Technology Evolution

Can emerging technology solve justice and public safety issues?

by / January 26, 2005
The challenges of developing interoperable communications standards and solving E-911 and spectrum issues loom for justice and public safety officials across the country.

To look only at technology for solutions is shortsighted. There are, however, promising technologies that could pave the road toward a coherent justice and public safety network or networks. Inroads must be made in governance, funding and cultural issues as well for the technology to reach its potential.

Some of the more promising technologies include mesh networks, software defined radio, WiMAX and voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).

There is reason to be excited about some of the technological possibilities, said Dale Good, former director of Justice Information Technology Services for the National Consortium for Justice Information and Statistics, but he cautioned against the notion that a silver bullet will revolutionize public safety. He said progress first must be made in developing standards, and changing the culture and governance of public safety organizations. "I really think the hurdle is so great on some of these other things, there's no silver bullet. Like Global Justice XML, we hear so much about it, and it's an important thing, but it's a very small piece of the technology puzzle.

"We're hardly even taking advantage of technologies that are commonly used in the private sector and are just now poking their heads into the public sector," he said. "We're barely using Web services. We're barely using messaging middleware. We're barely using identification technology. A lot of states are still rolling fingerprints; they're not even using LiveScan. The FBI standard for capturing fingerprints is still in the Dark Ages."

Good said some wireless technologies are superior, but the challenge, especially for the larger jurisdictions receiving homeland security grants, is as much in planning joint powers agreements and procedures, and deciding how to use wireless in different situations.

Because many justice and public safety officials are elected -- including judges, sheriffs and prosecutors -- they tend to be independent minded, making the justice system an almost adversarial one.

Good stressed the need for public safety agencies to try understanding their governance roles and responsibilities. He said he recently attended a meeting on integration with some state officials where the basic groundwork still needed to be laid out. "There were 20 people sitting around a table, and they haven't even defined what integration is. They haven't defined how to make decisions or decide as a body how to direct federal grants toward an integration initiative."

Good said in terms of integration or interoperability, it would be nice if a state had just a few umbrella organizations with a few technological applications that need to be integrated. "You may have hundreds if not thousands in some states," he said. "If you really want to integrate end to end, you have to deal with all of them, and you're dealing with organizations that have elected leadership or may or may not understand the issue; may or may not understand technology; may or may not have any IT support."

Philip Marshall, director of Mobile Wireless Technologies for The Yankee Group, agrees that the cultural and governance issues must be solved, but is optimistic that technology can expedite that process.

"Yes, you're going to have to go through changes, and yes, there are going to be barriers," Marshall said. "But you need a supply push so people are driven to change in the culture and it becomes an incentive. Without these technologies, you don't have that incentive."

If it's a revolution you're expecting, forget it, Marshall said. The technology, along with the standards and policies that go with it, will mesh in time. "There are evolutionary steps that occur," he said. "It's more than a technology, it's a system. Because of the span and scope of that system, it's really more evolutionary than revolutionary."

Mesh Networks
Mesh networks are low-power, multihop wireless systems that process messages by passing data packets from device to device until they reach a collection point. There is no central orchestrating device. Each device adds to the network coverage, extending the network.

Mesh networks offer higher bandwidth, improved reliability and greater coverage than Wi-Fi, and the technology could allow first responders to create interoperable networks on the spot.

A mesh network would work well in a situation such as a forest fire, Marshall said. "Typically in forest fires, you don't have any coverage of wireless communications, and therefore, the radios the fire department has can be used as transponders and you can build a mesh network from it."

Standard point-to-point or point-to-multipoint technologies, such as 802.11, are short range, wireless networks where bandwidth decreases as additional users join the network, but mesh networks are stronger with more users. The multiple nodes in a mesh network provide reliability because if one node fails, there are many more available.

Mesh networks can also be used for sensor networks. For instance, nodes could be placed throughout a structure and distinguish the difference between a gunshot and a door slamming. The sound of a gunshot would send an alert to the collection point.

A mesh network could be used to say, protect a water treatment plant, which would consist of an arrangement of concrete walls and pipes, and where deployment of Wi-Fi network wouldn't work.

Functionality begins to decline when a large-scale network is needed, such as a statewide system.

WiMAX, in simple terms, is an extension of Wi-Fi. Like Wi-Fi, it can deliver high-speed wireless connectivity but at far greater distances -- as far as 30 miles. WiMAX is said to have the potential to provide an open standard nationwide that will allow true interoperability between agencies in different parts of the country.

"I expect that WiMAX will be one of a number of technologies that will revolutionize wireless public safety systems," Marshall said. "WiMAX is appealing because of its ability to offer flexible radio performance in both licensed and unlicensed radio spectrum."

