Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Betweeen Alarms: October 2015

Arjuna George   

Features Equipment Hot Topics

I am an evangelist for technology in the fire service, but I also see the importance of keeping things simple and know that gadgets do not always improve efficiency on the job. While I still default to making my own notes and lists with pen and paper, there is a case to make for using tablets in the fire service.

I feel that tablets are superior to paper binders and laptops housed in our fire trucks for two main reasons, size and speed.

Paper pre-fire plans, maps, extrication, emergency response and rescue field guides all take up extremely valuable real estate within our trucks. Plus they are slow to navigate and a pain to update when you have multiple binders.

As for laptops, they can easily store all your pre-plans and important documents, but do not allow for rapid access because of slow boot-up speeds. Laptops can have battery issues, they are bulky and, unless you spend a lot of money on a tough, rugged model, they will not stand up to the harsh fire-ground environments.

Tablets are an affordable option and can be up and running for about $500. Tablet batteries are much more robust and can last up to 10 hours on a single charge. Tablets are compact, extremely portable and lightning fast; with a one-button push they are ready to handle your emergency. Right out of the box tablets are fragile devices, but for less than $100 you can purchase a hard, rubberized case that protects the tablet from drops, water and scratches. Tablets are not fire proof, of course, but the cost of replacing a tablet is a fraction of the cost of a new laptop.


I suggest starting out by purchasing one tablet; use it, test it, and get the buy in from firefighters on its use within the department’s operations. If it works for your department, begin a department-wide roll out.

As we all know, technology changes rapidly so maintenance is key when incorporating tablets into your department. Scout out a member, preferably someone who is already a techie, to assist in set up and maintenance.

Here are some tips for incorporating tablets into your operations:

Maintain a clean home-page screen. Tablets allow for multiple app screens, so keep the default screen clean and only display the apps you use most often. All the other apps are best suited for the secondary pages. Multiple apps that are similar are best stored within folders to cut down on clutter. We call this type of organization #3amSimple.

The most-used apps such as your fire department mapping, pre-plans, and so on, are best positioned on the dock at the bottom of the screen. The dock remains constant no matter what page you are on. Speed is everything when you are dealing with emergencies so the more you can do to simplify firefighters’ access to information, the better.

For easy identification of a tablet if you are using more than one, create a background image that displays the apparatus number or name. A quick solution is to take a photo of the truck using the tablet itself and save that as the background.

Cloud storage is becoming more common and while this advancement is fantastic, it also has a few issues. Access to cloud-stored data is only possible with an Internet or cellphone data connection. Since Internet access is not always an option, cloud storage is not an ideal stand-alone system. As a back-up plan, import documents, checklists and pre-plans directly onto the device.

Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue chose the iPad with Wi-Fi and 3G mainly because the majority of our membership at the time was already very comfortable and familiar with the iPhone.

Our department members use the iPads every single day, and specifically two apps: I Am Responding and Canvas. I Am Responding (IAR) is a one-stop-shop tool that shows all our pre-plans, hydrants as well as the mobile firefighter response. This app is a great tool for better management and rapid access to key information.

Canvas is a terrific app that we use for all our equipment inventory and truck checks. The checklist format is simple, quick to use and, best of all, easy to update. When a truck-check form is updated and uploaded on one device, all the devices reflect the update and run off the most current checklist.

One of the greatest challenges we face with iPads (tablets) is keeping all our information updated to the latest version. You don’t want each tablet to have a different version of pre-plans. Apps that automatically sync with all devices are a real bonus.

The fire ground is a fast-paced environment that doesn’t allow for slow computers and busy binders. Tablets provide an abundance of information, versatility and speed that firefighters and fire-ground managers need at 3 a.m.

Arjuna George is the deputy fire chief of operations on Salt Spring Island, B.C., and has served on the department since 1997.   @AJGeorgefire

* Carousel photo from Flickr by Sean MacEntee

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