Wireless mobile-access routers pose an increasingly effective weapon in the quest for public safety by outfitting police cruisers with wireless networking and enabling mobile command centers to roll to the scene of special events or emergencies.
Local governments such as Deptford, N.J., and Dublin, Ohio, have armed their officers and field personnel with information and communication capabilities offered by wireless routers. Precise tracking of police car locations, the ability to send and receive real-time video feeds, integration with back-end databases, and wireless phone extensions with four-digit dialing are among the growing number of features being extended to mobile environments.
“Getting more office-like capabilities out to the field can reduce crime,” says Jeff Webster, an analyst specializing in justice, public safety and homeland security for Input. “Officers can spend more time on the street and less time going back and forth to the station and shuffling information. And tracking via GIS data can improve officer safety and accountability.”
The township of Deptford evaluated mobile-access routers last year as part of a major infrastructure upgrade that coincided with an order for new police cars.
“We were using a legacy analog video system in the cars that burned up some manpower on tape handling and management,” recalls Ian McShane, technology coordinator for Deptford, a Philadelphia suburb of 30,000. “We wanted something that combined a mobile data terminal and digital-video recorder in a single unit and could leverage GPS technology and our records management system, which we were in the process of upgrading.”
Deptford quickly decided that Utility Associates’ OnComm Rocket fit the bill. The product is a rugged vehicle-mounted wireless gateway that supports both Wi-Fi and cellular traffic. The Rocket is “carrier-agnostic,” so it will be compatible with new technologies, says McShane. “You just swap out broadband cards when you want to change carriers or technologies.”
The router’s ability to multicast GPS data was another big selling point. The cruisers have multiple applications — records management, car-to-car messaging, mapping software, digital-video recording — that access global positioning system data. Without multicast capability, the officers would be able to use only one application at a time.
Deptford also liked the ruggedness and physical security of the Rocket units. “The chassis is built like a tank,” reports McShane. Laser-cut from the same material used in sniper rifles, the device attaches to a fixed vehicle mount with a keylock mechanism.
The GPS antenna is also locked in securely. “It’s not possible for people to unplug the GPS so we don’t know where the car is,” McShane says. “The Rocket just has one good feature after another.”
McShane deployed the OnComm Rocket in January, after integrating it with its new digital video system (see sidebar, next page). Ten new cruisers sport the basic OnComm Rocket, a timer circuit and GPS enhancements for a total of $1,085 per vehicle. McShane estimates that the combination of the Rocket and integrated digital video recorder saves Deptford at least $25,000 per year by eliminating tape swapping. Additional savings stem from video management — particularly duplicating tapes when the videos are needed as evidence.
“Even more important, the Rocket provides us with a situational awareness we didn’t have before, and you can’t put a price on officer safety,” sums up McShane.
The rollout hit a few snags because Deptford was conducting multiple infrastructure upgrades in tandem, and the availability of key back-end applications fell behind schedule. “That delayed the deployment of the newly equipped cars,” says McShane. He advises other municipalities to save time and trouble by waiting until all back-end systems are in place before deploying new client technology in vehicle fleets.
All in all, though, McShane and the police department were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the Wi-Fi connections and the accuracy and coverage of the device’s GPS technology. The integration of GPS and records data also enables historical mapping of movements.
“That’s a big advantage,” states McShane. “If we have a rash of burglaries in a particular area, we can go back and look at where the patrols were that night and make adjustments based on that data.”
He plans to bring the entire cruiser fleet up to date and to start equipping vehicles in the city’s public works and enforcement departments. Upgrades include the addition of Utility Associates’ AVaiL command and control platform, which enables display of GIS data natively.
AVaiL also enables on-board diagnostics for remote preventive maintenance and supports radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags for tracking physical assets and personnel. “If someone is not answering a radio call, we would have an idea whether that person was still with the vehicle,” says McShane. “That’s a big plus.”
A wireless mesh network that blankets Dublin helps the Ohio city deploy office-like capabilities to special events and crime scenes. Cisco’s 3200 Series mobile router connects the command center to the wireless network.
“We can basically take our justice center and mobilize it out to the field,” reports Bob Schaber, network operations manager for Dublin, a suburb on the northwest side of the state capital of Columbus. “The goal for our mobile command center is to make voice and data network access available seamlessly, wherever the unit is deployed.”
The city was the first government entity to implement the Cisco 3200 router a few years ago. Schaber said it was a simple choice because there wasn’t much else available at the time. Also, the mobile-access router integrated easily with the Cisco-based mesh wireless network the city was beginning to deploy, and with the planned migration to Cisco’s Voice over IP technology.
About the size of a large RV, the command center can easily accommodate six or seven people. It is equipped with a fully functional radio room, IP-based phone extensions, networked computers, a fax machine, a video camera, and a 27-inch LCD screen for displaying maps, floor layouts and other graphical information. The interior walls are made of whiteboard material that personnel can write on as needed.
If a physical Ethernet connection is available at a particular site, the mobile command center’s network can plug right into it. Otherwise the mobile router connects to headquarters via the city’s mesh network, which is an extension of Dublin’s underground Dublink fiber network. In either case, the router establishes a wireless LAN that extends out from the trailer and supports Cisco Voice over Wireless phones with a range of 500 to 1,000 feet.
Dublin routinely deploys its mobile command center at major events such as the annual Memorial Golf Tournament, Independence Day festivities and Dublin Irish Festival. The latter attracts about 90,000 people, or double the city’s population. And while Dublin is an affluent area with a relatively low crime rate, the command center has come in handy at the scene of incidents requiring an emergency response.
“It’s of great benefit to have not just cruisers but a mobile police center at the site,” says Schaber.
“The main benefit of the mobile-access router is that it gives us connectivity options we never had before,” adds Jay Somerville, technical services bureau director for Dublin.“If there is no wired Ethernet connection at the site, it lets us use any available wireless media.”
Landfill deposits are down and recycling is up in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., thanks to the addition of Utility Associates’ OnComm Rocket and AVaiL Navigator technology to the city’s garbage trucks. Custom integration with Pleasant Prairie’s sophisticated GIS database provides precise tracking of truck locations and streamlines collection routes, while radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips on the garbage cans enable an accurate record of how much trash each customer puts out.
“The AVaiL technology enables us to offer customers a choice of three different collection plans, and charge them accordingly,” says Chip Gehrke, network administrator for the city. “The idea is to push recycling by making people pay more for more garbage, but not for more recycling.”Just one of the city’s garbage trucks went live with the new technology in June, and the landfill diversion rate has already increased from 18 percent to 35 percent.”
The billing data is linked to the GIS data, and a computer display in the truck tells the operators which collection option each residence has. The RFID tags on the garbage cans enable the AVaiL software to connect each can to the right customer account and keep track of how many times the cans have been tipped into the truck.
“This has reduced the time spent dealing with customer complaints, because the department can prove what actually happened,” reports John Steinbrink. The city also saves fuel because the GIS-enhanced interface plots more efficient routes. Once Pleasant Prairie deploys the technology to the entire garbage fleet, dispatchers will be able to see the precise location of each truck and send any special dispatch order to the closest available vehicle.
Pleasant Prairie has no Wi-Fi hot spots, so a cellular card connects the OnComm Rocket in the truck to the public cellular network. The map display in the truck originally pointed north, but the city worked with Utility Associates to customize the interface so it points in whatever direction the driver is headed.
“This makes the system a lot more user-friendly, so the garbage operators use it more,” sums up Gehrke. “Utility Associates has been very responsive about customizing and patching the AVaiL software to address our issues out in the field.”
Getting a new digital video system working with Utility Associates’ OnComm Rocket mobile router was a bit of a challenge for Deptford, N.J. That’s because the router connection has to move between Wi-Fi and cellular networks as police cruisers drive in and out of hot spots.
However, Deptford doesn’t have a wireless mesh network, so officers mainly rely on cellular connections that don’t support video uploads. As a result, the integration called for some custom development to enable the video system to wait until the router is connected to Wi-Fi before uploading data, according to Ian McShane, technology coordinator for the township.
“The [video recorder software] is accustomed to handling its own Wi-Fi connections as it uploads video data,” McShane explains. He worked with the two manufacturers to change the mobile-recorder software so its upload process would proceed only at the appropriate times, automatically, with no user intervention.
Utility Associates configured the Rockets to broadcast their connectivity status every minute and upon any status change. The video recorder manufacturer coded the software to trigger an upload when the right message was received. After a month of testing and tweaking and some rule-set changes to Deptford’s NetMotion XE mobile virtual private network, the integrated solution was ready for prime time.