There s no doubt the police environment challenges equipment, and because cops have little tolerance for gear that lets them down, it makes sense that one of the most common trends in police computing is the so-called ruggedized computer. But this is one of those areas where you must assess your needs carefully and realize not all rugged computers are created equal. If a department gets it right, a mobile computer system can act as a force multiplier and help a good officer become a great officer. If a department gets it wrong, mobile computers can be a source of great frustration.
When you start shopping for mobile computers, one of the first things you ll notice is a huge price difference between units featured in Sunday newspaper ads through office-supply stores and those specifically designed for rugged mobile environments. As a very general rule of thumb, you can plan on paying about three times as much for a ruggedized computer with comparable tech features. Add to that the installation fees to make the unit operational in a patrol car. So, what do you get for that extra money, and how do you figure out what you need? Here are some tips to help you make one of the most important equipment decisions any department will face.
1. What s the Job?
This one is incredibly important because if you don t know what you re trying to accomplish, you can t determine the proper tool for the job. I can t overemphasize this point: You must thoroughly examine what you're trying to do and then shop for the tool to accomplish that job. To do otherwise would be like asking for a wrench without specifying the size.
One size doesn t fit all when it comes to rugged mobile computers. At a minimum, you must determine ahead of time what you re trying to achieve by putting a computer in the car. Are you connecting to a computer aided dispatch (CAD) system? Will officers ever take the unit out of the car with them, or will it be permanently mounted? Will you mount it in the trunk or in the passenger compartment? Does the unit need built-in wireless or GPS capability?
If this seems a little daunting and you don t know where to begin, remember that you don t have to reinvent the wheel. Agencies around the country are already using mobile computers, so you just need to network with those who have similar operational needs. Don t forget to ask what they would do differently because now they have the benefit of an installed user base. By the way, make sure you ask a few users, not just the person responsible for the project that has a vested interest in making it shine.
2. What s the Assignment?
Even within one agency, you may find you have jobs so different that you must obtain different computer models. A unit that works fine in a car may not be suitable for a boat, for instance. And what about officers who aren t assigned to a car? Do you want them to have computers with connectivity? If so, you must plan on some solutions other than a full-sized, wired-in computer.
The great news is that there are some incredible units now available in a variety of form-factors, and it s possible to equip just about every assignment with a ruggedized unit to meet specialized needs. Think about that for a minute an officer assigned to a bike or a horse could have the same communication and inquiry capability as an officer assigned to a patrol car
3. What s the Environment?
Officers work in incredibly diverse environments, and your situation will be a big factor in your equipment selection. Example: Do your officers routinely wear gloves when they work? If you plan on deploying a touch-screen unit in the vehicle (usually a plus), you ll probably need a special type of display because some screens don t respond to touches from gloved fingers.
And while we re on the subject of gloves, remember that electronics don t like temperature extremes. If you re in an area that routinely drops to 0 degrees F or below, you need a computer with a hard drive capable of starting up in these conditions. Hard drives spin a very small platter at thousands of times per minute with extremely tight tolerances a pretty tall order in sub-freezing conditions. This is another area where you can learn a lot from agencies that operate in conditions similar to yours.
4. Just What is Rugged?
It may surprise you to learn that there isn t a specific standard for a rugged computer. Like most things in life, you must be an educated buyer. In a very general industry sense, rugged computers can operate under extreme vibrations, temperatures, moisture (coffee) and particles (crumbs).
You ll also hear references to military-spec standards, but read the fine print carefully and ask pointed questions. Just because a manufacturer uses the term doesn t necessarily make it so. Mil-spec standards involve a whole list of conditions and, by meeting just one of those (e.g., operating at 10,000 feet above sea level), a manufacturer can say it made the computer to mil spec. Plus, there s a difference between designed to meet mil spec and meets mil spec.
Regardless of marketing claims, remember that your best information will probably come from an agency like yours that has already put units in the field under conditions that replicate your needs. Ask about their failure or downtime rate, vendor satisfaction and what they would do differently if they could.
5. What s a Nit?
Nits are a measure of computer-screen brightness, something like the wattage of a light bulb. The definition doesn t really matter, but brightness does, and the nit rating provides one method of comparison.
Here s what you really need to know: Regardless of the brightness rating, look at the screen under real-world conditions. Don t sit in an office environment and go through a demo. You want a screen that s bright enough to be readable in the strongest daylight.
I know of one agency that bought a number of computer units and then found that the brightness wasn t sufficient for daytime patrol car use. So much money had been spent that they couldn t afford to replace the units, so they opted to put tint on the windows to reduce the lighting level in the car not the best solution.
One more lighting consideration: Just as you want a unit you can read in the daylight, you must provide your officers with a unit able to quickly dim to nothing at night for operational and safety reasons. Again, look at the unit under real-world conditions.
6. Does Size Matter?
Space constraints inside a car affect the computer s size, and there s another very important factor that some agencies forget: airbags. If you choose a unit that s too big or mount it in the wrong place, you ll likely cause serious injury to an officer during an airbag deployment.
In general, you want the biggest display you can get but still safely mount between the airbag deployment zones. A bigger and brighter display means officers can assimilate the information more quickly and spend more time looking around them instead of at the screen an important factor in police work.
