When fire broke out at a factory in Kidderminster, England, the locals described the scene as “absolute chaos.”
The reference referred to the explosions they heard and the billowing smoke overhead.
Residents might have used the same words to describe the scene. One filled with apparatus and firefighters from many departments, ambulances and paramedics, air ambulances and trauma doctors, police vehicles and police officers.
While onlookers described this incident as “something you’d see in the movies,” the scene of any large industrial fire can look similar. And every chaotic environment challenges incident commanders to make sense of personnel, apparatus and equipment to coordinate response.
Here, communication is key to tactical success, but that becomes chaotic when three to 300 resources show up to battle a large fire.
“Most organizations assign a tactical radio frequency at incidents where multiple units are assigned,” says Tablet Command CEO Van Riviere. “There’s a frequency dedicated to the incident and all communications take place there. Some communications occur in person as people arrive. But once responders are deployed and engaged in tactical activities, everyone communicates over the radio.”
Though this sounds like a workable solution, Riviere says it’s often anything but. He explains, “Competition for radio traffic and having the radio bandwidth to allow clear communication is always a challenge at large incidents.”
Andy Bozzo, a fire captain with the Contra Costa Fire Protection District and founder of Tablet Command, knew there had to be a better way; one that reduced radio traffic and enhanced responder safety. This belief sparked a desire to develop a tool that helped incident commanders gain control of chaotic scenes.
One day as Bozzo played “Words with Friends” on his iPad, he had an epiphany. What if incident commanders had a similar technology that allowed them to take a tile representing personnel or apparatus and slide it into position to support incident commanders at the fire scene?
The inspiration led him to create Tablet Command, which uses live vehicle GPS tracking to monitor where fire equipment and personnel are in real time. Bozzo says it shows “real-time tactical placement of apparatus referenced against maps showing a fire’s latest progression, along with other data on hotspots and infrared views.” The tool gives incident command a bird’s-eye view of their engines on an updated fire incident map.
“When all hell is breaking loose, it creates a communication fog and visualization fog,” Bozzo said in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle. “[Tablet Command helps] clear the fog so you have a clear view of what you’re approaching. You can see vital information to take action and make decisions.”
The tool works well at any type of fire, including those in industrial settings. Riviere explains industrial fire brigades can use the tool to populate resources on a map as other responders arrive, manage those resources, and employ an incident command system.
“Later, they can transfer incident command through Tablet Command,” he says.
What is Tablet Command?
Tablet Command is based in San Rafael, California. To date, the company has raised $2.1 million in capital and has annual sales of $1.6 million, projected to grow 60% annually. Over 125 fire departments across the U.S. deploy the tool, including multiple agencies in the counties of San Francisco, Marin, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Sonoma, Riviere says.
He notes Tablet Command’s use has exploded because, unlike a lot of revolutionary tools introduced for fire service, Bozzo developed the tool for firefighters. He explains, “There are companies building some very innovative solutions, but they do not recognize that fire service personnel have limited ability to interact with technology at a massive fire or mass casualty incident.”
At these scenes, personnel need access to concise information that’s easily consumed and acted upon, he says.
“We built Tablet Command around these concepts,” he adds. “We have a simple, intuitive application for responders to use in the field.”
Riviere says it’s a far cry from the whiteboard and tactical worksheets he once used on scene, which he says is “still the standard in many agencies for managing resources.”
The Tablet Command user interface integrates with local 911 systems. “We get assigned resources in real time, receive location data and call type,” he says. “With Tablet Command, I do not need to transcribe information from the radio. It’s already presented in a way I can interact with. This allows me to be more attentive to what’s going on at the scene and less focused on administrative roles.”
How Tablet Command Works
Most fire departments mount an iPad or rugged computer in their fire apparatus next to where the captain sits. Departments can outfit this iPad with Tablet Command, which also runs on a web browser and on phones when users download the app.
Only authenticated users with a unique username and password can access Tablet Command to see dispatch data and incident command actions as the captain assigns resources to specific tasks. “We’ve taken strict measures in terms of authentication to ensure sensitive data is not accessible to the public,” he says.
The software simplifies incident management by giving commanders “the ability to manage resources whether or not they remain connected to the Internet,” he says. “They can manage resources on a device when not connected to the Internet and when they reconnect the data gets loaded into the cloud and becomes visible to other users.”
When all responders have access to this tool, it simplifies communication because every responder can see the incident commander’s actions in real time. “That reduces radio traffic, enhances situational awareness, and gives everyone access to information they never had in the past,” he says.
