Hand-held Disaster Relief

This rugged PC makes field work feel like a desk job.

THE place is a desolate, stinking, swampland speckled with the remains of a past civilization. Upended cars and rooftops serve as makeshift perches for birds who keep constant focus on an approaching alligator. Countless remnants of the civilization that once called this place home poke up through the infested waters, making one wonder what apocalyptic event caused this Atlantis to sink below the water. It was a hurricane named Katrina and the city was . . . New Orleans.

Chances are, if you were a Marine during the recovery effort, you were witness to scenes similar to this one as it played out all over affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. There was no conventional power source to speak of and little stable ground for a proper base of operations. Time was of the essence, and mobility was a premium. In this environment, equipment had to perform the role of asset, not liability. One tool used by the Marines was Tripod Data Systems' ReconTM, a rugged, portable PC made for harsh environments.

Reconnaissance and Response
Michael Gray, president and CEO of Global Relief Technologies, said the compatibility of the unit's Windows MobileTM software, coupled with a military-rated, waterproof shell, made it the perfect fit for his software. "It's just a really durable tool and a very good platform for our rapid data management software that we load on the Recons along with GIS mapping software," Gray said. "It was used in places like Africa--in refugee operations there--Afghanistan, and Iraq."

In the aftermath of Katrina, the Recon was used by the 2nd U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Force and FEMA for emergency reconnaissance of bridge and road conditions and the power infrastructure, Gray said. The device meets military standards for drop, vibration, and temperature extremes, withstanding sand, dust, high altitudes, and temperatures ranging from minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be submerged as deep as one meter for 30 minutes. It has dual CompactFlash Slots and a standard 9-pin connector that can be used to add peripherals, such as a GPS card or a satellite phone. Its rechargeable PowerBoot module provides a minimum 15 hours of operating power with default settings. (The unit can be powered by two AA batteries as a backup.)

The Recon does have a few drawbacks. The stylus' holder on the back of the unit beneath the hand strap may be difficult to navigate for a glove-wearing user, and smaller government agencies might not be able to fit the price range into its budget. One customer experienced short battery life but said TDS corrected the situation.

Overall, its platform adaptability, ruggedness, and mobility have attracted many software companies to bundle their product with the device. The result is a large selection of mapping, hazmat, inspection, pre-hospital care, and even surveying software that has persuaded many first responder agencies to include the Recon into their budgets.

Multifunctional Capabilities
In North Carolina, Station Oregon Inlet near Cape Hatteras won the Coast Guard's Capt. Niels P. Thomsen Award for Effort in 2004 for its innovative use of the Recon. By installing a GPS card, a satellite phone, and mapping software to the device, rescue time was cut by up to 30 minutes, said Petty Officer Justin Schnute, who implemented the new process. Crews could now immediately head in the direction of a rescue call as search pattern information was e-mailed to them en route rather than wait at the dock until such data was delivered. Also, an additional crew member was now free to search the water rather than lay out charts and plot the course, as the Recon attended to such tasks.

Integrating its Firehouse Software® with the device, the Denver Fire Department now directly uploads inspection data to its database, eliminating wasteful fire inspection paper forms and thousands of data entry hours.

In Eastern Oregon, the U.S. Army's Umatilla Chemical Stockpile integrated its Recons into its hazmat response plans. Using specialized software, first responders can access real-time data about present chemical threats, the appropriate precautions necessary for containment, and the locations of other response teams in the area, removing the need to carry a large, three-ring procedure binder.

In 2004, STAT MedEvac, an air medical transport service, picked one of its bases to test the Recon in order to cut down paperwork time between flights. The device's adaptability allowed the base to use its software to start patients' charts en route, freeing up downtime between response calls, said John Lovett, base site coordinator. "Whenever you've dropped off the patient and you're returning to base, or if you're on a fixed wing mission where you're sitting on the aircraft for a couple of hours, [the Recon] allows you to do the charting before you get back to base," Lovett said. "It really saves you a lot of time. . . . We're putting on our protocols, policies, and things like that so whenever you have a question while you're in the air, you can just look at the Recon."

TDS, based in Corvallis, Ore., also offers a similar model called the RangerTM that has additional features including a keypad, a slimmer body design, and an integrated Bluetooth or 802.11b wireless option. For more information, visit www.tdsway.com.

This column appeared in the December 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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