Patrolling with Wi-Fi

By Paul Swider

November 10, 2003

Law enforcement agencies coast to coast are beginning to use wireless networks for everything from reporting tickets to delivering critical info to officers in the field.

A car drives into San Mateo, Calif., with a police officer in pursuit. Before the officer can pull the car over, the driver parks, gets out and melts into the crowded downtown. End of story? Not in this city.

"We had that happen but we got the tag number, sent a picture of the driver to all of our officers and picked him up," said Larry Allhands, a computer systems specialist for the San Mateo's police department. The SMPD didn't have to hand out flyers or even send faxes because its officers are connected to headquarters by a Wi-Fi network that greatly enhances the department's efficiency, Allhands said.

"Our response time is better and our actual customer service is going up," said Allhands.

Public safety is one of the hottest spaces for Wi-Fi. According to Tropos Networks, the provider that helped set up San Mateo's network, more than $1 billion of federal money alone will be spent on such local public safety communications this year.

San Mateo's is one of the more exciting applications so far, in part because the city's size makes it cost effective to roll out full services. SMPD officers don't have ubiquitous coverage throughout the city, but in the downtown hotzone and other high traffic areas, they can access all the networks and databases they could in the station house from the laptops in their cruisers.

This means the department can share real-time data with the officers for, say, in-field photo-based lineups, missing persons reports, detailed motor vehicle records, and so on, all without the officers ever having to leave their beat.

"Because our officers now have broadband access to critical information, they can more quickly solve crimes in the community," said Susan E. Manheimer, the city's police chief.

San Mateo plans eventually to broaden its reach further when Tropos more than doubles the number of access points to 40 and begins including live video feeds from security cameras and even GIS information to officers in the field.

While San Mateo may be in the vanguard of applications, it is far from the only jurisdiction using Wi-Fi for law enforcement. Other, larger players may not have the same Mission Impossible-style stories to tell but they are also deploying larger, more expensive systems at a startling rate.

"It's surprising how much movement there has been in such a short period of time," said Rishi Sood, the principal analyst for state and local government at research group Gartner. He said larger jurisdictions are more risk averse and might feel tighter budget constraints right now, but that is not stopping them from Wi-Fi development.

Down the coast, Symbol Technologies is developing a similar network for the Los Angeles Police Department, though its initial purpose is somewhat more mundane. LAPD, in order to respond to a federal consent order that it carefully track data on police stops, will begin using handhelds with specialized reporting software to more accurately collect data from the field. Taking handwriting out of the equation and replacing it with point-and-click inputs from Vytek's ProfilerPD software, officers sync up their reporting via Wi-Fi surrounding the station houses. Though almost secretarial in nature, such a utilitarian application opens the door for the department to more readily deploy other applications in the future.

"It comes down to politics and money," said Brian Lehmann, Symbol's senior director for Global Government Solutions. In L.A.'s case, they had to meet a federal order for accurate data collection, Lehmann said. In New York, where Symbol is helping the police use handhelds and Wi-Fi for more accurate traffic ticketing, it's about the money. "For the NYPD, it was about ROI (return on investment). They will get their money back in about four months."

New York will see money from collectible tickets, as opposed to those where unintelligible handwriting meant millions of dollars were lost. Since the investment return is so rapid or, in the case of L.A., since investment fulfills other objectives as well, even simple Wi-Fi applications pave the way for much more without much more investment. Once the technology is in the field, it becomes a much simpler step to add applications because the infrastructure is there.

Just as Tropos is going to broaden San Mateo's reach, Symbol, which has built coverage for enormous warehouses all over the world, is yearning for the chance to envelop an entire city with coverage. Lehmann said with Symbol's specialized access points down to around $200 each, such an idea is within reach, though the topography and geometry, as well as size, of each city makes the calculation more complicated than one might imagine.

Lehmann has his own gee-whiz examples too, and says some will be unveiled in the next few months. Though he can't discuss specifics, he outlined some possibilities in light of the impetus behind much of this investment -- the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"During 9-11, communications was a mess because the fire couldn't talk to the police, which couldn't talk to anyone else because they were on different frequencies," he said. "It was dispatchers talking to dispatchers. You couldn't broadcast a message to everyone who had to hear it."

Now, Lehmann said, a city can sweep into a crisis situation and deploy an ad hoc network built on fixed access points as well as a mesh of connections from each individual to another, every communicator acting as a node for all the others. Quickly, he said, you can "light up" an area and have instantaneous, ubiquitous broadband connectivity. Not only can everyone hear and be heard, but with data access first responders can go into an area with cameras and other recording devices and can instantly relay detailed information back to a command center. When seconds count, decision makers will have all the pertinent information at their fingertips.

Such a network might seem like a quick, easy way to connect a broad area, but Lehmann said it does not provide the necessary reliability unless there is a density of communicators such as in a catastrophic event.

Still, because the fixed hardware is coming down in price and is proving itself so cost effective in so many ways, the time is coming soon when police, firemen, and even utilities workers will have always-on connectivity wherever they go. It's not surprising to see nearly this picture in San Mateo, neighbor to Silicon Valley, where high-tech is second nature, but Larry Allhands said it's not a function of public sentiment.

"People don't ever really see it," he said, "unless they're getting arrested."

Wi-Fi Planet Conference Wondering if municipal hotzones are in your future? Join us at the Wi-Fi Planet Conference & Expo, December 2 - 5, 2003 at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, CA. Speakers from companies doing municipal rollouts -- such as Tropos, BelAir, and Aiirnet -- will be speaking about the future on the panel Evolution of Mesh Networks.



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