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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

Special Focus: Capital Wireless Integrated Network:Expanding the Reach of Interoperable Data Communication

By George Ake, Program Director, Capital Wireless Integrated Network, College Park, Maryland, and David J. Mulholland, CapWIN Technical Consultant, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Alexandria, Virginia

CapWIN Logo
In their day-to-day duties, law enforcement officers interact with a wide variety of partners. The typical duties of the law enforcement officer as a first responder require instant communication with fire, rescue, emergency medical services, transportation, hazardous materials specialists, public utilities, and other law enforcement agencies. Despite the significant advances of technology, most law enforcement officers must rely on either face-to-face communication or slow routing of information through third-party dispatchers to accomplish critical communication while responding to and handling significant incidents. In 1998 an event on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington, D.C., focused attention on the need for more streamlined and direct communication between agencies and disciplines. This incident served as a springboard for a solution called the Capital Wireless Integrated Network (CapWIN).

Case Study

Spanning the Potomac River and connecting the Maryland and Virginia portions of the Capital Beltway (Interstate 95), the Woodrow Wilson Bridge serves more than 190,000 vehicles each day and is one of the most heavily traveled bridges in the country. On November 4, 1998, a 32-year-old Virginia man, upset because of a domestic dispute, climbed onto the wall at the edge of the span and told construction workers below that he planned to jump. The bridge remained closed for more than five hours, causing immense traffic tie-ups while emergency responders tried to cajole the man, who ultimately jumped into the water, off the bridge. Much of the Capital Beltway was brought to a complete standstill during rush hour due to the confusion that ensued as emergency personnel from multiple jurisdictions responded to the incident.

Many of the traffic problems that day were compounded by the inability of multiple responding agencies and jurisdictions to effectively communicate with each other. Even though the Wilson Bridge is not directly connected to District of Columbia roadways, it is federally owned and considered part of the District of Columbia. The Potomac River, flowing below the bridge, falls under the jurisdiction of Maryland. As a further complication, routine response to incidents on the bridge may be performed by state-level agencies (the Virginia Department of Transportation and Virginia State Police on the northbound span, and the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Maryland State Police on the southbound span), county-level agencies (Prince George's County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia), or by municipalities such as Alexandria, Virginia. In addition, the U.S. Park Police handle incidents on the Virginia side of the shoreline directly under the bridge and patrol the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the primary escape route off Interstate 95 just before the bridge.

In a later assessment of the critical issues that arose during this incident, Chief Charles Samarra of the Alexandria Police Department said, "[This incident] brought the region to a standstill; it was a transportation catastrophe." Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that emergency personnel on the scene had no way of communicating with each other by radio. Instead, officers sprinted back and forth across the bridge to deliver messages.

In order to transmit messages from a response unit in one agency to one in a different agency, responders must communicate with their respective communication centers and request that they phone their counterpart agency's communication center in order to have them relay a message to their respective unit on scene. This fragmented and indirect communication takes time and adds unnecessary delay in situations where every second counts.

Since responding agencies had no effective way to communicate with each other, they were acting without knowing what their counterparts were doing. As a result, detours in one jurisdiction led to dead ends in others. Backups stretched for miles. Some motorists sat in their cars for more than six hours without moving.

Although this incident was similar to others that have occurred in the Washington region, it encouraged two agencies, the Maryland State Highway Administration and the Virginia Department of Transportation, to initiate planning and activities leading to the creation of CapWIN.

Multistate Integrated Wireless Data Network

The CapWIN project partners, Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, share a mutual goal of developing an interoperable wireless data communications system for the region. CapWIN will be among the first multistate transportation and public safety integrated wireless data networks in the United States. It is designed to provide firefighters, police officers, transportation officials, and other authorized emergency personnel with wireless access to multiple government data sources during critical incidents. Improved access to information will provide essential tools to enable these first responders and public safety officials to make vital public safety-related decisions.

