Got Apps? Cell phone applications can aid first responders

FireRescue magazine's Technical Rescue Web column
There's an App for That: New cell phone applications can aid first responders on the emergency scene
By Harold Schapelhouman

Imagine the following scenarios:
1) A disaster has struck your community and, as a rescuer, you need some basic reference data to establish an area-wide, methodical, geographic search for survivors and trapped victims; or

2) You’re responding to an overturned hybrid vehicle with victims pinned. You need to extricate the victims, but you’re unsure of safe, proper cutting points; or

3) A hazmat incident has occurred in which the chemicals are marked, but you want to reference the proper course of action and evacuation distances.

To some degree, all of these situations occur multiple times each year across the nation. Now, there’s a new twist developing in how to effectively respond to them and it’s found in the form of a handheld, portable communications device, or cellular phone, that can utilize mobile applications or programs in the rapidly growing market known as the “mobile space.”

Virtual Zippo?
Many new devices allow the user to extend themselves well beyond standard phone communications, e-mail or text messaging and take advantage of thousands of either free or inexpensive downloadable applications or “apps” that range from the simple to the more complex.

Those applications have grown from the standard day planner or phone book applications found on most devices to include literally thousands of novel applications, such as the virtual Zippo lighter that can be held up at concerts, to the tipulator, which calculates how much to tip your server at a restaurant based upon the bill, service and number of people in your party.

Apple & Google
The Apple App Store has apps for news, music, entertainment, cooking, current events, student life, the great outdoors, working out, photography, finance, weather, mobile navigation, medical information and the job market, to name a few. More than 100,000 applications are currently available on Apple’s site for its iPhone and iPod touch devices, with the expectation that by the end of 2010, there will be 300,000 applications, as more than 125,000 registered software designers compete in a rapidly growing marketplace.

After first unveiling the iPhone in 2007 and opening the App Store in 2008, Apple announced that 3 billion apps have been downloaded from the App Store, of which 25 percent were free.

Coming in right behind Apple is Google’s Android mobile software, which runs on about a dozen devices made by Motorola, Samsung and HTC. The software currently offers more than 12,000 applications and is anticipated to grow to 150,000 applications by the end of 2010.

The recently introduced “Nexus One” device created by Google and HTC is expected to go head to head against the iPhone and continue to push the boundaries of mobile space.

Fire Service Apps
More and more applications that directly benefit the fire and rescue services are making their way to the marketplace and could revolutionize how we reference mobile data in the field now and in the very near future. The challenge for the fire and rescue community will be to demand a level of reliability and simplicity for immediate use of beneficial, technical applications that will directly affect how well we perform our jobs.

The Google Earth application, which is available on the iPhone, was what finally got me to leave my faithful roller-ball Blackberry device. The ability to use a mobile device to obtain a 360-degree aerial perspective and therefore improve my situational awareness on scene is invaluable, especially when considering large-scale disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or the World Trade Center, or strategic and tactical decisions at a local structure fire or technical event.

Other applications show you where to cut or disable certain types of vehicles for extrications. You can also obtain the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Transportation Guide application for hazardous materials events, which is very easy to use and puts a lot of crucial information at your fingertips.

Cellular phones have been accepted as useful tools for some time now as their capabilities expanded to include e-mail or text messaging. The applications that allow these portable devices to become both a tool and a reference resource for field commanders or personnel are highly promising and, quite honestly, exciting.

That said, if you search the Web for “fire apps” these days, you’re bound to find that the majority of them are still related to the entry-level firefighter job-application market rather than apps for your handheld device, but expect that to change as niche markets develop, and acceptance, understanding and value of the possibilities become more common.

Harold Schapelhouman is a 28-year veteran firefighter with the Menlo Park (Calif.) Fire Protection District. At the start of 2007, he became the first internally selected fire chief in 21 years for his organization. Previously, he was the division chief in charge of special operations, which includes all district specialized preparedness efforts, the local and state water rescue program, and the local, state and National Urban Search and Rescue Program (USAR).

Schapelhouman was the task force leader in charge of California Task Force 3, one of the eight California USAR teams and one of the 28 federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS/FEMA) teams.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by cory on March 28, 2010 at 11:53am
i use WISER it is a hazmat program that incorporates the orange response guide with google earth to map all the scenarios and what needs to be done with that chemical
Comment by Peter John Lujan on March 18, 2010 at 5:53am
The best one I love to use alot is "911 Toolkit" Check that one out! There's also "Fire Pump Calculator" and "Rescue Knots". There is also the EMS Field Guide.
Comment by Michael Seneco on March 17, 2010 at 8:21pm
For Blackberry users, I find bbscanner very useful., It streams feeds from and other sources and has most FD's and PD"s in the US available on it.
Comment by Chris Adams on March 17, 2010 at 5:10pm
Would like to know this list also , one for Iphone and one for balckberry or other smart phones. I have a blackberry and love it and would use these apps if there were any I knew about.
Comment by w1c237 on March 17, 2010 at 4:37pm
A list of android apps would be awesome!
Comment by Rockland USA on March 17, 2010 at 3:41pm
So basically we have an article about Fire Service Apps, but the only app mentioned in Google Earth and virtual Zippo lighter? I would have thought that there would be a clickable list of apps with screens directly related to fire service situations. Plenty of background information, but no apps.
Comment by Pascal Marchand on March 17, 2010 at 3:38pm
Very good post, i totaly agree. Personally I use 911 tool kit on my IPhone. IT's complete and convinient. I know there's also fire pump calculator available on the IPhone.
Comment by Kyle Tischler on March 17, 2010 at 2:19pm
Does anyone know of any good fire service apps for a Blackberry?
Comment by Michael Rocke on March 17, 2010 at 2:18pm
Just using Google Maps, with an app called HERIAM on my droid, I can pinpoint my location, get a satellite image, and determine evacuation distances down to 100ft. NICE!!!
Comment by Peter Lupkowski on March 17, 2010 at 1:46pm
Thanks for the sharing and insight. I expect that we will be dependent on many things in the future that we have never even thought of yet...

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