North Carolina and Virginia Law Enforcement Agencies Connect Via Internet Protocol-Based Solution

Voice over Internet protocol gives North Carolina and Virginia interoperability.

by / March 31, 2009
Blurring Borders/North Carolina and Virginia Law Enforcement Agencies Connect Via Internet Protocol-Based Solution Copyright Randles

It's the type of nightmare that can raise a police officer's blood pressure: In the border region between Virginia and North Carolina, a suspect rockets down the highway so fast toward Pelham, N.C., that his car's speedometer creeps into the triple digits. Two Caswell County, N.C., officers follow behind as civilian vehicles swerve to avoid a collision. The suspect blasts through Pelham, and the officers see that he's heading toward Danville, Va. They radio their county dispatch center, which in turn relays the message to Danville's dispatch -- but then things go awry.

The suspect crosses the state line, but the police officers must end the pursuit because Virginia is not their jurisdiction. And by the time Danville's dispatch notifies its police force and those officers are ready to engage, the suspect is gone. The inability of the two police forces to seamlessly communicate has enabled a criminal to avoid apprehension -- an alarming problem that occurs when law enforcement agencies have radio systems that aren't integrated. This is problematic when a chase runs through multiple jurisdictions and affects multiple law enforcement agencies.

"Pittsylvania County [Va.] surrounds Danville on three sides and also borders North Carolina, and the city of Danville borders North Carolina. And right across, sharing that same border is Caswell County [N.C]. There are at least two main thoroughfares that run between Virginia and North Carolina -- Highway 29 and 86," said Maj. Dean Hairston of the Danville Police Department.

Many law enforcement and emergency management forces use land mobile radio technology to communicate, but often each agency has its own frequency and range -- sufficient when talking among colleagues of a single department, but problematic for talking to other agencies. Sometimes a memorandum of understanding permits one agency to switch to another agency's frequency if necessary. However, the drawback is an agency can't use its own frequency while also using another jurisdiction's frequency. In these cases, the long arm of the law can be thrown seriously out of joint.

But there's hope on the horizon for regional authorities and their citizens.

Local agencies in Virginia and North Carolina are working to implement a permanent voice over Internet protocol (VoIP)-based solution that would link IP, non-IP and radio networks inside one system. This would allow officers to talk across jurisdictional lines without ditching the equipment they've used for years.

The work toward this VoIP system began in 2005 with the Piedmont Regional Interoperability Project, a partnership between the city of Danville and Cisco Systems. The pilot was designed to determine how Cisco's IP technology could assist authorities, and after reaching a promising 2007 proof-of-concept benchmark, officers and technicians are configuring the system for long-term use.


How it All Began

It was serendipity when Danville Police Chief Philip Broadfoot attended a 2005 International Association of Chiefs of Police conference and saw an eye-opening presentation by Cisco about the company's IP Interoperability and Collaboration System (IPICS) technology. He was impressed that it integrated various modes of communication. IPICS had been tested in Honolulu and Miami, and Broadfoot figured that his region would make a great addition, so he approached Jeff Frazier, a director in the public-sector practice of Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group.

"They discussed the particular problems we were experiencing, and based on the increased level of deployment, Chief Broadfoot and Jeff [Frazier] both agreed that this would be a good fit for the third phase of product testing because it would allow them to use state agencies, county agencies and municipalities [together]," Hairston said.

That initial talk led to further discussion between Danville, Cisco and the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) -- the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. They wanted to know how IPICS could help jurisdictions in the Virginia-North Carolina border region communicate and collaborate, which led to the Piedmont Regional Interoperability Project's creation. The project made Danville the host for frequency linkage between its own city, the Virginia State Police, North Carolina Highway Patrol, Pittsylvania County Sheriff's Office and the Caswell County Sheriff's Office.

"We want to understand what role technology, in general, will play in that transition from analog to digital and what role Cisco may play in the analog-to-digital conversion," Frazier said.

Cisco helped other regions make the analog-to-digital transition prior to the Piedmont project. A November 2005 article reported that IPICS was used in three deployments. After a two-week test in October 2005, the system improved communication between Honolulu police and fire departments and also the local government's day-to-day operations.

Schiphol Telematics began testing IPICS in September 2005 in Amsterdam to evaluate its effectiveness for airport operations functions. Meanwhile, Maher Terminals began using it in June 2005 at a cargo terminal in Port Elizabeth, N.J., to give engineers a new way to deliver instructions to mechanics.

