Building for Safety

By Adam Stone

April 05, 2004

Past experience at disaster sites is leading companies like Ascentry Technologies to create systems that will ensure interoperation of the wireless networks of the first responders on the scene.

As an Air Force Second Lieutenant on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing, Federico Pacquing learned some things about the way emergency services operate. Now he is looking to wireless technologies to make a bad situation better.

"It was just amazing, the lack of communications tools that our police and emergency services have," he said. At one point during the response in Oklahoma City, the emergency teams pulled back because of a bomb threat. It took 15 minutes for the coordinating officers to give the all-clear, yet people did not get the word to go back on site for another 45 minutes. Back at headquarters, "they didn't even know there was a major work stoppage, because they had no way to see what was going on."

All of which leads Pacquing to his present work as founder and CEO Ascentry Technologies , where he is developing Wi-Fi based systems that will help foster interoperability among the various communications modes in use by emergency personnel.

Ascentry's "Fusion" software platform is designed to merge disparate communication networks, in order to allow for a seamless exchange of voice, image and data between those networks. When emergency workers show up on the scene, Fusion incorporates their communications into a Wi-Fi network, making them available to any other on-scene personnel regardless of the original communications format.

In December, Ascentry announced it has closed a $1.75 million round of angel funding in support of this idea -- and idea that analysts say could have a positive impact on the way emergency services function.

"Any system that brings greater compatibility to disparate users is obviously going to bring value," said Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current Analysis. "As long as it works properly."

Properly functionality in this case means more than just the ability to bring harmony to analog radio systems, cellular protocols and diverse satellite communications protocols. For the system to truly meet the need, users must be able to trust in the utter security of the network.

To that end Ascentry has teamed up recently with Fortress Technologies, a security firm specializing in wireless communications. As vice president of product management at Fortress, Ken Evans defines the emergency situation as being possessed of certain unique challenges: A shared emergency network has to be open enough to allow for instant access by arriving parties, while at the same time being secure enough to keep out curious onlookers and more malicious visitors.

As wireless use by fire and police departments already has shown, emergency services "are excited about the prospect of wireless networks, but unlike commercial accounts they are always thinking about security. They are keenly aware of their responsibility for the information that they use and the information they are sharing," said Evans.

To that end Fortress has been developing security protocols that, in effect, build a bigger wall.

In an office environment, Evans explained, "there can be lots of people getting onto your network, and then there might be levels of security to keep them out of your actual applications. In an emergency situation on the other hand you want to stop them at that early moment, before they even get onto that network."

In an emergency network, "I don't want you to see a network address. I don't want you to see a server name. I don't want you to see anything about my network. This is a private highway," said Evans.

As envisioned by Ascentry, that highway is paved with Wi-Fi, which Pacquing described as the natural choice for a backbone technology.

"Wi-Fi has a number of unique properties that enable it to hit the target market. There is its low price point, combined with its high bandwidth," he said. Moreover, it is swiftly becoming the pre-installed wireless norm. "Almost every device we are targeting either has Wi-Fi already or can be upgraded to accommodate Wi-Fi."

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