Embracing a Sea Change in Mobile Communication

More than 50% of fire and emergency service officers have a tablet and over 90% have a smartphone, according to the results of the IAFC's second annual survey of smartphone and tablet use in the fire service. These results reaffirm the trend in the fire service and in society generally of individuals using mobile device as their primary source of communications.

Smartphones Are Nearly Universal

The survey focused on current and projected use of mobile devices—specifically such smartphones as iPhone, Android and Blackberry and tablets such as iPad and Galaxy—in their positions as fire and emergency service responders. The survey further segmented respondents by rank and age.

Smartphone use is nearly universal among first responders; 90% of survey respondents reported having one, up from 84% in 2011.

The number of smartphone users is greatest among those ages 22-34 at 98.1%. By comparison, 86.1% of those ages 55-64 have a smartphone.

Of those without a smartphone, 75% of those ages 25-34 definitely plan to purchase one in the next six months, compared with only 40.8% for ages 45-54 and only 27.7% for those ages 55-64.

The survey asked respondents to identify which devices they use as a fire/EMS officer. It turns out smartphone-only use is greatest among company officers (62.4%), followed by operations chiefs (56%). In contrast, fire/EMS chiefs are most likely to use a combination of a smartphone and tablet (43.2%), followed by staff chief officers (39.6%).

Respondents were asked to rank the importance of various smartphone applications in effectively performing their jobs. Here's how they ranked those applications in importance:

  • 72% – Receive/respond to email
  • 65% – Text messaging
  • 45% – Search for information, such as SOPs and emergency-scene research
  • 44% – GIS mapping and routing
  • 30% – Read and receive news
  • 24% – Real-time video to support emergency command operations

In comparison, email and texting rank sixth and seventh in a recent study of the public's use of smartphone. For the general population, surfing the web, checking social networks and playing games are the most frequent categories of smartphone use.

A Majority Now Uses Tablets

The biggest change since the 2011 survey is the use of tablets, with 50% of chief and company officer respondents having one; this is up from only 24% in 2011. The percentage of those having tablets is consistent across rank.

As expected, the percentage of respondents with tablets is highest among younger individuals (59.6% of those ages 35-44). Of those without tablets, several noted they already use or have access to equipment (such as laptops and mobile data terminals) that has functionality similar to what would be available on a tablet.

Looking at potential tablet purchases in the next six months, 28.2% of all respondents indicated they were definitely or very likely to purchase one, up from 22.4% in 2011. By rank/position, staff chief officers (31.5%) and fire/EMS chiefs (28.6%) were most likely to purchase a tablet in the next six months.

Similar to smartphone use, respondents were asked to rank the importance of using tablets for various applications relating to their jobs. The ranking of applications found to be most important:

  • 59% – Receive/respond to email
  • 54% – Search information, such as SOPs and emergency-scene research
  • 53% – GIS mapping and routing
  • 40% – Conduct inspections
  • 38% – Incident reporting
  • 39% – Real-time video to support emergency command operations
  • 35% – Read and receive news

The results are comparable to the 2011 findings, with a slight increase in the number of individuals using their tablets to conduct inspections—in part a function of the availability of products to do inspections via a mobile device.

Implications for IAFC Members and the Fire and Emergency Service

So what does this mean specifically for IAFC members and the fire service in general? The IAFC is responding to these trends by making its products more adaptive to mobile devices. Recently, we redesigned the electronic version of IAFC On Scene to make it easier to view on mobile devices. We also have a project underway to make On Scene articles easier to read online using a mobile device, so the page layout will adjust automatically based on the device it's viewed on.

At FRI 2012 in Denver, we offered an expanded version of the mobile app that was first introduced at FRI 2011. For 2013, we'll work to further enhance the mobile experience across the IAFC's education, membership and communications programs and resources.

For the fire service, the rapid adaptation of mobile technology across operations, administration and professional development demonstrates both technical and philosophical change. Technically, the use of mobile devices are providing greater flexibility to responders and contributing to enhanced efficiency of information exchange, data and record keeping, and service delivery.

Perhaps more important, however, is the philosophical change. The IAFC has witnessed a greater and more rapid acceptance of mobile technology into the fire service than any other recent technology. While that's great news on the technology front, it also marks a much broader sea change in the way the fire and emergency service approaches it future.

It suggests that the fire service of today is not only able but also eager to change the status quo, become more agile, create progressive models of service delivery and rapidly adapt to the ever-changing environment.

Terry Monroe, CAE, is the IAFC’s director of membership and external relations.

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