Professional Software: RescueRouter
. You see laptops in big city police cars but rarely in a rural fire truck or ambulance. We suspect there hasn't been an affordable "killer app" on the market for these emergency services. Now there is, it's a Professional Software application called "RescueRouter" from Bigfoot Labs, and it's the 2002's river2u "1st in Class" award winner.

RescueRouter (see www.RescueRouter.com) runs on a laptop in the cab of an ambulance, fire truck or police car. You punch in the address you're responding to, and, voila, up comes a picture of the house, its location on a map, your current location (via optional GPS) and other important information about the residence. We thought this was pretty cool since it would be nice if rescuers knew exactly where to find us when we called 911. We thought it was even cooler that you can download a fully functional demo of the software for free to try out. So we did.

Our first impression was that RescueRouter does what shrink-wrapped software like Delorme Street Altas or Microsoft Streets & Trips has been doing for years. Tying in a GPS to show points A and B on a moving map is nothing new, and RescueRouter's price at $49 for a runtime license or $179 for a fully supported license is a tad higher than these other packages. So we decided we'd better dig deeper and see why RescueRouter is touted so highly by its emergency-oriented fans.

The first defining characteristic we saw in RescueRouter was its tie-in to a database of properties. After talking with some fire and EMS people, we understood why this is important: accuracy. Packages like Street Atlas use a more generic database of street and address information built off of census data and government surveys. While that genre of data is fine for plotting a cross-country trip or finding approximate locations, the data is often enough incorrect or old (remember, this is the government we're talking about here). Also, the other packages compute where the address ought to be based on this data, even if that address doesn't actually exist. Rescuers need to know that they are working with accurate street and property data, and here RescueRouter delivers nicely.

According to the website, its "pre-arrival eyes" make RescueRouter stand out. Rescuers can see a picture of the house as well as exactly where it is on the street. It's akin to someone standing out in front pointing at the house. Rescuers are constantly frustrated because not everyone displays house numbers like they should, and if snow drifts cover them up or hide mailboxes, the rescuers can't find the house. Having the house picture really saves time in these situations.

The police, fire and medical information displayed about the residence can be a lifesaver for victim and rescuer alike. If Aunt Mary is on home oxygen, has vicious dogs on the premises, or the nearest hydrant is a thousand feet away, RescueRouter alerts the emergency crews as they pull up.

We did find some things lacking. The name RescueRouter implies it will highlight the roads to take from where you are to where you are going --- something that Street Atlas does. Instead RescueRouter only shows you where you are and where you are going and lets you figure out which streets to take to get there. However, rescuers told us that showing a route is not very important to them since, they have a pretty good idea of how to get around town or the county already. More important -- and not provided by any package we're aware of -- would be a route plotted based on up to the minute traffic delays and road closures.

We discovered that RescueRouter's inability to draw routes stems from its use of static bitmaps instead of dynamic vector-drawn maps. One advantage we saw to using the scanned maps is that rescue squads can make the maps as detailed as they wish; for example, they may want to load maps that allow them to zoom in to locate individual apartments within a retirement complex. The bad news, of course, is that you have to scan in the maps or otherwise end up with a bitmap image.

While the program seems to follow most well behaved Windows keyboard shortcut conventions, we were surprised to find that we couldn't get any help when we hit F1. We did find good explanations of which keys do what in the supplied documentation. On the plus side, we rarely needed to use the mouse, relying mostly on the escape, enter, arrows and tab keys to get around. We saw this as a good interface design for someone trying to use it in the cab of an ambulance jostling down the street.

It appears to take a bit of work to get RescueRouter up and running. With Street Atlas or Streets & Trips, you just run the setup program and the software is ready to go. The RescueRouter documentation has a whole section dedicated to how you build the database, create the maps and get the house pictures. On the other hand, we assume it has to be done only once and just tweaked as new houses and roads are built. Thankfully, RescueRouter has some basic tools to help you build the maps. Getting the house pictures is left up to you, but we understand that many town assessors have such data on hand electronically. A word to the wise: knowledge of Microsoft Excel and Access is a must to get RescueRouter installed. For those emergency squads without a computer guru, we'd recommend letting Bigfoot Labs support consultants set it up for you for a fee.

When it comes to RescueRouter's design, installation and marketing philosophy, the website seems to count on the "can do" spirit that embodies many of their targeted customers. We think that is a viable strategy because it leverages the "do-it-yourself" attitude that keeps volunteer fire and ambulance squads going. Bigfoot Labs prefers to market the software by word of mouth among the police, fire and EMS brotherhood, and even credits referrers with points that can be spent in the online Bigfoot Store.

All in all, we are very excited with what this program does and think it's the "killer app" that will bring more automation to emergency vehicles and lessen potentially life-threatening response delays. You can read more about it and try it out at www.RescueRouter.com. But it's beyond us why Bigfoot Labs doesn't clone this software and let pizza delivery chains use it - how about PizzaRouter, designed for another group of people who need to find houses fast?

Editor's Note (11/03): We were recently contacted by Bigfoot Labs, who asked us to pass along that V2 of the software is now available. The new version has a greatly enhanced user interface, and some new features for syncronizing data between the ambulances/fire trucks and the server. The V2 pricing is: $795 for the administrative license, and $99 for each runtime license. There is a discount for users of V1 upgrading to V2. The V1 software will remain available for download off their website at www.RescueRouter.com.

Announced November 13, 2002 - go to our home or commerce page