The Fire Service and the BlackBerry: A Powerful Combination


Smart phones have made their way into public safety communications in a big way. This article will focus on the BlackBerry by Research in Motion (RIM) smart phone, which has become one of the most popular choices by public safety agencies for a number of reasons. Those reasons include the device's reliability, its integration into the business side of organizational operations primarily through email, and its ability to multi-task with other BlackBerry or third-party applications via the Internet.

The BlackBerry can easily be set up to forward email through the Redirector client (a free web client with the BlackBerry) or direct integration with an organization's email service through the purchase of a BlackBerry server. The Redirector is somewhat more limited in functionality in comparison to a BlackBerry server. The BlackBerry easily synchronizes with email clients such as Micro-soft Outlook and reconciles such things as email, contact updates, calendar and more, all done wirelessly.

Depending on the commercial wireless vendor, the BlackBerry comes in a variety of styles. Some are display only with keyboards; others are interactive through touch screen and a combination of the two. Unique to Sprint Nextel, the BlackBerry 8350i has the iDEN push-to-talk functionality.

Text messaging has also transformed how we as individuals communicate with each other; especially the younger generation. In the world of fire department communications, this has also enhanced the ability to quickly and efficiently communicate with personnel on a department-assigned smart phone or directly and voluntarily to and with an individual's personal smart phone.

Using the BlackBerry's personal identification number (PIN) provides another level of communications. This has proven to be particularly beneficial when an email server or service fails or becomes inaccessible. BlackBerry enables a PIN-to-PIN messaging capability between BlackBerry devices, to an individual or a group. From a communications standpoint, this creates at least three levels of redundant text communications (email, text message and PIN messaging). Third-party applications like METAmessage allow users to also do PIN archiving, Auto PIN updating and PIN blasting.

The BlackBerry camera feature (still and video) can be used in a number of ways. In its simplest form, it captures still digital photos and video content of various organizational activities. This digital content can then be used to document events and incidents, training, incident critiques, situational awareness, used selectively in social media applications and to effectively communicate with the news media.

A BlackBerry enabled with a global positioning system (GPS) provides reliable geospatial and time information as it relates to the individual's location. Third-party applications like Telenav, Google Maps, Bing Maps and others can provide text or voice navigation to specific addresses, businesses, restaurants, hospitals, etc.

The BlackBerry access to the Internet literally connects the individual to a plethora of information and helps the user to elevate his or her level of awareness locally, regionally and nationally. This is particularly true for news, weather and critical information/data. Many websites like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Hurricane Center (, Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders (WISER, and others are tailored for mobile access. WISER also provides a stand-alone application for Windows Mobile devices, Palm OS PDAs, Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, BlackBerry devices, Microsoft Windows PCs, and via WebWISER.

Language translator programs like Mobile Translator (, and Google Translator ( are also available on the web and accessible for free.

Third-party applications further enhance the BlackBerry capabilities. AlertMatrix helps to maximize efficiency of your messaging by creating a proactive filter and alerting capability. Rules can be set to identify specific emails and/or messages and create distinguishing alerting features like the color of light or specific sounds for new messages. NextMail ( is a subscription program that uses multiple BlackBerry features and allows the user to combine and send an audio message, digital image, and a geospatial map location to one or many people. Freeance ( is another application that brings live BlackBerry access to your locality's geographic information system (GIS) data. Other applications include barcode scanning for inventory, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) programs for personnel and unit tracking, radio scanner applications can now allow for monitoring of some public safety radio systems, facial recognition and vehicle license recognition. Many more mission-specific applications are being developed and available daily.

The BlackBerry smart phone is a very powerful tool that, if used to its maximum, can create huge benefits in efficiency and effectiveness. Every user needs to fully understand the capabilities and the various programs available for the BlackBerry to further demonstrate its true value to the individual using it as well as the organization/agency being served.

One last note: Even though the BlackBerry and other smart phones provide great value to public safety, they cannot and will not replace the need for mission critical land mobile radio systems for a significant time into the future.

Future articles will report on Social Media, LTE and Public Safety and 4G smart phones.

CHARLES WERNER, a FirehouseĀ® contributing editor, is a 34-year veteran of the fire service and chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. He serves on the Virginia Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee, Virginia Secure Commonwealth Panel, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council Governing Board and IAFC Communications Committee. Werner is chair of the IAFC Technology Council, first vice president of the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the DHS SAFECOM Executive Committee.