The CapWIN system is designed to reduce confusion related to incompatible communication equipment and inaccessible information across agencies. This system should address frustrations experienced by first responders and allow them to immediately and simultaneously contact other key personnel. To achieve this objective, representatives from more than 40 transportation, law enforcement, and public safety agencies in and around Washington have come together to determine how technology can be used to coordinate incident management and share relevant information faster and more accurately.
CapWin Truck

Work on CapWIN began in late 1999 after the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Transportation Technology Center received funding to conduct a one-year strategic planning effort on behalf of the initial CapWIN sponsoring agencies. All full-time CapWIN employees were hired by the University of Maryland through funding from a variety of sponsors that initially included the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, the Maryland State Highway Administration, the Virginia Department of Transportation, and the National Institute of Justice.

The CapWIN team began the strategic planning stage by determining the general user-base requirements and learning what functionality was critical to the success of the project. The team enlisted the services of the University of Virginia and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to determine which, if any, other organizations in the country were using wireless technologies to address similar needs and requirements. The IACP and University of Virginia also interviewed police, fire, and transportation first responders in Washington and developed a user need assessment focusing on primary and secondary needs for communication in a critical incident.

This initial effort focused on building the institutional infrastructure and providing a roadmap to the future, using the fundamental CapWIN philosophy of open architectural solutions, partnerships, and sharing vital resources. As a result of this initiative, which was completed in 2001, a preliminary CapWIN organizational structure was developed. An ad hoc executive board was established with members from the three jurisdictions (Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia).

Multistate Governance Structure

The ad hoc executive board commissioned a study by George Mason University to recommend governance options for CapWIN. George Mason examined 13 governance options, including models and examples from across the country. From among these options, three were selected as high-potential governance structure candidates, and the final structure selected was the interstate compact agreement and organization.

An interstate compact met all of the CapWIN requirements for institutional stability, regional cooperation, funding potential, and technical integrity. Each of the three jurisdictions would have four voting members on the CapWIN Executive Leadership Group. The federal government would appoint two voting members from operational agencies and three members (with two votes) from the federal Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, and the Department of Transportation. Members of the executive leadership group (ELG) would select the chairperson from among that group. An executive user group made up of representatives of each participating agency or jurisdiction would support the 17-member ELG. To strengthen the agreement, the parties will seek congressional approval, although it is not required, for the CapWIN Interstate Compact.

The proposed structure emphasizes the importance of local jurisdiction participation in CapWIN's voting and deliberation structure. The governance option recommended has a strong and complete role for each and every local jurisdiction as well as the state and federal departments and agencies that are currently members of CapWIN. Each of the more than 40 participating jurisdictions has a seat in its respective caucus (Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and the federal government), where it will help select the ELG members who are the interstate compact commissioners. In the case of the federal government, its representatives may be appointed or elected by the user agencies. This governance structure allows for an executive level that can represent its constituency and ensures that every agency has a vote. In November 2003, the ad hoc executive group approved the recommendations for this governance structure.

The ELG represents the interstate compact partners and is the official voting bloc of the interstate compact. It approves policy and procedures, sets the priorities for the program, approves memoranda of understanding for all involved agencies, and approves all policies relating to financial requirements to operate the program including grants. It determines and implements the appropriate business strategies of CapWIN program including the management team, oversees the development and operations of the CapWIN network, and adopts uniform standards and technology to meet the present and future needs of the network. The ELG retains ultimate authority to set direction and policy for the CapWIN project.

Technology Overview

CapWIN Website
As a potential national model for public safety and first responder information sharing, the CapWIN system is built on an open, scalable, and reliable Web-based architecture that has a minimal impact on existing systems and makes efficient use of limited wireless bandwidth and extensive use of technology standards. The solution is primarily based upon commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products and provides enhanced data security.

To facilitate system expansion, development, and maintenance over the long term, the CapWIN system has been designed using a standards-based technology approach for communications, software, and interfaces to external databases and systems. A crucial feature of this standards-based technology is the ability of CapWIN to leverage the investments of agencies that already have significant investments in mobile data communication systems.

