Tough cases

When a department is purchasing new laptops, decisions are focused on hard drive size, processing power, screen size, and other aspects of the computer itself. Next, thoughts turn to additional capabilities, such as Wi-Fi and maybe even portable printers. How the new laptops will be transported isn't always considered — at least not until a laptop hits the pavement or is needed by first responders during a hurricane evacuation.

To protect a computer from accidental drops and exposure to moisture, Michael Bircumshaw, owner of Fuerte Cases, says a case is needed any time a computer is stored or transported from one location to another.

Dinis Jablonski, product manager for Hardigg Cases' commercial markets, describes the role of cases in three words: mobility, flexibility and access.

"A case can protect your most important information tool from a host of risks," Jablonski says.

Any type of drop, vibration, shock or water could potentially cause adverse effects to a hard drive or LCD.

Soft bags offer convenience: they allow a computer to be carried with a carrying handle or a shoulder strap but they're not made to protect a computer from drops (nor are they waterproof). Chris James, sales manager with Pelican Products, knows this from experience. Going through an airport, he had his computer with him in a soft bag when he approached the passenger screening area.

"I was trying to get my shoe off and my bag slipped off my arm," he recalls. "My laptop hit the floor and that was pretty much the end of it. I think anyone who has had to travel with a laptop has dropped their laptop at one time or another."

Officers on harbor patrol who drop their computers can expose them to other risks including water, saltwater or sand.

"Law enforcement professionals are among the toughest on technology of any other profession," says Brian Thomas, director of sales and marketing for OtterBox. "They can be exposed to rain, dirt, dust or be instantly launched into altercation. Their job is very unpredictable, so the need to be prepared for any situation, at any time, is always there."

Reed Berry, sales and marketing coordinator for T.Z. Case, puts it this way, "Just like you wouldn't drive a car without having insurance, you shouldn't transport a computer without a case. It's a relatively inexpensive way to make sure your equipment will be adequately protected so it will be in proper working order when you need it."

When a city or county can pay upwards of $2,000 to $2,500 for laptops, it only makes sense to protect that investment, James says. Protective cases not only provide a higher degree of protection, or "a piece of insurance," they also provide "peace of mind," he says.

In most cases, Bircumshaw says the cost and hassle of replacing lost equipment and data easily justifies a department's investment in protective cases. With today's continual advances in computer technology, he points out one case likely will serve many computers before it needs to be retired.

Do ruggedized computers need cases?

If departments have ruggedized laptops, they may wonder do they really need protective cases. If a computer will be transported frequently, the answer may be yes.

It's important to look at the primary function of the laptop. A computer that's put to work in a mobile office (patrol car) has different needs than a computer that's transported in a car but used at the crime scene.

Departments do not need to pay a lot for a computer to have a protected computer, Thomas says. Depending on where a laptop is used, he suggests some departments may be able to save money by purchasing a computer and a protective case instead of a ruggedized computer.

Tough enough for law enforcement?

From nylon soft bags to aluminum or plastic hard cases, there are different types of cases. Each has its own benefits. An important question for cases used in law enforcement is: how tough is tough?

Anyone who watched TV in the 1970s and even early '80s will remember that a gorilla can test just how tough a case really is. In a commercial, an ape threw, jumped on and dragged around a bright red case and proved American Tourister luggage is tough.

Fuerte would be open to the gorilla test, Bircumshaw says. The company offers an unconditional lifetime guarantee on almost every product it sells. Bircumshaw has checked in several cases with airlines and the equipment inside survived without problem.

Thomas says a gorilla definitely could stand on an OtterBox case, which he says also can be dropped from reasonable heights without issue. Even small cars could drive over OtterBox cases, he says.

Pelican cases haven't yet been tested by gorillas, but customers report that a lion cub and a camel have tested Pelican Protector Cases and found them to be watertight, dust-proof and rust-proof.

Many protective cases manufacturers, including Hardigg, OtterBox and Pelican, offer an unconditional lifetime guarantee on their cases.

"If an officer leaves a case behind the squad car, drives over it by mistake and the case cracks, we'll replace it," James says.

The same is true if a case is dropped off a cliff, he says.

Storm Cases by Hardigg have survived falling off the tarmac onto the ground, being hit with a sledge hammer and flying off the back of a pickup truck and hitting a tree.

Overall, hard cases are good at protecting computers against impact.

Not all hard cases, however, are watertight.

Pelican and OtterBox cases are waterproof up to about 3 feet deep.

Founded by Dave Parker, an avid scuba diver who didn't always find something he needed to make a dive complete, Pelican makes cases specifically to keep electronics safe and dry.

