First responders work in a wide range of environments—inside burning buildings, on the ground in frigid conditions, and in torrential downpours. Just as their gear protects them from the elements, their devices need to be rugged enough to withstand wind, water, and extreme temperatures. FirstNet architects predict the network’s availability will be 99.99 percent—far more reliable than commercial cellular networks. But even with exceptional network availability, functionality can break down at the device level. The weakest link in the chain determines the robustness of the whole, so it’s critical to outfit your FirstNet device with the best possible elements to prevent failure at mission critical moments.
While many devices claim to be “rugged,” first responders need what are termed ultra-rugged devices, designed to handle the toughest conditions. Commonly used by military personnel, these devices are built to handle extreme temperatures, rough treatment, vibrations, exposure to liquids, and even explosives. Most include heavy-duty outer shells with sealed edges to protect all surfaces against water damage or infiltration. Touchscreens need to be glove-friendly and fortified against the elements.
It’s important to make sure the device’s outer casing is weather and temperature resistant, but also consider its internal parts. Instead of a mechanical hard drive, ruggedized laptops often include a solid state drive (SSD), which uses flash memory for data storage. For smaller devices, the cellular module is an essential piece of the puzzle—if it stops functioning because of external conditions such as extreme temperatures, the device will fail at a critical moment. Make sure you choose a manufacturer that’s experienced with creating ruggedized internal components such as cellular modules, cards and chips. Telit has created a number of rugged cellular modules for use in the automotive sector and has a strong reputation for delivering rugged and reliable technology.
As of now, there is no official ruggedness testing as part of the FirstNet certification process for new devices. To achieve success in this market, however, it makes sense to design FirstNet products for semi- or ultra-ruggedness, depending on their intended use, and create an in-house testing sequence to ensure that they’re operating as expected. Ultra-ruggedness testing should adhere to MIL-STD-810, a series of performance guidelines designed by the U.S. military to ensure resiliency. MIL-STD-810 is the gold standard for determining ruggedness, and the testing process observes a device’s response to a wide range of conditions and situations in 24 categories, including low pressure, extreme temperatures, fog, rain, dust, and more.
The time and cost of environmental testing is well spent because first responders need to be assured of a product’s toughness, says Richard Mirgon, vice president of the FirstNet Association. “The nice thing about first responders is that they’re loyal to good products,” Mirgon says. “They won’t abandon a good product just because something new and fancy comes on the market.”