The primary components of the system include field hardware such as notebook computers and handheld devices; the CapWIN client software; and the backend system that ties the hardware, the software, and the external system interfaces together. Because the bulk of the software is located on servers, users need only a Web browser on their computers to access and use CapWIN. Since CapWIN uses proven Internet technologies, the solution has the advantage of benefiting from the tremendous investments in research and development in these technologies that private industry is making. The system will also be able to use new wireless technology as it is introduced and without the need to rework existing applications.

Implementation Progress Details

Currently in phase 1 of the project, select agencies are now engaged in a robust beta test of CapWIN. During this test, law enforcement officers will be able to query D.C. (WALES), Maryland (MILES), Virginia (VCIN), and federal (NCIC and NLETS) law enforcement information systems and databases. CapWIN users have incident management support, instant messaging, security, and automatic notification tools at their disposal. They also have the ability to locate first responders by location or discipline through use of a global directory. In the immediate future, email capabilities will be implemented and tested.

As part of phase 1, design work for the transportation and hazmat database is being completed. The transportation database functionality will allow users to view transportation pages where all event and road sensor information will be available. Users will be able to query traffic conditions at specific locations. Agency administrators will be able to select criteria to enable members of their agencies to receive an alert via a flashing icon and sound based on the severity of a traffic event or other factors.

For computers running CapWIN software that are connected by a network with sufficient bandwidth capabilities, users will be able to view streaming video from any Maryland, Virginia, or D.C. transportation agency system.

The current CapWIN design will also give users access to hazmat data sources. Law enforcement officers will have the access to instantly query the emergency response guide and truck and train carrier manifests. Law enforcement officers can then forward the results of these queries to Chemtrec (American Chemistry Council's hazmat emergency response service) and immediately open a chat session with a Chemtrec operator. Law enforcement officers will also be able to e-mail the results of the above queries to other agencies and disciplines responding to an incident.

Finally, phase 1 involves the development of a standards-based interface in order to integrate CapWIN into existing mobile data computer software systems. The CapWIN interface will most likely be based on a Web services model and will be based on the Global Justice XML data model version 3.0, IEEE 1512, and other widely accepted standards. Upon completion, the CapWIN interface will be published and available for other states, agencies, and projects to adopt or incorporate into future requests for proposals. CapWIN's first test and use of this interface will be to connect to the Alexandria City Police Department's existing mobile data system into CapWIN.

CapWIN has received approval from its executive board to explore and pursue funding for several additional tasks, including implementation of a fully functional backup facility in Northern Virginia, integration of other existing mobile data systems in the capital area, pilot the integration of voice-over IP into the Global directory to provide laptop-to-laptop voice communications, explore the integration of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems into the CapWIN framework, and integrate geographic information system (GIS) and mapping functionality to provide resource location information and real-time intelligence routing to CapWIN users.

CapWIN 101
• Interoperable standards-based mobile computer application
• Real-time data communication between individuals and groups
• Command and control of multijurisdictional, multidiscipline incidents
• First responder access to critical data sources (criminal, transportation, hazmat, and so on)
• Improved efficiency and safety of personnel during routine duties and critical incidents

The Future

The CapWIN partnership will grow in the future. There is already interest in other areas of Virginia and Maryland to expand CapWIN. Partnerships with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Project Safecom and the National Institute of Justice's Project Agile will enable the entire country to benefit from CapWIN's lessons learned.

Meanwhile, first responders in the Washington area will soon have one more tool that will ensure a more efficient coordinated response to multiagency, multijurisdictional events and facilitate faster incident resolution.

CapWIN Lessons
• Achieving interoperability requires vision, leadership, and a plan.
• Inclusion of police, fire, EMS, and transportation expands a system's capabilities.
• Open standards reduce costs associated with integration, access, and replication.
• Success hinges more on personnel and perseverance than technology-related barriers.


From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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