Six years ago, the only communication tools available to Montgomery County, Md., public safety officers were radios, pens and paper. Although radio communication is quick, it is not conducive to summarizing the details of an emergency for responders arriving at the scene. Paper records also can be less accurate and more time consuming.

In the last few years, Montgomery County's public safety agencies have begun using about 1,500 Panasonic Toughbook computers, which have helped organize, store and disseminate emergency data to every first responder. For the police department, mounted notebooks have turned cruisers into mobile offices in which officers can check e-mail and create and submit reports. Their dispatch software uses GPS to determine the location of other emergency personnel, improving awareness of the situation during incident responses.

The Department of Fire Rescue Services uses the ruggedized computers with mobile broadband as the hub of its incident command center. At fires, commanders use the laptops to communicate with the dispatch center, which sends messages about when and where additional engines are en route. Commanders can then direct personnel quickly.

Because all the first responders are using computers, they can coordinate better because they have highly secure access to more information. In the past, radios could not be a primary mode of communication in some situations because of privacy concerns, which resulted in a disjointed response. Now, if a fire official arrives on scene first and sees that it is not secure, he or she can use the laptop to relay the details and immediately request assistance from law enforcement.

Project: Computers for first responders
Jurisdiction: Montgomery County, Md.
Agencies: Police and Fire Rescue Services
Vendor: Secaucus, N.J.-based Panasonic
Date began: Police 2003, Fire Rescue Services 2006