Motorola's Emergency Strategy

It's launching the APX 7000, a multi-band radio to coordinate communication between police, medical technicians, and firefighters

Chaos in the wake of large-scale catastrophes is by now all too familiar. In disasters from New Orleans to Mumbai, police officers, medical technicians, and firefighters from neighboring communities rush to help. But a jumble of incompatible communications equipment makes coordination difficult, if not impossible. Instead of helping, technology can hinder and potentially cost lives.

That disturbing reality was on the minds of Motorola (MOT) designers when, three years ago, they began working on an all-new set of communications gear for emergency responders. The result is the APX 7000 (pronounced "apex"), a multi-band radio that can communicate with the dozens of various frequencies used by police officers, medical technicians, firefighters, and other government agencies such as the Homeland Security Dept. and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The device, which can cost up to $5,000, will be widely available in the second quarter of 2009.

Worlds apart from the slim RAZR phone most consumers associate with Motorola, the APX is a thick slab of black rubber that fits snugly in the hand. Under a set of chunky knobs on the radio's top sits a color display that looks much like a conventional cell phone. The design, says Bruce Claxton, Motorola's senior director of design integration, is the result of extensive user research. "We sent designers into burning buildings," exclaims Claxton, adding quickly, "in controlled situations, of course."

In Fear and Panic

First responders, notes Claxton, live "lives of boredom punctuated by moments of terror." To create the APX accordingly, his team of nearly 300 designers and engineers developed a method to study how users' behavior changes when panic and fear are possibly overwhelming. The research included hundreds of hours of observation and interviews, sending designers to fire-fighting training, and to ride along with police officers to analyze their every movement. They even installed a Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser in the company's Plantation (Fla.) research lab to run simulations.

The APX is in fact a half-dozen devices in one, including a cell phone, a PDA, GPS receiver, and a number of traditional radios. Software inside the APX automatically detects which frequencies are being used by emergency personnel to enable communication. Today, first responders routinely carry two radios in order to communicate with one another. Motorola says this device is also backwards compatible with even decades-old technologies in use by police and fire departments around the country, including the company's last generation of P25 products.

Motorola also designed the radio to be upgradable, either through a built-in hardware expansion slot, or software updates available for download. Potential new applications include GPS-enabled location tracking or the ability to upload mug shots of, say, potential suspects directly from the radio. Says Bob Schassler, corporate vice-president for Motorola's government and public safety division: "these devices have life spans of between 10 and 15 years, so we're trying to make the APX as future-compatible as possible."

Claxton credits two years of ethnographic research with a number of design innovations. The radio's T-shape, for example, allows users to fit the APX neatly in the palm of the hand while providing enough room for the knobs on top to be turned with thick gloves like those worn by firefighters. Under observation, users instinctively ran their hands down the length of the antenna in order to locate the radio. But then they had to fumble to unclip the device in order to find the emergency SOS button.

With the APX, designers placed a recessed emergency SOS button close to the base of the antenna to save both time and user stress.

Cell-Phone Trouble

According to Teresa Bozzelli, chief operating officer and managing director of research firm Government Insights, "the market for such devices is highly visible and highly funded," especially in the wake of events such as September 11 and Hurricane Katrina. Technology budgets for the NYPD and LAPD, for instance, are more than $200 million a year; smaller cities like Washington and Philadelphia spend about $75 million. Says Schassler: "we expect to sell about 90,000 units annually."

Motorola is desperate to shore up its business to offset a flagging consumer cell-phone division. In early December, the company took another hit as ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded Motorola to junk status on worries over the impact of the global financial crisis on mobile phones. (Like BusinessWeek, S&P is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.) The company has already pledged to shed some 9,000 jobs and explore spinning off its mobile phones unit.

Schassler says the APX program could serve as an incubator for innovations bound for consumer gear. Communications devices like the pager were initially designed for emergency personnel before being marketed for professionals such as doctors and eventually the public at large. But Schassler won't say exactly which of the APX's elements could make it to consumer devices. For now, Motorola will stick to marketing its devices to front-line emergency responders including firefighters, medical technicians, and police officers.

Watch a video demonstration of the APX 7000, from Motorola's Bob Schassler and Bruce Claxton.

Business Exchange related topics:Mobile Data ServicesBusiness InnovationGlobal Recession

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.