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Back to Archives | Back to April 2005 Contents 

Communications:Selecting the Appropriate Wireless Infrastructure

By Barbara Montgomery, Project Manger, Automated Regional Justice Information System, San Diego, California, and Fred Davis, Deputy Program Director, Capital Wireless Integrated Network, Washington, D.C.

n August 2004 ARJIS and CapWIN initiated a cooperative agreement to facilitate mutual cooperation in the development of voice and data sharing systems for public safety and transportation. This agreement established a partnership framework for cooperation, data sharing, and exchange of technology between regional and statewide communication systems.

Goal of the ARJIS-CapWIN Agreement
The partnership enables the two programs to share lessons learned, processes, and technology advancements through joint technology pilot implementations. ARJIS and CapWIN work together to do the following:

  • Identify alternatives for the development of a secure network of public safety and transportation information that enables a properly authorized user to readily access and use information regardless of its location in national, state, local, or private-sector databases

  • Identify methods, based on evolving voice and data communications technology, for exchanging data, communicating, and enhancing response capabilities of transportation and public safety governmental entities involved in law enforcement, traffic management, and critical incident responses

  • Develop model agreements and best practices that can be used throughout the United States

  • Partner with the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Justice, and other federal agencies in developing new technologies and methods

About CapWIN
From the inception of CapWIN in 1999, the mobile data system's initial primary user base was public safety, including law enforcement, fire service, emergency medical service, and transportation in the Washington, D.C. area, otherwise known as the National Capital Region. The premise is that properly trained and equipped emergency first responders have the greatest potential to save lives and limit casualties after a mass casualty event if they also have an interoperable communications capability that allows them to perform at optimum levels.

Looking to expand CapWIN services outside of the National Capital Region, reseachers discovered that of more than 1,500 law enforcement, fire and EMS, transportation, and emergency management agencies in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia only 83 (5 percent) had mobile computing capability. None of them had an interoperable mobile computing capability allowing communications and information access across geographical, jurisdictional, or disciplinary boundaries.

This lack of mobile data communications and information access is precisely the problem CapWIN is seeking to solve. CapWIN's goal is to provide all participating agencies with mobile communications and information access capability and link agencies that currently have mobile computing so that they are all interoperable, thus providing them with the ability to share vital information and work together to solve regional problems.

The Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) was created as a joint powers agency (JPA) to share information among justice agencies throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties, California. Over the past several years, ARJIS has evolved into a complex criminal justice enterprise network used by 65 local, state, and federal agencies in the two California counties that border Mexico. The secure ARJISnet intranet integrates more than 6,000 workstations throughout the 4,265 square miles of San Diego County. There are more than 11,000 authorized users generating more than 35,000 transactions daily. ARJIS is used for tactical analysis, investigations, statistical information, and crime analysis. The ARJIS governance structure promotes data sharing and cooperation at all levels for member agencies, from chiefs to officers to technical staff.

ARJIS is responsible for major public safety initiatives, including wireless access to photos, warrants, and other critical data in the field, crime and sex offender mapping, crime analysis tools evaluation, and an enterprise system of applications that help users solve crimes and identify offenders. ARJIS also serves as the region's information hub for officer notification, information sharing, and the exchange, validation, and real-time uploading of data of all kinds.

ARJIS provides citizens with crime statistics and maps, most wanted persons listings, and other justice data via the publicly accessible Web site ( Recent partnerships have been established with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the Border Safe Grant, the U.S. Department of Justice for a test bed for new technology, and the FBI for sharing local, state, and federal data.

Why Mobile Data?
Public safety first responders need all the technological advantages they can obtain in order to effectively and efficiently perform the day-to-day duties and responsibilities of protecting and serving their communities. Wireless mobile data can provide two critical capabilities:

Communications: The ability to locate and communicate with another individual (or group of individuals) using instant messaging, chat, and e-mail functionality, regardless of jurisdiction, discipline, or geographic location.

Information Access: The ability to quickly access data and information that allows responders do their jobs more effectively such as querying criminal justice, transportation system, emergency response, and hazardous materials databases for vital information.

Wireless mobile data should be focused on the accurate and expedient delivery of these capabilities to public safety first responders. Data files such as emergency plans, digital photographs (such as mug shots), fingerprints, locations and identification of hazardous materials, evacuation routes, emergency contact lists and phone numbers, and many others can all be accessed and rapidly disseminated to one individual, or to many individuals simultaneously, through a mobile data network. First responders need to have an interoperable mobile data communications capability that supports and enhances their primary life line: mission critical voice communications supported by their private land mobile radio (LMR) system.

In many cases, emergency responders have incompatible voice systems that prevent any communications. Even the best-prepared state and local agencies often don't possess adequate resources to respond to the full range of regional incidents that occur all too frequently: overturned tankers, traffic gridlock, sniper incidents, terrorist threats, special public events, and so on. With mobile data communications interoperability, first responders, and especially incident commanders, can deploy available resources in a more efficient and effective manner, thus enhancing the protection of the community.

Selecting the Appropriate Wireless Infrastructure
One of the most critical challenges of deploying a mobile data system is determining how to select the appropriate wireless infrastructure to move the data. The infrastructure can be either a commercial wireless network or a private proprietary one.

Although the current field of national wireless carriers is shrinking because of mergers and acquisitions, there are still multiple carriers and technologies providing services to public safety. The current carriers found in most major markets are Verizon and Sprint (both running CDMA) and Cingular (running GPRS/UMTS). Nextel runs a proprietary technology called iDEN and recently piloted a new broadband technology in some locations.

Benefits of a Wireless Commercial Carrier
The most obvious advantage of a wireless commercial carrier is the throughput that is now available on the commercial wireless networks. With the release of true third-generation technology, speeds of 300-500 kbps (kilobytes per second) are now realistic and becoming available across the United States. This bandwidth allows large data sets, photos, and even streaming video to mobile devices.

Another significant advantage to using a commercial carrier is that there are no upfront costs to building out a network or issues with antenna placement. Commercial carriers are experts at network installations and have large technical staffs and deep pockets .

Once built, networks require regular maintenance. Commercial carriers are responsible for keeping their networks current and tuned for maximum efficiency. Network operations centers are constantly monitoring traffic and identifying sites that require upgrades. When service issues are identified with a commercial carrier, experienced staff will troubleshoot the problem and resolve the difficulties.

Another benefit of using a commercial carrier is that the service is available in most areas nationwide, which is useful for staff that travels outside your geographic area. With faster services being offered, it is now practical for travelers to check e-mail and access remote files from almost anywhere in the country with speeds that rival the desktop.

Downside of Wireless Commercial Carriers
Disadvantages of using a wireless commercial carrier are monthly charges, sharing the system with the public, coverage, security, and the control of the system. Perhaps the most significant concern with using a commercial network is that network capacity is shared with the public and can be affected in a crisis during high usage. At this time, carriers do not offer priority access to public safety agencies on the public network. From the public safety perspective, this is a serious issue. This means that in an emergency situation, the police department may not be able to access the commercial network. Just when police need the network the most, there may be no capacity available.

Also, most carriers do not offer a quality-of-service guarantee for repairs without special contractual arrangements. Experience does shows that commercial carriers do recognize the critical needs for public safety data and are eager to meet the needs of this significant vertical market. This is an area that deserves attention during the selection of a wireless commercial carrier.

Coverage can also be an area of concern. Commercial carriers usually build out their networks in urban areas and along transportation corridors but sometimes provide fewer network build-outs in rural areas. Depending on the territory and terrain, a few well-placed proprietary private antennas can provide better coverage than a commercial carrier.

Security is another important topic. In order to meet government security requirements, it may be necessary to install data center-to-data center circuits (and pay monthly charges), purchase special network hardware for these circuits and buy and deploy third-party encryption software. New FBI CJIS requirements for wireless law enforcement data will be implemented later in 2005. The last issue is simply one of control. When difficulties occur, improvements are needed, and as the network grows, the department must depend on the vendor representative to resolve the issues instead of their own network manager. Although the commercial vendor may have more resources to bring to bear on the issue, the basic elements of the issue-application to specific local needs-may not be as well understood by the commercial representative as by the department's network manager.

Proprietary Systems
A proprietary system is one that the department builds for its own private wireless needs. The benefits of a proprietary system are security, priority access since it is not shared with others, and control over its use and development.

A private system has significant upfront costs to build out a network. Some departments have found that antenna placement can become a community issue. Nimby (not in my back yard) and Banana (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone) forces are alive and well in some communities that do not want new antennas installed.

These systems can have limited service areas and may not have the same far-reaching ability of the commercial wireless networks. Once built, preventative and network maintenance become the ongoing tasks at hand. This involves hiring and supporting staff and keeping an inventory of parts.

Technology changes daily and departments will inevitably want more features and functionality with applications. The development of these network upgrades is the responsibility of the private network administrator.

The Future: A Trusted Information Network
It is important to note that there is a possible third option being considered for the future: the creation of a nationwide trusted information network dedicated to the public safety and national responder communities. The U.S. Congress recently passed the Intelligence Reform Act; it requires two studies of significance to the public safety community. One study is to be conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that will assess the need for additional spectrum for the extended responder community. The other study, to be conducted by DHS in collaboration with the FCC and NTIA, will assess the need for a nationwide broadband mobile network to serve the national responder community. This is a fairly new concept that is just starting to be discussed by the national responder community. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, April 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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