Mobile VPN Solves EMS Challenges

By  By Teresa von Fuchs — October 09, 2008

Radios have long been an effective means of communication between dispatchers and emergency first responders. Yet, administrators in Johnson County, KS, knew that a mobile computing solution could provide even more information to firefighters and paramedics. The goal? Empowering them to improve service to the county's population of more than 500,000.

"We originally wanted to deploy a computer solution to the trucks, because it gives the emergency services personnel a lot more info about the calls than they would otherwise have," says Dwight Purtle, Technical Services Manager for Johnson County Emergency Communications. "We wanted to offer better tools, such as mapping and routing, as well as access to additional resources such as information about buildings, so that personnel go into fires or emergency medical situations better informed about what they are going into."

Johnson County turned to Tritech, the maker of its computer-aided dispatch solution, when it went looking for a mobile data solution. Tritech's mobile application offers access to mission-critical information such as maps, routing, dispatch call notes, site history and more via mobile computers mounted in emergency vehicles. Tritech positions its mobile offering as giving field personnel "the ability to make on-scene decisions that enhance personnel safety and improve operational efficiency." 

While Johnson County was happy with the ease of use of the mobile data app and the rugged reliability of the Panasonic Toughbook CF29 mobile computers, it needed more wireless data bandwidth than was available on its DataTAC wireless point-to-point data network to properly run the solution. In North America, DataTAC is typically deployed in the 800 MHz band and can provide better in-building coverage than some higher frequency networks. At the same time, it runs at speeds up to 19.2 kbit/s, which is not sufficient to handle most of the wireless data applications available today.

Purtle explains: "Though the DataTAC system was very reliable, it didn't have enough bandwidth for the applications we needed to run. When we got more than about 15 fire trucks or ambulances on the system, it got so slow it was no longer usable."

Johnson County decided to look into using cellular networks to power its solution. Even with Sprint's international headquarters located in Johnson County, the department did a competitive search before deciding to go with Sprint's EV-DO Aircards. While the Aircards promised the necessary bandwidth, Purtle says, "With the Aircards we knew we'd need some additional security."

That's when Johnson County began talking to NetMotion Wireless.

"Along with the security features, we also wanted something that would allow us to switch back and forth between Wi-Fi in the stations and Aircards on the road," says Purtle. "NetMotion's VPN solution provides us with all of that, as well as application persistence, which is a very important feature for us. Should there be a momentary lapse in service, the applications don't know that. [This way] users don't have to reboot or re-log in. That's been extremely helpful to us."

NetMotion Wireless's Mobility XE promises organizations like Johnson County an enhanced layer of security, as well as maintaining and optimizing connections to applications as users move in and out of wireless coverage areas and across various cellular networks.

"In Johnson County's high-demand environment, it's essential that their emergency operations have access to reliable connections and the most bandwidth for any given situation," says Pam Cory, VP of Marketing for NetMotion Wireless. "Our Mobile VPN increases productivity, giving Johnson County's emergency services more reliable data and application connections across their entire area of coverage."

Since deploying the solution with 150 licenses in 2006, Johnson County Emergency Communications department has expanded its deployment to more than 275 licenses, including procuring some for employees in other county departments who had heard about the success of the mobile solution.

Though Purtle says that in his line of work it's difficult to cite ROI numbers, he confirms that the solution has had "real" benefits for the department.

For example, emergency crews now have access to more than 1,200 fire preplans on the mobile computers. When the fire department gets a call, the team can bring up information about the site while they're in transit, including the locations of critical switches, connections and exits.

Previously, this information was kept in oftentimes out-of-date notebooks in the trucks, and each team only had info for its own response area. Now, all teams have access to this level of detail about the whole county.

The new layer of security also allows dispatchers to share much more information about a call with responders in the field. Patient privacy issues keep communications over the radio to a minimum. Now, crews in the field have access to all the same patient information as dispatch has. Purtle says crews are very enthusiastic about all the new informational elements of the solution.

The department is also seeing improvements in the accuracy of reporting response times to calls. "There are times when the radio is so busy, people can't get through to notify us that they've arrived on site." says Purtle. "That makes our response-time statistics look bad. But now it doesn't matter how busy the radio is, crews can just push a button when they arrive and the response time is captured accurately. It's important for us to have accurate information about how we're doing with regards to response times."

Along the lines of more accurate response times, the solution's vehicle-tracking component lets dispatchers be confident that they are sending the vehicles that are closest to the scene. "Since we have more accurate information about where our vehicles are at any given time, we can be more confident that we are actually sending the resource that can get there most quickly," says Purtle.

Once the bandwidth issues were worked out, "the solution," concludes Purtle, "quickly became mission critical." What's a better return than increased confidence, accuracy and access to information, especially when those three tools are put to use in emergencies?


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