Wi-Fi to the Rescue

By Jeff Goldman

November 01, 2007

From gunshot detection to emergency medicine, municipal Wi-Fi networks are proving to be extremely useful in a wide range of public safety applications.

The wildfires throughout Southern California this fall served as a stark reminder of the value of advanced wireless applications for public safety. From remote monitoring of fire conditions to streaming video in police cars, Wi-Fi has proven exceptionally useful for municipal public safety deployments.

In a particularly timely announcement, Tropos Networks this month announced the deployment of a Wi-Fi “Fire Watch” system in Laguna Beach, California. The company has been working with the city of Laguna Beach for a while to support video surveillance of local beaches when lifeguards weren’t available, but the fire watch system is new.

A major fire in the city in 1993 destroyed more than 390 homes and burned over 16,000 acres, prompting Laguna Beach residents to look for an effective early warning system. With a federal grant from the Bureau of Land Management, the city has worked with Tropos to deploy a wireless video surveillance system covering 20 square miles around Laguna Beach.

The system uses cameras mounted on fiberglass poles that are backhauled to solar-powered transmitters, allowing public safety officials to monitor the surrounding area 24/7 for any early signs of fire. And it’s not just for fire prevention--the plan is to use the video system to help park rangers and naturalists conduct studies of local wildlife as well.

Additional applications

Looking beyond fire prevention, Tropos this month also announced a partnership with ShotSpotter to deploy a Wi-Fi network in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The ShotSpotter system is designed to recognize the sound of gunfire and automatically point surveillance cameras toward the shooter--with the Wi-Fi network then delivering the video feed to first responders.

ShotSpotter senior vice president Gregg Rowland says the high bandwidth and flexibility of Wi-Fi can be key to enabling a quick response. “Getting that officer to a shooting in less than a minute-- versus sometimes 20 or 30 minutes after they traditionally get a call--is critically important to not only saving lives, but giving the information to the officers so they know how to respond,” he says.

And in Tucson, Arizona, Tropos is supporting the city’s new ER-Link system, which uses a telemedicine solution from General Devices to link video cameras in ambulances back to the hospital emergency room, allowing ER doctors to assess an incoming patient while in transit and ensure that the trauma team is fully prepared for the patient’s arrival.

Company director of marketing Denise Barton says a key selling point for Tropos is the fact that Wi-Fi--unlike, say, 900 MHz--can be used for a variety of different applications. Tucson initially tried to get federal funding to deploy Wi-Fi for a traffic signal management solution, she says, but they weren’t able to get the funds until they added the ER-Link system to the proposal.

And, of course, now that the city has deployed the Wi-Fi network, any number of municipal applications can easily be run over it. “[Tucson] received $1.9 million in federal grant funding for the ER-Link application--and then they were able to leverage that same network infrastructure to deploy the traffic signal management application,” Barton says.

Beyond Wi-Fi

Still, sometimes Wi-Fi isn’t enough. Earlier this month, In Motion Technology released an appliance version of its onBoard Mobility Manager solution, which had previously only been available as a hosted service. The solution works with the company’s onBoard Mobile Gateways in police cars and ambulances to provide a total wireless solution for emergency services.

Imagine, says company vice president of business development and marketing Tony Morris, a high-speed pursuit in which a patrol car leaves the city (and its municipal Wi-Fi network) and heads into the desert. “You can’t really say, ‘Oh, darn those criminals that leave my Wi-Fi environment: I’ll just let them go!’” Morris notes.

Instead, the company’s Mobile Gateways are able to hand off seamlessly between a variety of different networks, from Wi-Fi to cellular to 700 MHz, choosing the best option at any given moment. And the Mobility Manager gives those at headquarters an overview of all connected Mobile Gateways in terms of connectivity, position, and a variety of other metrics.

The Mobile Gateways also create vehicle area networks, enabling legacy devices to connect to a municipal network when they otherwise couldn’t do so. If a Mobile Gateway is connected, for example, to a citywide 4.9 GHz Wi-Fi network, it can serve as a gateway to allow products like 2.4 GHz PDAs, Bluetooth ECG machines, or serial printers to access that 4.9 GHz network.

As Tropos’ Barton notes, giving a wide variety of different devices and applications access to Wi-Fi can be key for public safety. “It’s about high bandwidth--it’s about video surveillance, it’s about being able to download fingerprints and photos and mug shots very quickly right to the vehicle,” she says. “It’s about getting the information fast.”

Jeff Goldman is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Los Angeles, California.

Originally published on .

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