The “Big Idea” is called Tablet Command. As working firefighters in the field, we’ve worked hard to create a digital platform for real-time emergency incident management. Think about the games of “Risk” or “Battleship,” which are modeled after military battle simulators. Tablet Command resembles these simulators, but in real-time with real-life assets, existing on a platform where the incident commander can deploy and redeploy resources to handle the emergency.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Bozzo Co-Founder of Tablet Command.
Andy has 22 years of experience in fire service in California and Washington State. He is currently a Captain in Contra Costa County, CA. Andy has a visionary mind and has provided many of the conceptual aspects that are foundational to Tablet Command. Andy is passionate about continuing to improve the Tablet Command solution by using it in the field, learning from other users’ experiences, and sharing his experiences as part of the training team. Andy has a BA in Biology from Middlebury College, and prior to working in the fire service Andy was a science teacher.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
With firefighting, there was just an allure that had been present since childhood. When I was about four or five, growing up in Central California, the simple preschool visits to the fire station were enough to hook me. But one specific event really drew me in: I spent part of my childhood growing up on the back side of the Santa Cruz Mountains, and one summer, the mountains surrounding our house went up in flames! I was on my front porch all day and night, watching the feverish but deliberate battle; retardant drops by large bomber-like airplanes and helicopters dipping in to make precision strikes, so that the hand crews below could march in to cut swaths of fire line and make forward progress on stopping the fire. This was all very seductive to me. I was a war movie nut with my dad, so to me this was like war without having to kill anyone. Years later, I was doing pretty well in the sciences in school and sort of talked myself out of becoming a firefighter. But ultimately, I needed to make money for graduate school, so I fought summer fires to sort of “get my fix and get it out of my system.” But, of course, I ended up falling deeply in love with the profession and dedicated myself to becoming a professional firefighter.
What does this have to do with Tablet Command software? Flash forward 20 years later, and to me, as a career firefighter in the field — or “on the floor” as they say in some parts of the country — I was keenly aware that there wasn’t really a modern tool capable of tracking our whereabouts and progress during an emergency. A horribly tragic event that happened about eight years into the job, sort of thrust this problem to the foreground. But, when I look back, I’d been dreaming up this idea in some form since the day I got hired.
Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Anytime you’re dealing with people in need of emergency assistance, it’s all pretty interesting. I’d say one of the most interesting times in my career was during the Wine Country Fires in Napa, which is not too far away from where I’m based. That fire, along with several others in that five-year span from about 2013–2018, were mind-blowingly big, erratic, and seemed to take on lives of their own. When a division supervisor (the boss on a particular slice of the fire) tells you, “Don’t let any sparks or embers across this road or we’ll lose another town today.” it gets your attention. Again, the massive coordination of resources — equipment, people, aircraft, food, tools, fuel — we’ve been doing it for so long on paper, and there isn’t really a modern way to see live-action intelligence or situational status. But now that’s coming into view with Tablet Command’s technology. Several members of our company have been at the tip of the spear as working firefighters, and see how information (or lack thereof) can make situations better or worse. We’re making something practical for all of those ground-pounders out there who are fighting fires and dealing with emergencies everyday.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I think you gotta be real and honest with yourself. It’s not easy becoming a firefighter, but even still, once you become one you can hide in a station on the quieter side of town and still call yourself a firefighter. You can still have the tee-shirt, and you can still impress plenty of people with the title. However, that’s not enough for most, and that mindset can be dangerous.
I’ve always done my very best to work in environments that really represent our society. I’m turned off by the high-rent areas. To me, that’s not real, and it’s pretty homogeneous, although you don’t tear your body up as much. The real people are in the tougher parts of town; the tough neighborhoods where lots of things happen. I’m attracted to those environments where you’re going to get the most amount of reps on the job. It will expose your weaknesses pretty quickly, and it’s REALLY important to acknowledge them.
The type of person who becomes a firefighter is sometimes averse to being vulnerable, but it’s really important to say, “I suck at this particular part of the job,” or even more daring, “I’m afraid of this part of the job”. But then you fling yourself into it and challenge yourself to get really good at it, because it’s going to happen: that thing you feared or resisted or hid is going to lay itself right at your feet someday. You don’t like emergencies in long dark tunnels? You’re going to get that exact call someday. We can’t pretend to know everything, and we rely on those closest to us who know us the best to every now and again show us a mirror and challenge us to get better.
