Network on Wheels

With laptops as their compasses, officers in Marietta, Ga., use GIS and everything under the sun -- and the sun, too -- to promote a safe, electronic city.

by / October 31, 2000
By Jim McKay | Staff Writer

With laptops as their compasses, officers in Marietta, Ga., use GIS and everything under the sun -- and the sun, too -- to promote a safe, electronic city.

Marietta, Ga., is developing a reputation as a pioneer in government technology, and as part of its goal of offering a city online, Marietta is retooling its public-safety system with high-tech toys.

Already in place is a system that allows police officers in the field to run criminal checks and license plate checks from their vehicles without calling in to dispatch. The system also allows officers to file reports from laptops in the vehicles rather than having to return to the precinct. By the end of the year, the city will have placed at the
hands of police and fire personnel a system that will graphically display the location of every police and fire vehicle.

Marietta has been photographed aerially to record every parcel of land within the city limits. A browser can "tour the city," calling it up parcel by parcel on the screen. The browser can also zoom in on the parcel or zoom out to get a wide-angle perspective.

The mapping will be combined with a wireless network, which was due to be rolled out in August, and an Automatic Vehicle Locator system (AVL) to be implemented this fall. The AVL will monitor the whereabouts of each patrol car, fire truck or utility vehicle via a chip in the antenna. The chip will report to the main server and indicate on the
map where each vehicle is located. Cops on patrol will be able to call up the maps on their laptops.

Car 54, Where Are You?
In fact, because of the networking, anyone with a PC could call up a map and locate squad cars or fire trucks. Each squad car and fire truck will "report back" to the police precinct or fire station at predetermined intervals, perhaps every minute.

"A police dispatcher who has a true, life-threatening situation in progress can look at the screen and see that Jones is two blocks away even though its not his designated area, whereas the officer who is assigned to that area may be a mile away," said Lt. David Sides of the Marietta Police Department. "[The dispatcher] is going to bring up Jones and tell him hes got a priority call in somebody elses area and tell him he needs to get out there."

The mapping will also be used for crime analysis. By tracking crimes and inputting data from the HTE CAD system and linking the address information to the GIS system, law enforcement personnel can determine trends in criminal activity and plan accordingly.

"We are very much a visual society," said Sides. "If you can show somebody a map and show them how over a period of time a chronological change has occurred, then both the people in the street and the managers within an agency are able to make better decisions on what to do with the resources.

"We can use the data to allocate our manpower resources," continued Sides. "If a citizen calls for a policeman, they dont want to hear about how there isnt one available. They want to know when the cops showing up. It doesnt matter if you put a lawn mower in a shed two months ago and now its gone, the citizen wants somebody out there to help them deal with their problem."

Plotting Crimes
Equipping patrol cars with laptops has become common throughout the country. But the idea of using graphics to identify the location of patrol cars is unique. And it is Mariettas long-term commitment to the integration of its Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to its MIS side that has the city out in front of the curve, according to Gene
Estensen, the citys MIS director.

The GIS system has been in place for nine years and the city just hired a full-time crime-analysis person to study the data. The ways in which information is being collected and monitored in Marietta gives law enforcement a leg up.

"If you have 400 911 calls during the night, to print those out wouldnt mean much. But if you could trace all of them to an address, all of a sudden you can display on a map of the city those incidents, and it becomes meaningful," said Estensen.

"You can take 10 years of history and say Lets look at this month every year for the last 10 years and see where we had problems and see if theres a pattern, " he said. "If youve got hard information to work with, you can plan how many squad cars should be in an area and so forth."

Officers will be able to view a map of the city on their laptops to see what incidents have occurred on each street and at what time. The officer will therefore have a better idea of what to expect and where to expect it, and can convey this to the citizens.

The laptops also allow better communication between the officer on patrol and the precinct, resulting in clearer, more accurate reports and time and money savings.

"It allows the officer to stay in the field longer and not be concerned with having to drive a mile or two miles or farther to meet with his supervisor to turn in his or her paperwork," said Sides. "Now, he can send that electronically and stay available in the field for calls. It saves time and money. Look at the price of gas. Your tax dollars are buying the fuel that sends these patrol cars up and down the road. If you can save a gallon here and a gallon there, thats a substantial savings over a period of time."

Sides said an officer would typically be required to return to the precinct two or three times to fill out paperwork. By receiving this paperwork online, the supervisor can review the material immediately and pursue any questions while the officer is still in the field. This results in reports being filled out clearly and before the end of the
shift. Previously, the supervisor would meet with all of his officers at the end of the shift, which would result in overtime or other compensation.

The laptops will eliminate a lot of that. Theyll also keep officers from being tied up on the radio and allow dispatchers to handle citizen calls.

"There have been numerous times when Ive been behind a suspicious vehicle and Id run the plate on my computer and immediately come back with the a stolen-vehicle hit," said John Adkins, a Marietta officer. "I can take precautions at that time, back off a little bit and get some more help instead of sitting there following the vehicle for a long period of time not knowing if [there are] armed suspects in there, while the dispatcher runs the plate."

Fire departments will also benefit from the network by taking advantage of data collection to determine fire patterns, by collecting evidence and by allowing dispatch to know exactly where all 14 trucks are located.

Tech Check
At work behind all this are three AS/400 servers. One is a production box with all the HTE applications on it, one is a test box and the third is a Web server that runs IBM Websphere and IBM Domino side by side, which is unique, according to Estensen.

"From where I sit, the infrastructure is the important thing, so we use lots of big servers. Then, as the ideas flow, we can implement them," he said.

"Weve had a commitment to modern networking," said Estensen. "We have about 300 miles of fiber as our backbone. Weve added fiber to every fire station, every building, so we can deliver the graphics at high speed."

Marietta received nearly $1 million in COPSMORE technology grants to help fund the new technology. The COPSMORE grant is part of a $750 million federal Advanced Community Policing Grant awarded to police departments across the country. The criterion for receiving the grant is that the money is invested directly in frontline police work.

Estensen said the city is working with one vendor, Enterasys (formerly Cabletron). "Our network is really just an extension of their network, so we have just one vendor to point to if we have problems," he said.

Some of the options that Estensen is considering for Mariettas future include equipping bicycle patrols with wireless handheld computers that have the same access functions as the laptops in the patrol cars.

Another idea is a cell phone that can access the server database and enable cops to enter police reports, perform background checks and collect evidence, or using solar power on some instruments, such as radios, as part of a larger, solar-power initiative.

"We consider that a private network," said Estensen. "In using solar power in a dire emergency, we can get our police, fire and public-works vehicles to continue to communicate even though the power is out. We couldnt do that on a public network, so we expect a large portion of
our wireless network to be solar powered."

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor