How are First Responder Devices Built? The Tech Inside the Tools
By Scott Ellis
April 30, 2019
By Scott Ellis
April 30, 2019
From body cams to ruggedized laptops, first responder devices come in a variety of forms to serve a host of functions.
Because there are so many types of connected things, it can be challenging to isolate the key components of a particular device. But identifying those elements is an essential step toward choosing first responder devices that can provide the security and reliability you need for mission critical work.
The device’s function will lead you to some of its main components. These elements need to be of the highest quality and dependability or your device suddenly goes from asset to operational liability.
Let’s take a look at several connected devices on the first responder market and identify their key components:
Smartphone and tablets are essential pieces of equipment for a first responder. Because they’re miniature computers, they contain similar hardware components, such as processors and memory, which are certainly items that should be vetted for security and dependability.
Other key components could include the GPS chipset, the camera, and the touchscreen, depending on what role the device plays during incident response situations.
Body and dash cameras are widely used by police officers, while some fire departments are adopting helmet cams for firefighters. Lightweight cameras are the most popular, but make sure your device has enough armor to help it withstand impact, high and low temperatures, water, and other environmental challenges.
Key components in these devices relate to their imaging capabilities—lenses, sensors, and image processors. Look for high-quality camera components that can function well in low-light situations.
Pulling on a shirt that automatically monitors your vital signs might sound futuristic, but it’s a technology that’s gaining ground among first responders. Smart shirts and vests can keep track of the wearer’s heart rate, body temperature, respiration rate, and more.
The essential components in these products include the sensors themselves: how effective are they? Do they deliver data continuously, or are there interruptions? Can they withstand water, temperature changes, and body movements?
Wearable sensors can attach to clothing or equipment and monitor temperature, oxygen, carbon dioxide, radiation, levels of combustible gases, and more. While many products on the market have yet to be tested for first responder use, some are starting to see adoption.
With these devices, the sensors themselves are key components and should be evaluated for effectiveness, size, and ease of incorporation into existing uniforms or ease of use for patient care.
Carried by firefighters, the PASS device sounds an alert to notify others in a burning building that the firefighter is in distress. Connected PASS devices can also notify dispatchers outside the building and send back location information.
Key components of a PASS device include the motion sensor (usually an accelerometer or ball bearing) and the alarm.
Typically mounted to the roof of police vehicles, automated license plate readers (ALPRs) use computer-controlled cameras to read license plates and compare them against lists of vehicles reported for various infractions. ALPR devices have up to four cameras on board and send data to a cloud-based collection center.
The cameras are key components of ALPR systems, as are the GPS receiver and antenna.
Providing a portable connection point, mobile wireless routers and gateways turn first responder vehicles into information hubs. They provide a secure connection to the enterprise network for all other mobile devices such as cameras, sensors, and smartphones.
The controller chip is an essential component of any wireless router, as are the RAM and ROM memory chips.
Once you’re familiar with your device and its inner workings, it’s time to vet the individual components that drive it.
An element that’s essential to every connected device is the data card or embedded cellular module. Some Internet of Things (IoT) devices use removable data cards, which work the same way a USB drive does—just plug it in and go.
These modules can easily connect to existing hardware and deliver high data speeds, ranking them as higher category LTE devices and making them ideal for public safety routers and gateways.
Most mobile and wearable devices use embedded modules because their connections are solid and immovable, resilient to vibration, heat, corrosion, and dust. Embedded modules are also smaller than standard data cards, making them a better fit for end-devices.
Ruggedness is a subjective term, and only you know the conditions your devices need to withstand. One way you can evaluate a device’s readiness for use in the field is by asking about the testing it’s been through prior to entering the market.
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.
If your device claims to be ultra-rugged, ask your solutions provider if it has passed MIL-STD-810 testing.
Another resource for information on product ruggedness is the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, a federal U.S. entity that helps to develop, test, and enhance technology tools for first responders.
All FirstNet products must undergo intensive testing, particularly with regards to security and network stability. AT&T, along with the First Responder Network Authority Device Team, is at work to review products prior to use on the network.
“The FirstNet Device Approval Program is built upon AT&T’s industry-leading, standards-based wireless device testing and certification program,” writes Joe Martinet, director of devices at the First Responder Network Authority.
It’s a multi-level testing process that vets first responder devices and gateways for safety and reliability. Make sure your device is on the list of certified products.
Check to see any certifications earned by your device’s data card or cellular module manufacturer, especially from The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which has developed global standards for business operations, management systems, legal requirements, and more.
Also, look for manufacturers that are compliant with the European Union’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), adopted in 2003.
The exploding IoT market contains a huge range of products, widely varying in quality and security. Generally, products from new, untried companies should be viewed with caution. Instead, look for components produced by established companies that have solid reputations.
Look closely at where the component is manufactured—are there any security concerns related to technology emerging from that region?
Does the company have a plan in place to cope with loss of key components from a primary manufacturing facility in case of a trade war or other unforeseen restrictions?
What’s inside your first responder device matters. Ask your service provider for in-depth information about component origin, reliability, certification, and security.
When you’re transmitting sensitive information in an emergency situation, you’ll be glad you took time to ensure that your device is dependable, inside and out.