The Virginia-North Carolina partnership wanted its IPICS system to improve interagency collaboration and also save money in the long run. If the Piedmont project allowed agencies to communicate in a shared infrastructure with their existing landline phones, cell phones, radios and other handhelds, they wouldn't be forced to pay for expensive upgrades to their land mobile radio or other equipment. According to Frazier, government public-safety departments in the rural United States could benefit financially from something like IPICS.

"A lot of these areas don't have the money," Frazier said. "They have a huge need to collaborate, and the promise of radio over IP to allow them to have basic bridging and collaboration is enormously important for them."


Progress in Phases

By early 2006, Danville's police, fire, emergency medical services, public works and city utilities departments were rolled into the first phase of the IPICS project. The second phase incorporated Pittsylvania County's and Caswell County's sheriffs, emergency medical services and fire departments. The third phase brought in the North Carolina and Virginia state highway patrols.

Cisco donated the routers for the project. In turn, Virginia granted $68,000 to the project to incorporate the Halifax County, N.C., Sheriff's Office, which shares a joint emergency operations center with the South Boston Police Department of Virginia. The project also received some NIJ funding.

The project was configured to assist law enforcement in several ways. It allowed users to create preset or ad hoc virtual talking groups (VTG) into which at least two different communication lines can be combined on land mobile radio frequencies. Users also were able to join VTGs with personal cell phones, listen to more than one VTG even when those VTGs couldn't hear each other, or send notifications and alerts to users to join VTGs.

"The system, for the most part, is a virtual system, meaning that you can access it from anywhere if you have IP connectivity," Hairston said. "You can log on to the server, and you can create virtual talk groups if you're authorized to do so."

The IPICS server -- located in Danville -- supports communication between the jurisdictions. All frequencies are connected to a router that's also connected to the server either by a T1, fiber optics or a microwave connection, Hairston said.

This connectivity and user functionality made for a successful test in 2007 that allowed law enforcement personnel to reach the proof-of-concept phase. But now that people know what they have, they must determine how to expand it and make it work best

-- hence, the reconfiguration.

"This deployment was a little bit different than what you see, say, in someone going out and purchasing -- because we did not have any type of agreement. There was no maintenance contract," Hairston said. "Once you move to that phase and you start to look at, 'Well, hey, we want to use this system permanently,' you're talking about a brand new product. You're talking about the application of a number of different pieces of equipment, like routers, lines and things like that."

For example, the jurisdictions have to decide whether to continue using T1 lines for router connections, and if so, how they will pay for recurring costs. Any maintenance configurations or changes require infrastructure re-engineering, which takes time, cooperation and money. The jurisdictions also would like to connect the IPICS system to North Carolina's statewide radio system for emergency responders -- "VIPER," the Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders.


A Ways to Go

Although the IPICS system is functional, public safety officers aren't using it until there's a permanent setup. Some kinks still must be worked out, according to Allan Sadowski, the IT manager of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol.

Cisco initially projected six months to reach the proof-of-concept phase, he said, but in reality it took about two years. The officers had their day jobs and so did Cisco personnel. There was also some workplace culture shock between the two groups.

"The Cisco people who came to the table on this were by and large [from a] voice-over-IP telephony background, and they came to the table and were talking with radio guys in a radio shop," Sadowski said. Consequently there were some language barriers when it came to getting radio people to understand IP people, and vice versa.

The project's allure for Cisco, as Hairston sees it, was that it was an opportunity to learn how IPICS could work on top of a region's existing systems -- some of which are outdated, and others cutting edge.

"So basically, they wanted to get the system up and running and make sure it was functional," Hairston said. "Once they had a proof-of-concept that we had communication, that we were testing and that we were able to communicate among the disparate systems, then they would come back and reconfigure the system for more permanent use."

The jurisdictions contracted with ARINC, a transportation communication and systems engineering solutions provider, to handle the system configuration.

"To be honest with you, I thought the system would have been up long before now. I think it's a matter of, as soon as our attorneys and Cisco's attorneys have a final agreement, and we are able to issue the requisition for ARINC to come in and do the work. I suspect that in a very short period of time, we'll be up and running," Hairston said.

Had the jurisdictions gone the traditional RFP route instead of volunteering for testing, Hairston said the system would have been completed much sooner.

"At the end of the day, it'll be well worth it because we'll have a cutting-edge system and our basic cost on it will be minimal," he said. "Those are just some of the headaches that you kind of have to put up with."

New means of communication can affect the governance model when different jurisdictions work together for the same processes. IPICS is a bridge that links not only different forms of communication, Frazier said, but also different agencies in ways they've never been linked before. As a consequence, they are able to establish new modes of trust.

"We're not talking essentially about a technology, we're talking about a business change," Frazier said. "We're seeing IT change the governance structure."

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.