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Back to Archives | Back to November 2005 Contents 

Making Streets Safer through Mobile Wireless Technologies

By Jack Reece, Information Systems Specialists, Leawood Police Department, Leawood, Kansas, and Andy Lausch, Director of State and Local Sales, CDW Government Inc., Vernon Hills, Illinois

ireless-enabled mobile devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and laptops have become common in Americans' everyday lives, allowing them to roam freely while accessing information and applications through a basic wireless connection to the Internet. But wireless technology has received a mixed response from local law enforcement agencies. Many of the applications that appear compelling on paper fail in the harsh environment of police departments' day-to-day operations.

As a result, many law enforcement agencies remain skeptical of the value, security, and application of mobile wireless policing solutions. But properly deployed mobile wireless technologies provide police departments with a powerful, effective tool for protecting life and property. Law enforcement agencies that get beyond the sliding animations of typical technology adoption plans can reap the benefits of wireless technologies. The citizens of Leawood, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, are better protected because of the Leawood Police Department's implementation of a municipal wireless network.

The network delivers mission-critical information to officers' in-car laptops, providing such information as outstanding warrants and the location of other police vehicles in the area. Leawood's network enables greater information sharing and coordination between police officers on patrol, and as a result officers are more aware of their surroundings, more efficient at fighting crime, and safer on the job. In addition, Leawood's implementation shows that mobile wireless is not just big-city technology; rather, mobile wireless can make smaller, suburban areas such as Leawood safer as well.

Ahead of the Curve, but Facing a Challenge
The Leawood Police Department has considered itself a leader in the municipal implementation of wireless networks to improve citizen safety. In 1997 Leawood was among the first police departments to leverage a municipal wireless network. Based on a two-way conventional radio system, the department operated a 450-megahertz radio network to provide a simple mobile-to-base connection to a server, with a transmission speed of up to 4800 baud. This countywide wireless network provided officers in several jurisdictions with enough data bandwidth to run license plates, check wanted listings, and send text messages.

While this basic network improved officers' communications capabilities, it left critical gaps in situational awareness that could not be overcome. For example, officers rushing from one call to the next were forced to record and transmit critical information using ad hoc methods. In reality, many communications were still conducted via multiple transmissions over two-way radio, which consumed valuable bandwidth on the police frequency and resulted in the loss of detailed information, as officers had to retain case information by memory while concurrently remaining hypersensitive to their operating environment.

Adding to the confusion, Leawood police officers wasted valuable minutes coordinating their response to evolving situations in the field. Dispatch had to manually track officers to find the closest unit to a scene, while officers in the field had to maintain constant radio contact with dispatch to learn the location of other units. As a result, overall response time suffered, as did officers' productivity and cooperation.

The original network needed improvements so that it could deliver improved situational awareness and keep up with officers' increasing data demands. Moreover, the network needed to integrate voice and data from surrounding jurisdictions to avoid the communications pitfalls well known in multijurisdictional response. By reaching out to the surrounding jurisdictions, city officials sought to improve the multijurisdictional communications capability while initially bearing the financial burden of updating the antiquated system. In 2002 Overland Park, in conjunction with Leawood and Olathe, Kansas, implemented I/CAD, the Intergraph Corporation's computer-aided dispatch system, to provide expanded data capabilities in the officers' line of sight. Shawnee, Kansas, and the Johnson County Sheriff's Office have since implemented the system as well.

Greater Bandwidth for Better Communication
The computer-aided dispatch system proved a more effective model for improving public safety, as it expanded the capabilities of the original wireless network to include global positioning system (GPS) mobile unit tracking, area maps, enhanced communication and more detailed case information on each mobile unit's onboard computer. Further, the dispatch system automatically stores records, case numbers, and other pertinent details regarding each call, which reduces the need for officers to fill out reports on minor incidents.

When the Leawood Police Department decided to implement the multijurisdictional computer-aided dispatch system, officials sought vendor support to supplement their staff resources and provide additional solution-specific expertise. The Leawood Police Department chose CDW Government Inc. (CDW-G), an advisor to state and local governments.

Working closely with its CDW-G technology consultant, Leawood deployed 20 Panasonic Tough book laptops with integrated wireless access connectivity in its patrol cars and other marked vehicles so officers could remotely access the I/CAD system in the field using Johnson County's higher-bandwidth 800-megahertz wireless network.

Using the 800-megahertz radio network, Leawood could provide some data transfer abilities via I/CAD to mobile units through Motorola data radio modems installed inside the vehicles. With a coverage area of about 30 square miles, the network allows officers to travel across the county and even into surrounding counties. Most of the files required by the computer-aided dispatch system reside on the in-car laptops, so only text or small data files are transferred via the 9600-baud narrowband 800-megahertz radio network.

Leawood needed to enable high-bandwidth transmissions for large file transfers and e-mail access. To provide these capabilities, Leawood set up a second wireless network, a Wi-Fi network of 802.11b hotspots around the city using Cisco wireless access points and integrated wireless cards to push Internet connectivity of up to 11 megabits per second to the in-car laptops. Leawood deployed routers and antennas for 802.11b hotspots on top of local government buildings and other public structures. Each hotspot covers an area of about 150 feet indoors and up to a mile outdoors. Now, mobile units receive Internet connectivity throughout Leawood and the surrounding area.

Improved Citizen and Officer Safety
With Leawood's new mobile wireless solution, dispatchers send calls directly to the in-car laptop, ensuring that officers have accurate and complete information - all within the officer's line of sight. The information is organized via the Intergraph I/Mobile solution installed on each laptop, providing officers with a standardized view of call data. Consequently, information is not lost or forgotten between the initial radio call and when officers arrive on the scene.

After responding to a call, police officers use Intergraph's I/Leads records management software to create reports in their cars and then transmit the reports to the office over the 802.11b or 800-megahertz network. This remote capability has nearly eliminated the need for officers to return to headquarters to fill out and file routine paperwork. Reports generated in the field are more accurate, as well, because the details are still fresh in the officers' minds. For some routine calls, such as alarm responses, details are recorded in the computer-aided dispatch system automatically, so officers do not need to fill out any paperwork. As a result, the number of officer-generated police reports has declined by one-third, enabling officers to spend more time on patrol.

In addition, cooperation among surrounding jurisdictions has significantly improved now that Leawood officers and those in the adjacent communities use the same interoperable dispatch system. Participating jurisdictions can view each other's calls on screen and respond more quickly to evolving emergency situations. The laptops also have an integrated emergency button that immediately sends the officer's call information and location to all connected agencies, ensuring prompt response of the officers closest to the scene, regardless of their jurisdiction.

Further, the five jurisdictions using this common software can use the point-and-click interface of the dispatch system to access local, state, and national databases to search for criminal records, putting justice and homeland security information directly into the hands of front-line responders.

Leveraging global positioning system hardware and software, the dispatch system also monitors the precise location of each mobile unit, allowing jurisdictions to better organize response efforts. Additionally, an onboard translation application that provides support for seven different languages helps Leawood officers communicate with area residents. Currently, the application provides text translations of language typed into the system by officers; Leawood plans to adopt an application that will translate the spoken word as well.

Evaluating Municipal Wireless Networks
Leawood's wireless policing solution is obviously much more than a number of charts on a series of slides. It is a proven, secure tool for empowering front-line officers to respond quickly, effectively, and safely to emergency situations. To turn PowerPoint solutions into reality, and communities departments must consider several factors.

Budget Requirements: Cost is often the primary concern for local governments, which grapple with strict yearly budgets. Many communities have secured federal and state funding specifically set aside for enhancing interagency communication as part of homeland security initiatives. Communities should weigh their budget constraints against their up-front costs and long-term service expenses such as highways and correctional facilities. Local governments must consider the cost of expansion and maintenance before deciding on the final scope of the network.

Applications: As local officials assess budgetary requirements, communities should also determine how the wireless network will be used. The type of traffic the network will carry-public Internet access or police and fire communications, for example-will often dictate the type of network selected and the number of redundant network connections required.

Aside from the 800-megahertz and 802.11b wireless networks implemented by Leawood, there are other options for communities that seek to leverage a municipal wireless network for information sharing.

WiMax: A WiMax municipal area network, also known as an 802.16 network, provides high-throughput broadband connections over long distances. This type of network provides cost-efficient Internet access by converging all connections into a single Internet connection. Municipalities often deploy WiMax networks to push Internet connectivity to mobile units or IP-based equipment, such as video cameras, located within a defined area. A WiMax network can provide access in a linear service area of up to 30 miles at a data rate of up to 70 megabits per second. This type of network is based on a centralized, fixed Internet connection broadcasting a wireless signal to multiple locations within the area. Commonly, the base station antenna is located on a rooftop or other tall structure, such as a water tower. The broadcast signal is then routed to a single computer via Ethernet cable to an 802.11 hotspot wired Ethernet LAN.

LAN: A mesh network is a local area network (LAN) that employs one of two connection arrangements: full mesh or partial mesh. In the full mesh network, each mobile computing device is connected directly to each of the others, supporting the LAN with multiple connectivity tunnels. In the partial mesh network, some devices are connected to all the others, while other devices are linked only to the devices with which they exchange the most data. Full and partial mesh networks both require local governments to install multiple Internet connection points and wireless antennas to maintain redundancies in case some access points fail. A full mesh network is often more expensive than a partial mesh network because of its greater number of redundant connection points. Additionally, each remote user requires a mobile access router to connect to the network.

Most municipalities that implement full or partial mesh networks need a communication system that can endure large-scale disasters, such as hurricanes, and provide higher bandwidths over a large coverage area. Further, mesh networks allow police units to use their in-car laptop as a workstation, accessing e-mail, their department's intranet, and the Internet from anywhere in the county.

Communication Leading the Way
A municipal wireless network combined with a multijurisdictional computer-aided dispatch system can provide limitless benefits. Serving as the backbone for public safety communications, wireless networks allow police officers to use the full spectrum of communication interactions while in the field, including audio, data, images, and even archival case information. For example, because of the automated data storage and archival functions built into the computer-aided dispatch system, the number of reports generated by Leawood police officers has decreased by almost one-third, allowing officers to stay on the streets longer to protect citizens. By leveraging I/CAD to run driver's licenses and license plates, Leawood has increased its arrests of criminals with outstanding warrants.

Mobile wireless networks are effective tools for improving the speed and safety of response to emergency situations. For Leawood, Kansas, improved efficiency and effectiveness of the police department are not just a series of numbers on the final slide of a technology adoption plan; they are daily proof that information is the most effective weapon against crime. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 11, November 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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