Ronald Barrett, systems manager for the city of Marietta, Ga., outfits police cars with wireless hubs.

Enhanced Emergency Systems

Localities bring public safety communication into the 21st century with new technology that extends interoperability.

Watching the chaos in New York City as various first responders to the 9/11 attacks struggled to communicate across agency lines, officials in Alabama realized their own emergency communication infrastructure needed an overhaul. The first state to follow the federal example and create a homeland security department, Alabama surveyed its first-responder agencies. The local jurisdictions reported that meeting all needs with a new statewide radio system would cost more than $3 billion.

“That exceeded the entire federal homeland security budget for the year, so we realized a brand-new communications system was out of the question,” says Joe Davis, assistant director of the Alabama Department of Homeland Security. So, like many other state and local jurisdictions, Alabama is improving interoperability in the face of budget constraints by tapping emerging technologies to weave together existing communication systems and forge statewide networks.

A recent report from the Governors Homeland Security Advisors Council highlights interoperable communication as the top homeland security priority in the states. Indeed, emergency communication deployments have snowballed, according to P.J. Doyle, president of Tallahassee, Fla.-based CJIS Group, which tracks criminal justice and public safety–related technology acquisitions by state and local government. “We went back three years and found 299 new projects involving emergency communications,” he says.

In this report we take a look at several of these: a wireless hub that equips police-cruiser notebooks in Marietta, Ga., with secure, high-speed communication; a text-messaging alert system that keeps citizens informed in New Orleans and a trio of Northern California counties; and Internet Protocol–based integration platforms that let first responders in three localities — Jefferson County, Ala.; Boulder County, Colo.; and Danville, Va. — talk across disparate radio frequencies.

Connecting Cruisers

Wireless hubs boost communication and streamline law enforcement in Marietta, Ga.

High-speed wireless connectivity keeps information at the fingertips of police officers riding patrol in Marietta, Ga. Best of all, the Atlanta suburb didn’t have to speed up a WiMAX deployment or install Wi-Fi hotspots to provide it.

“We saw all these wireless projects falling on their faces all over the country due to cost and standards issues, plus we aren’t that big a city,” says Ronald Barrett, systems manager of Marietta’s MIS/GIS department. “Also, the cities who had built their own wireless networks successfully had to provide public access to make it work, and we didn’t want to do that.”

When city officials started evaluating wireless technologies for public safety early last year, they decided it made more sense to subscribe to a carrier’s wireless service instead of building and managing its own infrastructure, Barrett says. After evaluating products and services, Marietta settled on Utility Associates’ OnComm Rocket mobile communication hubs bolstered with NetMotion Wireless Mobility XE wireless virtual private network (VPN) software connected via Sprint’s wireless infrastructure.

Marietta’s police cruisers had been equipped with notebooks for about a decade, and officers used them to write reports and run vehicle tags or make other queries. However, the notebooks accessed the state network with 19.2 kilobit-per-second Motorola modems and provided only limited text messaging for car-to-car communication. The city wanted the notebooks to be robust communication platforms with ready access to law enforcement records and the city intranet.

“Motorola wanted $2,000 per modem per year for maintenance, or $2,000 each to replace them and not provide additional functionality,” says Barrett. “We found the Rockets for $800; plus, the functionality the officers have gained is tremendous.” The OnComm Rocket routers provide Internet connectivity and GPS intelligence, and the NetMotion software creates VPN tunnels for security. The city’s MIS group uses the VPN to manage the notebooks remotely.

“We don’t have to touch every car when we do updates, which makes management a lot easier,” Barrett reports. “The officers can get to the Internet and use various sites, and the NetMotion software lets us specify which URLs they can access, so they don’t have free range to do whatever they want.”

The high-speed connectivity also means that Marietta can develop and use Web-based applications, a more efficient approach that frees up IT resources for application development. The notebooks in the cruisers access only centralized applications using standard Web browsers; they have no client software that has to sync with the application server. New applications include gang-tracking, field-interview, and criminal-trespass databases that officers can access and update in real time — capabilities that increase efficiency and officer safety.

The OnComm Rocket solution has proved itself in the field by providing faster and better communication. Recently, when an officer pulled over a suspect who wasn’t carrying any ID, a check through the National Crime Information Center and Georgia Crime Information Center databases didn’t turn up anything. With the old system, that would have been the end of it. But with the OnComm Rocket, the officer was able to query the police department’s in-house crimes records, found a failure-to-appear warrant and a Georgia ID number, and was able to make an arrest.

“If the officer hadn’t been able to find this information, the subject would have been released,” Barrett explains. “The officers can run checks themselves instead of calling in a request and waiting for someone to do it for them. That can be a major benefit.”

Now people in the office are able to communicate better with officers in the vehicles. Not everyone in the police department has access to the mobile text messenger that is used car-to-car. The chief doesn’t have that capability on his desk, for example, but he can now use standard e-mail to communicate with the cars and doesn’t have to know where particular individuals are in order to reach them.

One unanticipated downside to the deployment was the time it took to power on the OnComm Rockets. While the old 19.2Kbps modems came on in seconds, the Rockets were taking about 10 minutes to boot up. This created a problem when the cruisers were turned off between shifts, so the city had to purchase the charge-card option for the devices. The cards can power the Rockets for up to eight hours, so officers can stay connected even when the cruiser engines are not running.

Barrett estimates that the city spent about $1,000 per vehicle to install the entire OnComm Rocket solution, with an ongoing cost of $50 per month, per vehicle for wireless service from Sprint.

“The system has been so successful that we are considering putting it in utility vehicles so field employees will have real-time access to work-order systems,” Barrett says. “We also may put it in fire department vehicles so firefighting teams will have better access to pre-plan drawings of the burning buildings they are dealing with.”

Spread the News

Governments rely on the Roam Secure text-messaging system to inform citizens of emergencies.

Lt. Murray “Randy” Randleman of San Mateo County’s Office of Emergency Services encourages citizens and leaders in the county to expand usage of the county’s SMCAlert text notification system.

Robert Houser

Local governments have long relied on community notification services to alert citizens, but this system has some drawbacks: It doesn’t work if a disaster has taken down phone lines or if people with homes in danger aren’t around to field an alert call.

“We saw that here in California after the big San Diego fires in 2005, and in Oakland as well,” says Lt. Murray “Randy” Randleman, director of San Mateo County’s Office of Emergency Services. “This method of contacting residents fell short and they couldn’t be evacuated quickly.”

What’s more, the geographically tied community notification services are out of tune with today’s focus on mobility. As a result, organizations are turning to text-messaging infrastructure for emergency notification. “Almost all cell phones made today come with text-messaging capability, and people tend to have their cell phones on them wherever they go,” says Randleman. A text-messaging system provides backup and redundancy, “giving you a 100 percent better chance that you will reach someone.”

With this in mind, three Northern California counties — San Mateo, Marin and San Francisco — banded together last year and used $1.3 million in federal grants under the Urban Area Security Initiative to deploy Cooper Industries’ Roam Secure Alert Network (RSAN) as its SMCAlert text alerting system. RSAN is available as a hosted service, or can be deployed on standard server hardware in a customer’s data centers or in geographically dispersed facilities operated by Cooper Notification.

The RSAN software has three basic elements:

  • A Web server component for user registration and management;
  • A database for storing user information and configuration details;
  • A proprietary messaging engine that uses parallel processing to send a text message out on multiple threads for different categories of client devices, using wireless carriers, public and private paging services, e-mail and XM Satellite Radio.

No additional software is required on the clients. To receive emergency alerts, citizens go to and register.

There haven’t been any major disasters since SMCAlert went live in 2007, but it has proved itself in a number of smaller incidents involving temporary road closures due to flooding or accidents. Using the text-messaging system, the cities or other agencies within the counties will offer citizens helpful suggestions, such as alternate travel routes, along with basic alerts.

Except for incompatibility with America Online’s e-mail system, SMCAlert “works very well with everything — e-mail services, digital paging, phone lines and wireless carriers,” reports Randleman. “And it’s very simple to use.”

Matt Kallmyer, deputy director of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the City of New Orleans, recently deployed RSAN and seconds this assessment. “Now we can send out alert messages to our visitors as well as to our citizens,” Kallmyer says. “With the ability to do short-code registration, people can just type in ‘NOLA 4U’ to get added to the alert system.”

Administrators can use a granular group structure to tailor the RSAN-generated alerts to meet the specific needs of agencies. For example, alerts involving a particular elementary school could go out just to parents, teachers and other school employees. Citizens go online to sign up for the type of alerts they want to receive — such as severe weather alerts, child abductions, major traffic accidents or school notifications — and specify how broad or narrow the geographic relevance should be.

Officials in New Orleans were so impressed with RSAN that they purchased a separate system for first responders. “Prior to this, our public-safety communication was very disjointed, using things like e-mail groups,” Kallmyer says. “Roam Secure took us to a whole new level with its text messaging, letting the public-safety organizations alert each other about what is going on. This can ultimately include organizations at the state and federal levels, such as Homeland Security, immigration and postal inspectors.”

IP Integration

Technology ties together disparate radio systems to streamline response.

The radio frequency Tower of Babel that plagues dispatchers and emergency-response agencies around the country is a thing of the past in jurisdictions such as Alabama’s Jefferson County, Colorado’s Boulder County and the city of Danville, Va. Seeking to streamline emergency response and improve public safety, they are utilizing existing IP infrastructures to integrate disparate radio communication channels.

At the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Jefferson County’s first responders “almost had to use runners to get messages back and forth,” remembers Allen Kniphfer, emergency- management coordinator for the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency. Jefferson County deployed a satellite- based emergency communication system in 2003 but was looking to enhance it with a tactical solution that was more mobile.

Kniphfer and his colleagues were impressed by the performance of F4W Inc.’s Tactical Wireless Emergency Broadband (TWEB) during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when jurisdictions in Louisiana and Mississippi lost many of their emergency operations centers (EOCs). In places where the local infrastructure was down, first responders were able to use TWEB to hook into a satellite feed to restore emergency communication.

The county field-tested TWEB during a recent NASCAR event at the Talladega Superspeedway, when the airwaves were loaded with radio and cellular traffic. “You have a lot of interference issues there, but it worked perfectly,” Kniphfer says. His team deployed the solution in two portable configurations: a large setup that fits onto two cargo trailers and includes a tent for the mobile EOC and the F4W equipment; and a small configuration that fits into the emergency management agency’s Chevrolet Tahoe and can be used to set up as many as 10 phones quickly.

Danville and Boulder County are using Cisco System’s Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS). Dispatchers can communicate directly with disparate radio communication channels using a single PC console, and field personnel can talk directly to one another across agency and technology boundaries.

“IPICS creates a bridge between two dissimilar end-points and then hands the connection off,” says Drew Depler, IT customer support manager for Boulder County. “IPICS integrates computers and cell phones along with the multiple radio channels.”

This technology obviates the need to replace multiple radio channels with a single new system, an expensive proposition. “[Using] existing IP networks provides more bang for the buck,” says Mark Weidick, vice president and general manager of Cisco’s safety and security business systems.

Because Boulder County already used Cisco IP telephony, implementing IPICS simply required adding a server. A pilot installation in the sheriff’s office in 2006 quickly demonstrated the technology’s potential. Office workers no longer need radio sets on their desks because they can access radio channels from their IP phones or a PC-based push-to-talk management console (PMC). The county also is testing PMC on rugged notebooks in cruisers to provide a redundant radio system that works over the Internet instead of a proprietary radio channel.

In Danville, too, workers are enjoying the benefits of unified radio communication. Danville is located in southern Virginia where five jurisdictions intersect and often need to communicate with each other. Danville went live with an IPICS trial in February and will be hosting the IPICS network for all five jurisdictions.

“The IPICS system is surprisingly easy to operate,” says Maj. R. Dean Hairston, services commander for the Danville Police Department. “You just drag and drop people into virtual talk groups to establish live connections across multiple frequencies.”

“Say the chief is out of town when something comes up. He can dial in to the server with his cell phone. Or say we need a translator: This person can be located anywhere in the world and get connected into the system,” Hairston explains.

The IP integration platform is a big improvement in Boulder County, too, notes Depler. Before, when emergency calls came in, the caller would be put on hold while the dispatcher relayed the message to the appropriate service. Because the tone of the message and the sense of urgency it conveyed were lost, the information became static. Errors could be inserted inadvertently into the content, and often the situation had changed by the time the message arrived. The interoperability provided by IPICS eliminated these problems by allowing for direct communication.

Bill Hughes, a principal analyst covering mobile devices and mobile business for In-Stat, a market research firm headquartered in Scottsdale, Ariz., says IPICS is a good fit for jurisdictions like Boulder County and Danville. “The ideal IPICS candidate is a suburban police department that has to cooperate with adjacent communities and county and state law enforcement officials,” says Hughes. “For example, the dispatcher has to know if there is a high-speed chase coming into the jurisdiction, or a crash just outside the community.”

Federal Funding

The federal government is funneling funding to emergency communication through the Public Safety Interoperable Communications grant cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. This program is distributing nearly $1 billion over the next three years so agencies at the state and local level can begin to acquire and implement interoperable communication.

Roll Call

Thanks to the wireless deployment, officers don’t need to worry about missing information on recent incidents during roll call. There’s not enough time for the outgoing shift to brief the incoming officers about everything in a critical incident during roll call. The omissions are less of a concern now that the officers have ready access to the log from their vehicles and can check it or append information to it at any time.

Clean-Up Crew

When a major oil spill in San Francisco Bay headed for the shores of San Mateo County last November, RSAN administrators quickly created a special text alert group for volunteers. About 400 people quickly registered, providing resources for cleanup and forming a core group that can be tapped for future disasters.

Cost Considerations

Licensing fees for Cisco IPICS software start at $35,000, and most organizations will require some hardware changes or upgrades. Mark Weidick, vice president and general manager of Cisco’s safety and security business systems, says a “reasonable pilot” runs about $100,000. “If we had gone out and replaced all our radio systems with a single new one, we would have spent millions,” Maj. R. Dean Hairston, services commander for the Danville Police Department, says about his city’s IPICS deployment.

Drew Depler, IT customer-support manager for Boulder County, says, “You can’t really put a price on public safety, and IPICS is a cost-effective solution that lets us enhance our communications in a way that provides real benefits to our citizens.”

Be Ready for Anything

While homeland security issues are driving awareness of and funding for emergency communication, Allen Kniphfer of Alabama’s Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency says organizations must take a broad view. “If you focus on the terrorist threat, you are missing the bigger picture, and your EC system will continue to fail in other situations. You need to look at EC as an all-hazard system, because it is the other hazards that your EC system will be used for most of the time.”

Bob Mahoney
Mar 27 2008