Fire + Rescue NSW deploys 400 Chromeboxes


news Emergency service Fire and Rescue NSW has revealed it has dumped a number of traditional desktop PCs and plans to ditch more, as part of a widespread deployment of Google’s Chromebox cloud-based desktop platform which has so far seen some 400 of the gadgets deployed to fire stations throughout the state.

The agency (formerly the NSW Wales Fire Brigades) is the NSW Government body responsible for the provision of fire, rescue and hazardous materials handling services throughout NSW, in a role which sees it be one of the key agencies involved in the response phase of most emergency or disaster events in the state. According to its website, it currently has more t han 6,900 firefighters, a further 6,000 community fire unit members and some 418 administrative and trades staff.

The AustralianIT broke the news this morning about the organisation’s Chromebox deployment, but it appears that the story dates back to at least August, when the agency’s telecommunications provider Telstra published a video interview with its chief information officer Richard Host. According to Host, the Chromebox deployment has seen some 400 of the machines rolled out throughout NSW.

“… this is really good,” Host told Telstra at the time. “We’re deploying Google Chromeboxes, which look like PCs for all intents and purposes. They smell like PCs, but they’re an awful lot faster – instant, considerably cheaper, very, very fast. As a consequence we think that they will replace a lot of PCs out in the fire stations.”

Host added that this had the consequence that Fire and Rescue NSW’s corporate needed needed to be available all of the time. The organisation uses a combination of ADSL2+ broadband at its fire stations, backed up by 3G mobile broadband, and computerised dispatch done by satellite.

“… what it means is the network has to be up,” he said. “So that’s why we have redundant networks everywhere. I think that’s the way things are going. There’s almost nothing that you can do these days, unless you’re doing a PowerPoint or a Word document, that doesn’t need the network. So our emphasis, moving forward, is to have more resilient and faster networks. Whether you’ve got a tablet device or a Google Chromebox or just about anything you have to be connected.”

The Chromebox is a limited PC-like device first introduced several yeas ago by vendors like Samsung and running Google’s Chrome OS operating system, which places a high priority on using web-based software as a service applications such as Google Apps to deliver services to users, rather than the traditional PC method of running applications from a local hard disk. Data is also normally stored remotely.

The current Samsung Chromebox advertised by Google looks very much like one of Apple’s cut-down Mac Mini devices. It has a number of USB ports, a headphone and microphone jack, an Ethernet connection, Wi-Fi capability, and display outlets, but does not feature a DVD drive. The machine is run by an Intel Core CPU and comes with 4GB of memory.

Although the devices created great interest in the global technology community when they were first launched alongside similar laptop models, known as Chromebooks, they were virtually ignored by Australia’s enterprise sector, which has largely preferred to stay with traditional PC and laptop models for its computing needs, although thin-client devices and virtualised PCs are also becoming popular in some sectors for some uses, as are tablets such as Apple’s iPad. Fire and Rescue NSW has also deployed Apple’s iPad in some cases, using Telstra’s secure network to do so.

In his interview with Telstra, Host said when he came to the public sector (he joined Fire and Rescue NSW in January 2006, according to his LinkedIn profile, after a career that had seen him lead technology for Coca-Cola Amatil), it seemed at the time that people had “artificial barriers in their mind” about some styles of deployment.

“So the first thing I did was I convinced people that those barriers didn’t actually exist and enabled them to do these projects,” he said. “Of course, these projects are – lots of low hanging fruit – where this hadn’t been done, under investment; huge win-win situations. So I think people just need to be convinced that it’s a great idea, it can save money, improve capability, and why wouldn’t they agree to it?”

Wow. I haven’t heard squat about Google Chromebox deployments in Australia over the past several years, and I never expected to. But if you read about what Fire and Rescue NSW has done with its deployment, this style of rollout makes complete sense. It’s always been hard for emergency services organisations such as this one to get funding for new IT deployments, so when you consider the fact that Chromeboxes cost next to nothing and can be easily deployed remotely, and that emergency services personnel typically aren’t spending a lot of time at desks typing, alongside the fact that Fire and Rescue NSW would need to have a highly robust network anyway, it all makes sense.