I think this is true when you’re building a business from nothing. You can’t strut around and pretend you know everything, and you also can’t be afraid of falling on your face and looking vulnerable. The type of people with false bravado don’t belong in the fire service, frankly, and they don’t belong in leadership positions of business. You have to be brave enough to surround yourself with smart people, and then trust them — that’s how a team really soars.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The “Big Idea” is called Tablet Command. As working firefighters in the field, we’ve worked hard to create a digital platform for real-time emergency incident management. Think about the games of “Risk” or “Battleship,” which are modeled after military battle simulators. Tablet Command resembles these simulators, but in real-time with real-life assets, existing on a platform where the incident commander can deploy and redeploy resources to handle the emergency. The perimeter of the emergency is like a battle map, and the resources (firefighters, fire engines, helicopters, ambulances, police cars, etc.) are like game pieces. Tablet Command is a real-time intelligence tool with access to the most accurate map overlays, helping the incident manager to deploy their resources in the safest and most efficient manner.
How do you think this will change the world?
We are proud to say that Tablet Command has already changed lives by saving lives. Because of Tablet Command, four firefighters were able to escape being burned up during a “blow-up” (when fire behavior becomes explosive and erratic) in the massive 2018 Carr Fire that scorched Northern California.
We’ve been successful in enhancing situational awareness and creating a shared common operating picture with real-time incident viewing ability for our first responders in North America. And we’ve created access to information that has never been available to responders in the field before; every rank can participate in the information stream, and that’s a big change from just a few years ago. Combine this with faster notifications and alerting for emergencies where first responders are getting out the door quicker, and with a clearer mental picture of what’s going on.
We’re responding to every type of emergency faster, with better information, and making a tangible difference in people’s lives. And that’s a BIG DEAL.
Tablet Command is a first responder tracking system in that it tracks assignments, time on task, and location of apparatus. At some point we’ll track individual personnel, too. We also have the potential to aggregate live drone footage, which could conjure up fears about “Big Brother,” surveillance, and the militarization of civil services.
In addition, we provide access to information and data that could be considered sensitive and personal, although we’ve taken stringent measures with regard to data and user security to ensure that this information will never fall into the wrong hands.
Today we have the ability to consume and display map data from multiple sources, including predictive fire behavior modeling. And we also have the potential to aggregate sensor data from multiple sources, including humans. So again, fears of us adding to a society governed by AI where the human factor is further removed from the decision loop, could raise fears. Currently, Tablet Command allows for all members of a fire department to view an incident being managed by an individual or team of people. That kind of real-time scrutiny has raised concerns about too much information being available to onlookers.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
I’ve been a firefighter since 1998, and as I stated earlier I’ve always tried to work in the busiest areas that my department covered. I had personally been to several fires and had a couple of close calls leading up to 2007. In July of that year, my department lost two of our own in what was thought to be a standard or “bread and butter” house fire. Shortly after this tragedy I began working on that Engine Company where our firefighters had lost their lives. Every day I came to the station, I thought about that accident — it haunted all of us like a ghost. During that time, our fire department was doing a deep dive on operations as well, and I was tapped by one of my department’s chiefs to gather info on a firefighting tracking system that I had used in my previous department. Spoiler alert: It was totally analog.
On my days off I began digging out the materials for this tracking system, and it was spurring a lot of thoughts about the tragedy our department had suffered and how we could do things better. I distinctly remember taking a break from thinking about that incident and this tracking system, and picked up my NEW iPhone 2 and started playing a game called “Words with Friends.”
The game is essentially digital Scrabble where tiles populate 7 at a time (coincidentally, about the same number of emergency apparatus that show up to a fire). I realized I was playing with someone from somewhere else in the world, and it hit me that I was essentially exchanging information in a certain arrangement (specifically, arranged tiles) with that person. To me, the tiles looked like the same tokens we used on white boards to represent fire engines or fire crews on our analog makeshift command boards: think World War 2 battle maps where personnel with wooden wands push tokens around a battle map.
It was at that moment I realized that if we could keep the interface recognizable for the old fire commanders out there, and build some timers behind each action, we might be able to easily convert the fire service from analog to digital when commanding fires and tracking resources. We’d have a more accurate account of the emergency with respect to strategic and tactical movements of crews. After a few storyboard drawings, the concept of Tablet Command was born!
There had been a lot of talk about larger tablets coming out in the future, which essentially meant that this command map could happen on a larger scale that was shareable. This idea needed to live in the world.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We need more forums for our currently successful users to evangelize and refer prospective users toward our product. The idea of implementing new technologies in public safety still has obstacles, and these are mainly psychological with some physical barriers. We perceive ourselves as “blue-collar” technophobes when we’re wearing the uniform, yet we’ll book plane tickets on Kayak, find a restaurant on Yelp, and navigate with Waze. It’s a tricky paradox, but our current customers really help us get the word out. We just need more of that more often.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be really clear about what you want the technology to look like, and how you want it to act. We made assumptions about what we saw in our imaginations versus what others heard and produced. It took us a while to find a dev group who “got” us (ie understood the workflows of public safety).
- Don’t get “big leagued” by big money. We knew we were developing this concept in a small but reliable market. Money people would nod their heads but wanted quick turnarounds on money. Because that component was missing and this was a longer term play with lower returns (than Twitter), they would cast doubt on the idea. “Screw that, screw them, and move on to a believer,” is what we told ourselves. We stopped wasting time with VCs and went for smaller, more agile investors.
- 0% Churn is a very important statistic: As we continue to build a customer base, we have 0% churn and positive income. That should be worth a lot to a potential investor. We had investors that would poo-poo us because we sell to the government, but what they failed to see, and what we failed to tell them emphatically, is that once we were installed it was going to be a tough prospect to get us out. To this day we’ve had 100% contract renewals and growth within current accounts, year after year.
- You don’t need an MBA. Our domain expertise was all the education we needed, even if we were initiating this in a small market. If we own the market, then we win. We’re on that path now.
- Clearly define milestones early in the process: As brand new co-founders in a tough market, we kept our heads down and worked pretty hard for the first few years. We weren’t necessarily pausing to celebrate some of the early wins: The first enterprise customer, the first integration with 9–1–1 software, the first contract renewal. That was probably a function of being “in the weeds” while we built a company. As we’ve matured, we’re able to look back at our tremendous accomplishment — we built a company from a blank piece of paper and put something new in the world. We didn’t do this alone, however. The growth of our team has been proportionate to the growth and success of our product, and we’re proud of that. Early on it felt like ancient mariners fearful of sailing off the edge of the world, but eventually we found a new world across a vast unknown, and have been building momentum ever since.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
One word comes to mind when I think about this question: Perseverance. Starting something on a blank piece of paper, even when it’s right in your domain, takes lots of time and effort. And there’s no exact recipe for success. The edges will be very ragged and the road is really really bumpy with lots of turns and switchbacks and detours. You will not be perfect and you will lose some battles — just be in it to win the war.
And it’s ok to spend purposeful, thoughtful time figuring out the product market fit, as well as experiment with which strategies will work best. Then you’ve got to make pivotal decisions and have confidence that your product will stick, without trying to “boil the ocean” and be something you’re not. As we began to narrow our mission, deepen our understanding of our market, and focus on customer success, we really began to see solid momentum. It’s ok to stay on this tack for a while, if not for the lifespan of the company, if growth is continual.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Tablet Command is the most highly-recognized and best end to end emergency response and incident command platform being deployed in North America today. LIke never before, Tablet Command brings faster notification, enhanced mapping and navigation, and accurate and timely incident tracking to firefighters and other emergency workers around the continent. Tablet Command has successfully disrupted legacy incident notification and emergency response data systems from around the country, and replaced it with faster and more streamlined technology that better represents a modern, intuitive, and recognizable interface.
Our customizable platform can easily be adapted for non-emergency events in other vertical markets with expansion of our team, and would result in larger opportunities in nearby markets. Tablet Command has been deployed in non-emergency events like Superbowl 50, The Rock and Roll San Diego Marathon, and the Mavericks Surf Contest.
With a team of domain experts and industry veterans, Tablet Command has successfully positioned itself to become the largest and most intuitive response, mapping, and management platform in the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Instagram and Twitter: @TabletCommand
Linked In: Tablet Command