He adds, “Users can see what’s going on at the incident command level. They also can see the location of other first responders en route and head to their assigned position as they arrive.”
Riviere cites the City of Denver as an excellent example of the tool in action. The city has 46 tablets and 650 mobile tablet command users using the phone app. “Every one of these users can see what’s going on at an incident,” he says.
Tablet Command also speeds up the notification process. Riviere explains, when a call comes in, the system dispatches notifications immediately and it reaches key personnel 30-45 seconds before the ring down system activates the fire department.
“It gets us out the door faster, giving firefighters a heads up to what we’re going to,” Bozzo explains. “It enhances our safety. It’s like going into battle and knowing how the enemy is dressed, how they are armed, and positioned ahead of time, before engaging.”
Tablet Command also allows industrial users and private companies to access information as part of fire service agreements. Doing so allows these facilities to set up incident command, make appropriate deployment decisions, and turn over command as local first responders arrive.
“When local fire and EMS arrive, they will assume management of the incident and Tablet Command supports that transition,” he says.
All these information transfers happen seamlessly via cloud infrastructure that connects devices. The cloud receives the data, then sends it back to devices at the user level.
“While Internet connectivity is needed, no interaction is required to refresh the data or update it on people’s devices. Users just tap on the incident, and they can see everything that’s happening within it,” he says.
The Benefits of Tablet Command
Using Tablet Command reduces task saturation in large incidents, adds Riviere.
Task saturation results when the brain takes in the maximum amount of stimulation it can handle, yet more and more information is coming in. When the brain gets completely saturated with task demands, it simply cannot process any more information, he says.
“There’s a point when you can only consume and act on a limited amount of information,” he explains. “Our product helps reduce task saturation by providing people with meaningful information that they can interact with appropriately and in a timely manner.”
He explains before Tablet Command, everyone got dispatched to an incident and the incident commander put all information transmitted to him on a whiteboard for others to see.
“Tablet Command eliminates that transcription process,” he says. “We give them information about who has arrived, who is still on the road, how many people are coming, and who has specific skills that are relevant for that emergency,” he says.
With this information in hand, incident commanders can act on these resources.
But the biggest benefit is enhanced situational awareness that can save lives, he adds.
Riviere says that the 2018 Carr Fire near Redding, California, offers a prime example of how the tool saves lives. The Carr Fire spawned its own fire tornado—a vortex of rising and spinning hot gases, smoke and flames. The fire tornado reached 17,000 feet above the Earth and was traveling at a speed of 143 miles per hour when a Marin County fire engine got separated from a multi-unit strike team after turning down the wrong road.
When the sky went black, they radioed their battalion chief, saying they didn’t know how to get out. The battalion chief could see their location on Tablet Command and noticed a safety zone ahead. He directed them to the safety zone 1.5 miles away, saving four lives.
Tablet Command provides training to customers as part of the onboarding process. The company even builds incident command templates or tactical worksheets that correspond to specific emergencies.
For instance, with a tank farm fire, agencies set policies that dictate assignments and priorities as officials arrive. “We built a template into Tablet Command that reflects that organization’s standard operating guidelines,” Riviere says. “We don’t ask them to conform to a digital solution that we built. We build the digital solution to their needs.”
Training also puts incident commanders through a crawl, walk, run experience using the tool. “We build incidents and have them manage those incidents in a classroom environment where there’s no pressure and no one’s life hangs in the balance.”
Tablet Command also gives users the ability to develop simulations that can be sent to the tablet to provide ongoing or refresher training to personnel.
“It’s not unusual for us to go back to customers on an annual or semi-annual basis to do additional training,” he adds. “We provide training during initial deployment, and we provide ongoing training support.”
Setting Up an Account
Tablet Command can accommodate one to thousands of personnel in a single system.
Riviere notes that in California, every fire department in San Bernardino County—the largest county geographically in the United States—uses Tablet Command. “This county is 24,000 miles,” Riviere says. “Every agency in San Bernardino County uses our solution on a single account. This means every regional communication center and every first responder sees everything.”
Tablet Command implemented automatic vehicle or apparatus location in 2021, allowing customers that opt in to see the location of every vehicle in neighboring agencies. The company also is building an incident sharing feature which will allow people to share incident information across jurisdictional boundaries, Riviere says.
Tablet Command costs an average of $500 per user per year depending on the capabilities selected, he adds.
For more information on tablet command visit https://www.tabletcommand.com/