Pelican Protector Cases have survived soggy situations and kept sensitive equipment bone dry. They also have been used as flotation devices when needed.

As a general rule, Thomas says it's best to leave an OtterBox on land. But, things happen.

Officers on water patrol have dropped computers overboard into water and breathed a sigh of relief to see their OtterBox case float to the surface and find the computer safe inside.

"Occasionally accidents happen and an OtterBox may fall into a puddle, lake or river," Thomas says. "Don't worry, the computer inside will still be protected."

Unless a case is completely watertight, Fuerte Cases does not deem it protective. All of the cases that the company sells float and protect against water penetration.

Things to keep in mind — just in case

Just as kryptonite weakens Superman, there are some things that can weaken super-strength cases.

Anything caustic will cause problems. Sulfuric acid and highly corrosive petroleum distillants, for example, eat through polymer, James says.

While some protective cases do well in water, most are not made to resist high heat.

Extreme heat can be a failure factor, Bircumshaw says. In a fire, any plastic resin will soften. SX cases, made by Seahorse, are flame-retardant and will self-extinguish, Bircumshaw says but only if the flame is removed.

When left inside patrol cars or any other vehicle, protective cases and their contents will reach ambient temperatures. Bircumshaw has been asked if the color of a case can help alleviate this internal heat buildup, but color does not make a significant difference. The case and its contents will reach temperatures similar to its environment regardless of case color, he says.

And, although protective cases are designed to be tough, Berry advises against checking in computers and other valuable equipment with airline baggage.

The best case scenario

Each case type and brand has its unique strengths.

Berry sorts cases into good, better and best based on their construction:

Good: Panel-type case construction (made from an aluminum frame with aluminum or PVC panels)

Better: Molded aluminum (more durable than panel-type construction)

Best: Molded polypropylene waterproof cases (extremely durable, resistant to scratches, waterproof)

A good computer case for law enforcement is hard-sided, lockable, and if possible, waterproof and airtight, he adds.

James advises law enforcement to look for a case that:

  • is small and compact,
  • provides a high degree of protection, and
  • offers needed features.

Each department and division will have its own criteria for how they want their laptops protected and what accessories they want to carry with them, James says. Investigations, for example, will be different than warrants.

Just as equipment and supplies can be organized in a soft bag, the same can be said for hard cases. Pelican cases and Storm Cases, for example, have pockets to carry things like power supplies and CDs, and lid organizers to hold pens and papers.

Extra pockets and compartments are important because today more than ever, people need more than just their computers, they need battery chargers, Internet cords, CDs, Zip drives, batteries, cell phones, PDAs, papers, files and folders, Jablonski adds.

To help departments choose which cases best fit their needs, Jablonski says one question they should ask themselves is just the computer needed in the field — or is other equipment such as cell phone, camera or Zip disks also needed? What about papers and file folders?

He says other questions to ask are:

  • Will the computer be outside where it will possibly be exposed to water, rain or falls?
  • How much foam or padding is needed around the computer for shock protection?
  • The case and the foam provide protection from the outdoor elements. A soft bag by itself provides no extra padding to protect a computer or other contents inside when it's dropped nor does it resist water.
  • How much weight can be comfortably carried?

Pelican offers a unique option: the 1080 HardBack, a hard shell case, or armor, that fits over a laptop and can be slipped into a backpack or soft case.

While plastic cases tend to be heavier than soft cases alone, some plastics are lighter than others. Some plastics are better at withstanding cold temperatures than others are. For example, Hardigg started using an HPX High Performance Resin about four to five years ago to make a hard outside shell that's lightweight, yet rugged. It can be dropped in cold weather at a temperature of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit and not crack. The key to this success is not using blowing agents, which could cause microscopic voids or bubbles, Jablonski says.

Latches are another factor to consider.

Making sure latches are secure and strong is important. As James says, "If a latch doesn't stay closed, you can't protect your electronic equipment if the case opens and the equipment falls out."

Pelican's 1490 has Double Safety Locking Latches, while its 1495 has a combination lock built in to the case.

While a latch must be secure, a case cannot be too difficult to open. If it is, an officer might not bother using it.

Hardigg, for example, uses a press-and-pull latch design. It's a wider latch with a strong snap fit that releases easily at the press of a button, yet it requires 900 pounds of pressure to fail.

A case in point

"We've all dropped something along the way," Jablonski says.

When computers are dropped, screens can crack and data can be lost.

"Even though you have a data backup, you still face costly repair or replacement and possibly weeks of lost productivity," he says. "When you're in the field, there's no room for error, your job is challenging enough, protecting your equipment shouldn't be."

Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer and editor specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

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