7. Docking the Box
Computers can be mounted in the trunk, under the seat or in the passenger compartment. Many departments have opted to use a rugged laptop they can dock so officers can quickly remove the unit from the car and take it with them to write reports or make inquiries away from the car. Docking requires a special install that will ensure the connections of the computer perfectly match up with the corresponding connections in the car.
There are two important things to remember if you are thinking about using a docking approach. First, repeatedly docking and undocking electronic components can break or bend fragile connections and pins if the docking mechanism isn t well designed and sufficiently robust to ensure alignment. And second, many officers don t care for the idea of undocking a computer and carrying it with them when they re out of the car. It s extra gear, and they can t quickly toss it aside.
Take a close look at how your officers operate and enlist the aid of a small user group to make sure you get it right before you roll out computers to the entire fleet.
8. Power Considerations
Like space, power is at a premium in a patrol car. Most agencies (especially those in cold environments) find there just isn t enough juice in a 12v system to keep all the special patrol equipment fully powered. This proves critical when you re dealing with power-sensitive computers. A voltage drop or surge can damage a computer or cause in-progress work to be lost. Almost as bad, officers absolutely hate having to reboot or continually log on to a unit due to electrical problems.
The best way to avoid trouble is to be as energy efficient with equipment as possible that means all the equipment, not just the computers. I know of some agencies that have switched their entire fleet to power-efficient LED lightbars before installing mobile computers. The lightbar is one of the biggest drains on a car s power system, so, if you want to get the amperage demand down, look here first.
Also, make sure your computers have power management capabilities that activate a normal shutdown sequence if voltage drops below a preset level. This will significantly reduce the chance of lost or corrupted files.
9. Processors, RAM & Hard Drives
When it comes to processor speed and memory, the old adage is you can t be too fast or have too much. The reality: All of the current offerings will provide you with sufficient processor speed because most of the demands of police computing are just not that processor intensive.
However, the type of processor can make a difference, especially if you anticipate using battery power. The new mobile Intel Centrino chips (usually called Core Two Duo or Single) are very energy efficient compared to their predecessors. They make a little bit of battery power go a long way. Almost as important, they generate less heat, an important dynamic in mobile computing.
Sufficient RAM (random access memory) is very important to multi-tasking capabilities. If you anticipate officers doing two or three programs at a time, you must provide enough RAM to support these functions. If your unit must run mobile CAD software for calls, control an in-car video camera and run a license plate reader in the background, for example, you ll need ample memory.
With today s memory-hungry operating systems, it makes sense to have 1 GB or more in your mobile computers. You can get by with less, but you ll have fewer problems if you have more than the minimum required.
When it comes to hard drives, make sure you have enough room to hold the requisite programs and provide for anticipated storage needs. If you re doing any file storage on the machine itself, you ll probably want at least 60GB of space.
Another consideration: Hard drives are the most common source of failure in mobile computing. This is where rugged computers really must go the extra mile to ensure functionality. Carefully check out this area with potential vendors. Ask them if they use specially designed drives and how they insulate the drive from shock, vibration, temperature extremes, etc.
In the old days, mobile data terminals sent and received data using CDPD (cellular digital packet data). These days, there are multiple options cellular broadband, hot spots, radio, mesh, etc. Depending on your wireless method, you may be able to get the ability built into the mobile computer. This can save you some money and may prove more effective than adding it to an existing unit.
The downside: Integrated wireless is something that isn t easily changed to a different mode, so make sure you ve done your homework before ordering a computer with a specific type of integrated wireless. This is a complex subject that merits an article in itself, but suffice it to say you must figure out what gives you the most effective and reliable coverage at a cost you can afford.
Check out the resources listed in Rugged Computer Vendors . Some great choices designed to reliably help cops get the job done are available. And again, remember: Check with other agencies that have similar needs. They can be your best resource.
Tips For Trainers
When implementing training for new mobile computers, remember that an officer s work environment is in the car, not the building. Many departments make the mistake of providing training at a desktop PC and then wonder why officers have trouble transferring those skills to effective operation in the car.
Try this technique and you ll find your officers pick up on the skills much more quickly: Use a projector to display the computer s screen on the side of a light-colored building. Have your officers line up in their cars in front of the building like they re at a drive-in movie. Have your trainer use a PA system in the car near the projected image and walk the officers through the training. One or two assistants (depending on the number of officers involved in the training) can walk back and forth among the parked cars answering questions and making sure everybody s keeping up.
Of course, this type of approach requires early morning or night training, something some vendors are reluctant to do. If you rely on your vendor (as opposed to in-house trainers), make sure they re willing to sign up for this effort when you re negotiating the purchase details. They ll be much more willing to oblige at that stage of the relationship.
Rugged Computer Vendors:
Amrel - www.amrel.com
Data911 - www.data911.com
DATALUX - www.datalux.com
Duratab - www.duratabusa.com
GETAC - www.getac.com
General Dynamics - www.gd-itronix.com
Hewlett Packard - www.hp.com
Motorola - www.motorola.com
Panasonic - www.panasonic.com
RoboVu LLC - www.robovu.com
Trimble - www.trimble.com/rugged
Xplore Technologies - www.xploretech.com
Dale Stockton is the editor of Law Officer.