Fixed wireless, "pre-WiMAX" networks are already being deployed for police, hospitals and ambulances to transmit data and images in real time. WiMAX wireless products that support mobility are expected to be available in 2006.

The benefit of WiMAX in public safety operations is the ability to blanket a large area, supplying access to all the different services through this network instead of having a multitude of narrowband capabilities that exists today.

Right now, many police departments around the country are deploying Wi-Fi hotspots in a mesh configuration, but WiMAX may be a more powerful substitute for local area mobile and fixed backbone technology.

Existing fixed wireless metropolitan networks will be extended to allow portability or full mobility with WiMAX. Connectivity for public safety officials, such as police officers, will extend outside the vehicle. Pedestrian officers will communicate with headquarters, and video surveillance cameras will have broadband connectivity to control centers outside of, as well as within, vehicles so officers on foot can view situations in real time.

A challenge to overcome is the matter of interference, which is possible in unlicensed spectrum. The FCC has freed spectrum in the 800 MHz band for public safety so interference can be avoided. Stay tuned.

Voice Over Internet Protocol
VoIP refers to the transmission of voice over a data network. VoIP digitizes voice audio, sends it in the form of data packets over an IP network then converts the data back to an audible voice.

VoIP could ease the development of E-911 delivery by reducing the number of procedures it takes to get the data to its destination, thus reducing response time. It also could reduce the cost in the long run, but would be a significant investment upfront for telephone companies and public safety answering points (PSAPs).

VoIP is valuable in an IP network architecture where efficient or enhanced voice communications, advanced calling, or messaging features are needed, such as push to talk. Other IP network communication possibilities are unified messaging (an integration of voicemail and e-mail); IP video conferencing; and IP contact centers, such as emergency operations centers -- all of which give government more ways to interact with citizens.

"You've got great calling capabilities with VoIP," Marshall said. It's one way to communicate with more than one person simultaneously, he said, making it valuable in a public safety setting for alert-type situations, such as Amber Alerts.

"In addition to that," Marshall continued, "if you're trying to roll out a public safety network and you're focusing on IP infrastructure to make it efficient and cost-effective, you want to avoid having to deploy dedicated circuit switch infrastructures to support circuit switch voice calls. So it really kind of collapses the architecture down and simplifies it."

VoIP is attractive for E-911 because it could be used as a link between PSAPs to provide near-instantaneous transmission of voice and data over a single connection.

VoIP would reduce message delivery time by eliminating the need for a call to reach the PSAP before the automatic location information (ALI) request. Now, the ALI request is made when the 911 call reaches the PSAP, but using VoIP, the ALI request can be made as the 911 call is placed, saving time.

With this approach, the VoIP service provider establishes dedicated circuits to the selective routers serving PSAPs, but it would be both complicated and expensive for the telephone companies and PSAPs to deploy all the specialized switches and circuits necessary to do the same thing with a regular telephone system.

There are concerns, such as securing the system -- especially for public safety and health-care operations -- but the technology has shown promise. The Commerce Department turned to a VoIP network after the agency's emergency system failed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Now, if an emergency were to threaten headquarters, staff would hear special alerts delivered by phone.

Software Defined Radio
Software defined radio (SDR) is a potential breakthrough in interoperability, especially for major incident response where many public safety agencies are gathered on little or no notice, and they have incompatible radio systems.

SDR allows those different agencies to essentially plug into a base station and download software that connects with everyone.

Andrew Beard, chief operating officer of Vanu Inc., used boats and islands as an analogy to describe how the software works. The analogy describes a series of islands, each having a unique ability to talk with boats or mobile devices around the island.

"When you have a major incident response, what is happening is one of these islands needs help from the other islands, so the other islands send their boats over. But when the boats get there, they can't communicate."

Say you have islands A, B and C, and B is involved in a major incident and needs help. Islands A and C send over their boats. But the boats can't communicate with B's radios. What do you do?

SDR would allow island B to load the right software, which will immediately connect with the radios of A and C. It could be as simple as clicking on an icon to launch an application, which would operate with boats A and C.

"It also means that with a little higher layer software, you can patch together those different radio systems so that now people in the field on boats from A, B and C can talk to each other directly," Beard said. "The important thing to capture is that just by launching a new software application, island B can now talk to these people from different agencies. That's a major thing software radio brings to the field that you didn't have before."

It amounts to creating new infrastructure on the fly, Beard said. "It's very simple to create a database of all the different radios in the region so that based on who is showing up, you can launch the relevant radio systems and communicate with them dynamically."

Why isn't it in place? Cost for one, and two, a lack of understanding and a lack of standards or guidance. "A lot of the people making buying decisions for this kind of system want to know that there is an approved system out there," Beard said, adding that guidance from the federal government or others could increase uptake.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor