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Back to Archives | Back to June 2008 Contents 

Technology Talk

Technology Talk: Challenges and Successes of the CapWIN Project: Lessons Learned from the Inside

By Lieutenant David J. Mulholland, Commander, Information Technology and Communications, U.S. Park Police, Washington, D.C.

rom 2000 to 2007, the IACP had the opportunity to assist with a major interoperability project in the Washington, D.C., area, the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN). During this seven-year period, the IACP was heavily involved in several aspects of the project, including concept development, implementation, and advisory roles in governance. This participation allowed the IACP to have an insider’s look at some of the challenges and successes that can be found with a major interoperability project.

Over the past eight years, a tremendous emphasis has been placed on information sharing, both at an analytical level for intelligence purposes and at an “in-the-weeds” functional level in day-to-day incident response. Primary and secondary responders have always had an awareness of the need to communicate across jurisdictions and disciplines, but it has been only in the new millennium that these capabilities were effectively extended to in-the-field use.

The IACP has learned, through its work with CapWIN, that conceiving of and developing a technological tool to enable interoperable communications on the one hand and functionally deploying the technology across jurisdictions and disciplines on the other are two different things. Consistent with other reports that have been generated about interoperable initiatives, including U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits and reviews of federal informationsharing programs, the CapWIN project proved that the primary challenge is not a technological challenge, but a political one.

Overcoming Political Issues

Early in the CapWIN process, law enforcement agencies, fire departments, and emergency medical services—as well as transportation stakeholders from the jurisdictions of the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government—came to the table and eagerly and readily agreed to share information. Agreement, however, was followed by challenge, as those at the table struggled to convince those who controlled the systems of the importance of sharing the information in these systems. George Ake, who led the CapWIN team from its creation until 2005, noted, “Changing the paradigm of agencies controlling their own systems to a multistate partnership was difficult. Some administrators understood the need for a partnership and some were very interested in control and ownership.”

One of the most effective ways to overcome this challenge was to ensure that the right people—people who had the authority to direct the political changes necessary—were part of the program. Thus CapWIN used a governance model that integrates members of the board from several disciplines that normally have not worked together. This governance model created a true shared-ownership environment that encouraged cooperation. The model has had tremendous success in overcoming political issues and has proved that different disciplines and multistate agencies can partner and make a difference.

Additional Challenges

Establishing interoperability was also difficult in that, at the turn of the millennium, interoperability was “an ill-defined goal and the technology to support it was changing so rapidly,” as current CapWIN executive director Tom Henderson acknowledges. However, CapWIN addressed the challenge of defining the goals of interoperability by depending heavily on the stakeholder community to create CapWIN and drive changes to the system. The first concept development meetings were conducted among stakeholders: police officers, firefighters, and transportation vehicle operators. Subsequently, groups of users and superusers (superusers are defined as individuals who use the system most often) met frequently to provide feedback on the software versions, which enabled programmers to adapt the software to better meet their functional needs. As a result, CapWIN, a system designed by practitioners for practitioners, so successfully met the needs of the “boots in the field” that a recent review by the IACP for compliance with National Incident Management System standards found CapWIN to be fully compliant, with only minor recommendations for enhancement.1

Another challenge encountered by the CapWIN staff in developing and deploying a technology to address a new demand was the expectation from the practitioner community of a fully functional product. Interoperability was desperately needed in the field, and when practitioners were presented with the possibility of achieving this goal, the response was enthusiastic—so enthusiastic that it was very easy for the practitioners to be “very unrealistic in their timelines. They (understandably) expected the network to be operational in a short time,” according to Ake. Developers addressed these expectations with constant communication through the governance boards and user groups.

A technological challenge was to design a system using open standards, allowing any agency as well as other systems to ultimately “plug and play” into CapWIN. Open standards were not as high a priority at the turn of the millennium as they are today, and there was some pushback from others who preferred to guard the territorial interests of proprietary systems. CapWIN helped raise the bar for open-standards technology for interoperable data communications.


Perhaps the greatest success story of CapWIN, and the greatest lesson learned, is that the needs of the practitioner community (that is, sharing information) should drive technology; the information-sharing community should not allow technology to drive or constrain its needs. CapWIN stands as a testament to the model of engaging stakeholders at the very beginning, listening to stakeholder needs throughout the whole process, actively soliciting stakeholder feedback, and then acting on that information. This process must be the fundamental premise of any technological project. Technology cannot be acquired and deployed for its own sake; it must serve a purpose of improving the mission of the organization that creates it, and only those who are engaged in the mission can best determine those needs. Technology is a moving target; stakeholder input is the best sight an organization can use to hit the technological bull’s-eye. ■


1A copy of the CapWIN NIMS Compliance Study and Traceability Matrix can be obtained directly from CapWIN. To request more information on CapWIN or to obtain a copy of the NIMS Compliance and Traceability Matrix, readers may call John Binks at 301-614-3721.


From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 6, June 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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