for example, is a searchable version of the Emergency Response Guidebook that is distributed by transportation authorities in the United States, Canada and Mexico. A user can type in the four-digit code from the side of a truck or tanker and get more information about how to handle the substance inside in an emergency.

Unlike the printed version of the handbook, the electronic version is searchable by the name of the substance, the four-digit code, or just part of the four-digit code.

“It’s a way of getting to the information you want as quickly as possible,” said Marsh Gosnell, founder of Strategies In Software in East Windsor, N.J. He made the Android version of the app in 2010 and an iOS version last year.

The National Library of Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, has created a mobile app for emergency responders called Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER) that allows emergency responders to identify unknown substances (searching by characteristics such as smell, color and human exposure symptoms). It can also produce a map showing the protective distance from a substance from the user’s current location or an address the user provides.

“First responders and hazmat professionals have only a few minutes to be able to get the information they really need, so we try to put it in an easily digestible form,” said Jennifer G. Pakiam, a technical information specialist with the Disaster Information Management Research Center at the National Library of Medicine.

As more emergency management professionals start using tablets, demand will grow for even more specialized apps.

“I think there are going to be a lot of new products coming soon because more agencies are adopting the platforms,” Delk said. “That’s giving additional incentive to the developers to make the products we need.”

Overcoming the Downsides

For emergency management departments considering using tablets, there are some possible downsides to consider:

  • Security. Putting a lot of data on one device means you need a plan for it if it’s stolen. Mobile devices are “shiny targets for thieves,” Delk said. Some devices can be set up so they can be erased remotely if stolen. Delk also uses Dropbox for storing files, which has its own security.

In addition, anytime you are sending data over the cellular service, it could be at risk, especially if it’s not encrypted. “Your data is out there; it’s traveling from one point to another by the Internet,” Delk said.

  • Technical limitations. Delk says his tablet does “about 70 percent of what a regular notebook computer does, but it’s usually the 70 percent that you do the most.” This means that there will be tasks, such as formatting documents, that are still better done on a computer.

For some emergency responders, the visual interface of a tablet computer may be a hindrance, Botterell said. Firefighters and police officers, for example, may want to “keep their eyes on the situation” and use a device with a voice-activated interface instead.

  • Durability and field use. Reading a tablet in bright sunshine can be difficult, and some fieldwork could easily lead to damaged or lost tablets. “What I’m seeing is that staff people and command level people are moving more rapidly” to tablets, Botterell said.
  • Cost. Cost isn’t the biggest concern about tablets, since consumer tablets are relatively inexpensive compared with other equipment, and may replace more expensive laptop computers, cameras and other devices. Many apps are either free or very inexpensive.

There’s another issue related to cost, however: network reliability. Commercial networks may not always have enough capacity for a surge in use during an emergency. “How much money are the wireless carriers spending on capacity and battery backup systems and all of the marginal investments that affect system reliability?” Botterell said.

  • Dependence on technology that could fail. “If everybody assumes that they can have whatever information they need on demand, then what happens one day when they need it and don’t have it available?” Botterell said. This isn’t a reason to not use tablets, but rather a reason to have a Plan B.

Emergency management professionals who decide to use tablets face a new set of decisions: what type to get.

Because the specific features available are constantly changing, it’s best to evaluate the pros and cons (including features like camera technology, Wi-Fi capability and ease of use) of the models available at the time of purchase. Compatibility with your office computers may be less important than compatibility with smartphones you already have, since many apps run on both smartphones and tablets.

Those who are concerned about durability may want to look into rugged tablets, made to meet military specifications. MobileDemand’s T7200 has a 7-inch screen, for example, and can withstand being dropped on concrete, being put underwater, and being stored in extreme cold and heat. MobileDemand’s tablets cost between $1,900 and $3,800 depending on the configuration.

MobileDemand’s primary customers for these tablets are EMS, fire and police departments, as well as the military. “If they’re an indoor user, they’re calling the wrong number,” said Wayne Randolph, U.S. public sector manager for MobileDemand, in Hiawatha, Iowa.

The options are continually expanding, both for devices and for the apps that make emergency managers’ lives easier.

“There’s wonderful stuff being done, and we’ve just begun to explore the possibilities,” Botterell said.

This story was originally published by Emergency Management

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock