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Ambulance-mounted computers: A case for going rugged

The demands placed on electronics used in the field are heavy and computers and tablets need the fortitude to take that punishment

By Robert Avsec

I remember when the first desktop PCs appeared in around 1994; by mid-2002 we got our first exposure to using computing technology in the field when we introduced an electronic patient-care reporting system.

Many departments now have computers mounted in their vehicles or are looking at adding them. They can be a great tool, but the inside of an ambulance is a far cry from that of an office or coffee shop.

For laptops and tablets being used in the typical home or business, the attention-getters are processing speed, battery life, screen size and memory. These are important factors for sure, but in the rough and tumble world of fire and EMS you want to pay attention to certifications and ruggedness as well.

Under the hood

You’re looking for a laptop that’s not only rugged, but gets the work done as well, right? reviewed nine of the leading rugged laptops on the market for 2013. Based upon their data, this is my view of what a composite rugged laptop with a median price of $3,700 would have under the hood.

  • 8 hour battery life
  • 4 GB of RAM
  • 250-GB hard drive
  • 1024- x 768-pixels screen resolution
  • 3 USB ports
  • 1 DVD/CD drive
  • 1 modem (RJ-11)
  • 2 PCMCIA slots
  • 1 IEEE slot
  • 2 serial (RS-232) ports
  • 1 HDMI port
  • Bluetooth
  • Wi-Fi
  • Cellular
  • GPS
  • Camera

3 toughness certs

Even if the unit never leaves its docking station on the ambulance, we all know it’s going to get wet or dirty at least once. When looking for a rugged laptop or tablet, these are the benchmark certifications you’ll want to see.

  • The International Protection rating classifies protection against solid objects, like dust, and water. The first number after IP is the level of protection against solid particles; the second number pertains to the protection against liquids. The higher the numbers, the more protected the device.
  • MIL-STD 810 is the U.S. military standard used to test protection from environmental conditions including temperature, rain, humidity, fungus, salt fog, sand, explosives, leakage, acceleration, shock and vibration.
  • UL 1604 is the standard for the device being used in hazardous locations. This certification ensures electrical equipment won’t cause explosions because of the internal current or temperature reacting with gasses or particles.

Rugged tablets

The rugged tablet PC offers another option for departments that’s becoming increasingly popular. Rugged tablets differ from their rugged laptop cousins in a couple of ways.

First, rugged tablets use touch screen technology for data input and cursor movement so there’s no keyboard. Second, rugged tablets do not have a built-in media drive such as a CD or DVD drive. Rugged tablet PCs, like their consumer model siblings, are designed to be lightweight and carried in one hand.

Rugged tablets are professional-grade and constructed to withstand the multitude of environmental conditions. Those rugged features typically include:

  • Casings made of magnesium, which is dramatically stronger than ABS plastic, to protect against drops and bumping around outdoors or inside vehicles.
  • Shock-resistant hard drives mounted on rubber, springs or gel that absorbs vibration from moving vehicles and prevents shock-induced failure, the most common problem with mobile computers.
  • Double-soldered or bridged mother board connections.
  • Shatter-resistant glass display screens that also resist glare and reflection.
  • Extra insulation that protects working parts and the screen.
  • “Intrinsically safe” and D.O.T. Class 1 Division 2 designations guarantee that a rugged tablet computer can be used where hazardous substances or flammable gases are present.
  • 100 percent sealed casings that exclude moisture, dust and dirt, and extreme heat and cold.
  • Extra-long-life batteries.
  • A longer warranty, typically three years versus one.

Rugged tablets generally meet the same MIL-STD 810 and IP standards for durability as their laptop cousins. While some consumer tablets can be outfitted with protective cases, they still cannot match the durability and reliability of a certified rugged tablet.

For example, one of the middle-of-the-road rugged tablets on the market is certified to operate in temperatures ranging from -4 degrees F to 140 degrees F. In comparison, the iPad can become inoperable in heat as low as 95 degrees F and displays a warning screen that informs the user to cease use until the unit cools.

Cost of ownership

Fire and EMS departmental leaders will be attracted to consumer-grade tablets because of their lower initial purchase cost. How much of a difference are we talking?

  • Median price of 60 consumer-grade tablets: $349
  • Median price of 34 rugged tablets: $2,074

If you’re going to depend on a tablet for mission-critical job functions, the money spent on a rugged tablet is probably going to be well spent.

Here’s a useful calculator that can help you assess the total cost of ownership, not just the initial purchase price for the hardware.

Rugged tablets run full versions of Microsoft’s Windows operating system so everyone is able to use same software. What’s more, you are able to use all of those existing Windows applications on your mobile devices.

Sure you could build or install new iOS or Android apps on those devices, but there’s no guarantee that they will have all the functionality of their Windows counterparts.

Another deficiency for consumer tablets is that they have very few ways to connect to peripherals, networks and other devices. Rugged tablets offer a full array of expansion options including USB, ethernet and serial ports.

Tablet PCs can double as desktop machines, allowing users to work on a single device throughout the day. For example, fire inspectors can use their tablets to log information using a stylus and write up reports from the comfort of a full-sized monitor and keyboard.

As with most things in life, making the best decision for your department when purchasing portable computing equipment for the apparatus is not an easy task. The good news is that you’ve got more options, in a wider price range, than ever before.

About the author

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an active instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state, and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor of science degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master of science degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. Since his retirement in 2007, he has continued to be a life-long learner working in both the private and public sectors to further develop his “management sciences mechanic” credentials. He makes his home near Charleston, W.Va. Contact Robert