Fiber Tightens Community Ties

A new fiber-optic network in Oakland County, Mich., will give municipalities better access to data the county maintains and will make it easier for local agencies to help one another.

by / March 3, 2001 0
Local communities within a county dont often cooperate with one another, but they should, observed Gary Fiscus, management information systems administrator for Madison Heights, Mich.

Towns that share a border, for instance, would benefit from their respective police departments linking their computer-aided dispatching (CAD) systems. "I might see a car of yours a block away from a crime, and my car is a mile away," he explained. "It would be nice to be able to ask your guy for help."

For Madison Heights and other cities, villages and townships in Oakland County, Mich., cooperation of this sort is the way of the future. The ties helping to bind the countys local communities are woven with fiber-optic cable.

Oakland County is rolling out a countywide telecommunications network that will link county offices and 175 remote locations. The $7.2 million project will bring high-speed data, voice and video to nearly every local government in the county.

Known as Oaknet, the new network will allow municipalities to more efficiently tap resources the county maintains centrally, such as its geographic information system (GIS) and a new fire records management system. It will permit local agencies to exchange data easily with the county and among themselves. It will allow the county to offer secure Internet services, including Web browsing and messaging, to all government entities with Oaknet access. One day, it could also feed data to new wireless systems supporting police and fire departments and other public agencies.

Oakland County developed Oaknet to provide a better infrastructure for existing telecommunications needs and enough bandwidth for future needs. In the past, county offices linked to communities through a variety of telecommunications technologies, including dial-up, T1 lines, integrated services digital network and others. One location often had multiple lines coming in for voice, data and video, said James Taylor, supervisor of distributed computing in the countys IT department. Oaknet is replacing those with a single line that offers more throughput, he said.

Purchasing Fiber

Oakland County purchased 24 strands of optical fiber from McLeodUSA of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, through a condominium arrangement. This means the county is one of several customers that own strands within a single bundle. The 175 locations Oaknet will connect represent most of the communities in the county.

The fiber vastly expands the countys communications capacity. "Were not limited by the cost of having to increase the bandwidth every time we need to put on a new application," Taylor said.

Several communities, including Rochester Hills and Madison Heights, were scheduled to start using Oaknet under a pilot program in January. The county hopes to have the whole system up and running by mid-year.

One application the Rochester Hills fire department will help pilot is the centralized fire records management system. Currently, each communitys fire department maintains its own records of the fire calls to which it responds. Fire departments must transmit this data to the state, which in turn transmits it to the National Fire Data Center in Washington, said Dennis Andrew, deputy fire chief for Rochester Hills.

The information allows state and federal officials to analyze patterns in fire data. Analysis might reveal, for example, that a particular model of coffee pot often malfunctions and causes fires, Andrew said. Local fire departments also track and analyze their own fire and emergency medical services data.

With the new records management system, local fire departments can share information for similar analysis at the county level. This could, for example, help cities track down arsonists who move from one community to another, Andrew said.

A link to a new CAD system the county is providing for all police and fire departments within its borders will simplify data capture for fire records management. Before Oaknet, data was keyed in twice -- once in the CAD system and once in the records management system.

Local public safety agencies will still operate their own dispatching, but they will all work on the same CAD platform, and Oaknet will provide a path for transmitting data among its systems.

It will also link the CAD systems to the countys centrally managed GIS. Dispatchers will be able to view all the fire hydrants in their jurisdiction, Taylor said. Public safety agencies will also share a new, standardized street directory.

A database of hazardous materials information tied to the GIS will give firefighters critical information about the contents of buildings they are preparing to enter, said William Nelson, chief of the Troy Fire Department.

Keeping county databases current should also be much easier with Oaknet in place, said Fiscus. When a community sends the county updates for the GIS and the county returns a new version of the communitys map database, that exchange can involve more than 600MBs of data. Tax-roll information also involves large volumes of data. "The best way weve been able to trade information is by cutting CDs, and then you put them in the mail or somebody drives them up there," he said. In the future, the data will travel via Oaknet.

Besides exchanging data with the county more easily, local officials look forward to exchanging data on the municipal level over the new fiber network. When a fire department gets a medical call from a building that police know harbors dangerous criminals, Nelson said, "it might be nice to know that before we send an ambulance."

Similarly, police responding to an industrial buildings burglar alarm will benefit if they can access the hazardous materials database, he added.

Side-Effect Warning

One side effect of the Oaknet project is that it is turning Oakland County into an Internet service provider (ISP). The countys IT office supports 75 police agencies.

"We knew we needed secure Internet access, and we knew our customers were going to need it as well," Taylor said. County officials then realized how much less expensive it would be to provide Internet services for all city, village and township government offices connected to Oaknet than to develop secure connections for many individual communities, he said.

The county expects to start offering its Internet services, including Web browsing and messaging, in the spring, Taylor said. The messaging services are built upon products from Mirapoint of Sunnyvale, Calif. They allow users to access their messages through a traditional e-mail interface or a Web-based interface.

"It really is going to open a lot of doors for communication for a lot of agencies, especially smaller ones. Since were doing it anyway here at the county, they get the benefit of our [research and development]," Taylor said.

Cities that now pay monthly charges to ISPs will see their costs drop if they switch to the countys service, which carries no extra charge beyond what the local communities are already paying to use Oaknet. "That is bound to save us between $15,000 and $25,000 per year," Fiscus said.

The Competition Question

When news about the ISP services surfaced, one commercial provider asked why the county was going into competition with local businesses, Taylor said. In response, he pointed out that many local agencies already connect to the county for IT services, and that purchasing Internet services with a high level of security would be prohibitively expensive if each community had to do it on its own.

The county will not offer Internet services to non-government customers or even the libraries, he added. "Its not like were taking tons of business away from them. Weve been delivering services to these folks for a long time."

Along with a wide array of data applications, communities in Oakland County expect Oaknet to
provide new video and voice capabilities. The network could allow police to obtain warrants and court officials to arraign criminals through videoconferencing.

The county has also considered using Oaknet as part of its new private branch exchange telephone service. This could allow long distance calls between cities and the county to travel free of toll charges over the fiber network, rather than over a phone companys long distance lines.

Beyond applications tied directly to the fiber-optic network, the county and local agencies are looking at uses for Oaknet that require a link to a wireless network. About a third of the employees the countys IT department supports are mobile workers, such as nurses and environmental inspectors, who could gain new efficiencies from handheld computers and wireless communications, Taylor said.

Andrew anticipates a day when a mobile data computer on a fire truck or ambulance will receive not only the address of an emergency call from the dispatching system, but also a picture of the building from a county database and information about the site.
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer