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A Guide to Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)

18 February, 2008

By Peter Harris, Head of Mobile Data at Arqiva’s Public Safety division

The use of mobile technology within the emergency services is on the rise. Mobile Data is evolving and the extent of its potential usage is huge, opening up invaluable opportunities and benefits for all those within the field.

As it spreads throughout the emergency services we are hearing more and more positive endorsements from those that have either invested in it or are in the process of trialling it.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan in his Review of Policing published in February 2008 states on page 37 that “there are considerable benefits to be gained from the use of mobile technology. One force estimate they have saved 51 minutes per frontline officer through the use of handheld PDAs”.

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are one of the most significant advances in mobile technology for emergency services across the UK. With Sir Ronnie Flanagan urging the utilisation of technology within policing and the NPIA pledging £50 million of funding for PDAs, there couldn’t be a better time to look at mobile data solutions.

However, requirements can vary greatly from emergency service to emergency service and from police force to police force. Even within the same force different roles have different needs for mobile data so it’s important to fully understand your requirements for mobile data before committing to a particular PDA or solution. There are many things you should consider.

Buying or Leasing

You will usually have two options when looking at implementing PDAs - buying them direct from a manufacturer or leasing them via a contract with a service or solution provider. Buying outright will usually incur a higher initial outlay, but each option can bring substantial advantages. Buying direct from a manufacturer will allow you to choose a specific device but you will have to provide a bearer and find a software provider. On the other hand, leasing from a service or solution provider will probably include ongoing device and software support as well as bearer airtime.


There are a number of different air interfaces or bearers available for transmission of data to mobile devices: GPRS and 3G being the most common, but there are also TETRA PDAs available. The priority for PDAs should be to create a seamless data flow between the control room and the user. The system should incorporate store and forward software to ensure that messages are delivered in areas of poor coverage.

Solutions are also available with a multi-bearer capability that allows the best network to be selected to match the data application, or seamlessly switch between bearers for optimum coverage The latest developments now allow devices to simultaneously use multiple bearers to increase speed and reliability.


Most software providers will offer access to a wide range of applications and modules. For example, e-mail, briefing updates, mapping, voter’s register, Police National Computer (PNC) and interfaces to Command and Control as well as crime systems. However, it is only necessary to invest in applications that are of use to each specific role. If we look from role to role within the police for example, then this becomes clearer. A front line officer is likely to make use of a wide range of applications both for retrieving data and completing forms such as stop and search, enabling them to fill out forms and print them via a mobile printer whilst on the beat and reduce paperwork hours in the process – one of the objectives set in Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s latest review. In contrast, a senior officer may simply require access to e-mail and calendar. It is critical to consider what each officer will use the PDA for and then tailor the solution to specific requirements.

The various applications should be simple and easy to use, so features such as a single sign on, single data entry for multiple searches, drop down menus and clear uncluttered screen layouts are a must have.


The size of a screen and the resolution is critical for accessing applications and pictures on a PDA. An officer needs to see all the information on one screen. If they continually have to scroll around to read information, the PDA will become less useful and probably be used less as a result. 3.5inch high contrast colour screens that are suitable for all applications are now widely available.

For applications that require data entry, such as forms, touch screens are highly desirable. These allow the user immediate access to drop down menus containing pre-formatted responses. Touch screens also allow users to drag and zoom applications such as mapping and photographs and allow the use of handwriting recognition for the recording of signatures etc.


Dependent on the number of applications, memory requirements can vary. If you are running a lot of processes at once then a large memory is critical. Although they don’t use it all, any application which is running will grab large chunks of memory. Insufficient allocation of memory space will make a device slow and hard to use.


Battery life needs to be matched to shift requirements so careful management of screen brightness and device activity is a key part of any software applications written for the PDA. Additionally, good housekeeping rules are essential to ensure PDAs are docked and charged when not in use.


Security with PDAs is critical both on the device and for data transmitted to and from the device. It is important that end-to-end penetration testing is performed to ensure that no data or log on details can be retrieved from the PDA and that no unauthorised access can be made to restricted back office systems such as PNC. Penetration testing must be carried out by an approved body and must be carried out on the final version of the system including all applications and peripherals such as printers. One common mistake is to take a device that has been approved for remote email and add further applications without resubmitting the system for penetration testing. This obviously creates a potential security risk.

You also need to ensure that any access to systems can be controlled on a device or user basis and that the system administration facility has the ability to stun and kill any device when necessary. Any data held on the device must be encrypted to an approved standard.

And finally……

Investing in mobile technology is a must for the future of the emergency services and it is not just the use of PDAs which is increasing. Other devices include those designed for in-car use such as MDTs. Usually in the emergency services, an officer will work with more then one device, which requires a certain element of scalability and consistency. All devices should be formatted in the same way, including the modules, to ensure that officers can move from one to the other in a seamless way. This will also minimise the need for training across devices.
To conclude, there is a lot to consider and it is important to get it right the first time. It is not a decision to rush into and you shouldn’t be afraid to take time over it to ensure you are getting the right mix of applications, memory and so on. The most important thing to remember is that every service and role is different.

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