Personally, I really like what Host has done here. With a little out of the box thinking, he’s been able to take his (likely) tiny budget and use it in an innovative way to bring better technology to his organisation in some area than they would have expected, in a way that won’t be a pain to administer. It’s this kind of innovative, outside the box thinking that Australia’s public sector really needs if it is to rise above its current IT doldrums, and I hope Host’s kind of thinking spreads outside Fire and Rescue NSW and further throughout the NSW State Government and beyond. Kudos.

Image credit: Google


  1. Awesome work guys,

    Just a pitty that NSW Gov is not putting more funds and fireworks+rescue+technology more often :(

  2. (formerly the NSW Wales Fire Brigades)


    that Fire and Rescue NSW’s corporate needed needed to be available all of the time.

    Were you by chance typing this on a tablet ;P

  3. I am curious – where do you buy these google devices (book or box) in Australia especially in larger amounts. The phones, yes, can be bought here but the computers as far as I tell can’t unless you buy a foreign model – am I wrong? Even then …that would be for 1-off technology fast-forwarders…where in bulk?

  4. @seven_tech – thanks for the link love …I was going to a similar path but was /personal/ usage

    Okay so you – I assume then – have to buy in bulk as the Goog makes you ‘Contact Sales’ and they nicely slap on a ‘Management & support: $150’ fee :-)

    Is there a ‘legitimate’ consumer platform/venue to acquire these devices in Australia?

    thanks @seven_tech for the link ..very interesting.

  5. NSW FIre and Rescue is one of the best funded agencies in the state because of the fire service levy (taken from insurance premiums). Almost 3/4 of their budget is untouchable by the Treasurer.

    • Same thing that happens now- Telstra (soon to be NBNCo.) come out and fix it and in the meantime, deploy a temporary exchange.

      Alos, the article states they use landline and 3G as a BACKUP.

    • Alternative comms are used. As would happen if they had traditional desktops.

      The only difference here (and it’s a smart move) is to centralise “compute”. This means money can be spent on iron to run solutions (and make that punch above it’s weight) rather than the sunk cost of refreshing desktops.

      It also means if fire hits not just the exchange, but the entire branch location, the staff and crews can up-sticks and shift elsewhere and still gain access to core systems. The boxes are just the front end.

      Centralised compute will become even more practical and sensible as the NBN rolls out.

      It’s pretty cool to see a state level body do this sort of thing.

  6. Well done for picking this story up Renai. This is a good example of some innovative thinking about how to move towards a more innovative and sustainable approach to the provision of frontline ICT services in the public sector.

    The Victorian Auditor General recently produced an audit report focused on the inadequate approach to the management of frontline ICT assets in Victorian government agencies – particulalrly those with large workforces such as police and education:

    Most agencies are facing big problems caused by systemic failure to adopt any form of strategic asset management approach to end user devices. In theory depreciation allowances should have been set aside to fund asset renewal, but these funds have been spent elsewhere … so asset renewal is deferred repeatedly until the crisis is sufficient to justify a call for addition capital funding from Treasury. This is an old problem with deep causes that DTF continues to sweep under the carpet, so the bottom line is that agencies really do need to think differently about how they source and manage frontline ICT assets.

    In this context thin client devices + cloud services are an important element of the future public sector ICT landscape – both from an affordability perspective and also from a simplification perspective. The use of Google Chromeboxes in NSW Fire+Rescue is a useful case example.

    This exact technology may or may not be the ultimate solution, but we need more agencies that are prepared to actually face up to the problem of frontline ICT asset sustainability and take steps towards a new approach … as opposed to pretending that the problem doesn’t exist and relying on a bail out from Government when they put a gun to their Minister’s head with some form of “If you don’t give us $XM urgently all our frontline systems will collapse” funding submission.

  7. This is really interesting, thanks Renai.

    I’ll be interested to hear/read follow-up stories on how it works out for the folks actually using the system too, too often there’s a degree of mismatch between objectives with how management thinks a system is going (based on cost) and the end users (based on functionality).

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