Not many people would imagine that a small, somewhat affluent community near beautiful San Francisco Bay would have a problem with random gunfire. But in Redwood City, Calif., random gunshots became so much of a problem, fed up residents stormed the city council and pressed officials to take action.
"During the meeting, someone played a tape of the gunfire that was going on in the neighborhood on New Years Eve," said Bonnie Miller, a Redwood City resident. "It sounded like you were in the middle of a war. Although it was more than you would normally hear, it opened some eyes to the problem."
At a separate hearing set to address the issue, police reported that, although they had stepped up patrols in several problem areas and tried innumerable other tactics to catch those who fire guns, it wasn't enough. And, during holidays like the Fourth of July or New Year's Eve, people shooting guns in celebration in those same areas were creating an accident waiting to happen. "It's only a matter of time before we have fatalities," said Sgt. Frank Wilkins of the Redwood City Police Department, "because a bullet that goes up will come down with lethal force."
Police pointed out that one of their main obstacles was locating the source of a gunshot. When a shot was fired, they had no way to know about it until someone called to report hearing it. Once police were on the scene, it was a struggle to track down the source. Echoes from gunfire can travel for blocks, and by the time police did locate the origin, the shooter was usually long gone.
After substantial debate, the City Council approved a plan residents themselves came up with. The plan involved testing technology similar to that used to determine the strength and epicenter of earthquakes. Known as a Gunshot Location System, it uses microphone-like sensors placed on rooftops and telephone poles to record and transmit the sound of gunshots by radio waves or telephone lines. Software is then utilized to alert a dispatcher and to pinpoint the origin of the gunshots via a flashing icon on a computerized map.
The system, which Redwood City began testing last December, was created by Trilon Technology LLC, a Los Altos-based public service company headed by Dr. Robert Showen. Trilon created the acoustic sensors for the system and Showen then combined them with Austin, Texas-based National Instrument's LabVIEW software. The software transfers the audio signals into a Sun Microsystems workstation in the dispatch center of the police department and determines where the shot took place. LabVIEW also plays a key role in analyzing the sound, determining the difference between a backfire or other similar sounds and a gunshot. Both Sun and National Instruments donated their equipment to the project last July.
Officials say, at minimum, the system will dramatically reduce police response time to crime scenes, meaning quicker aid for victims and a far greater likelihood of arrests. And if such systems are proven foolproof, they might also be useful in court, helping prosecutors win convictions in cases where other evidence is lacking.
Redwood City has been testing the system in a particularly troublesome square-mile area of the city. Just before Christmas, it conducted a test that consisted of police officers firing dozens of blanks into the air from both a 12-gauge shotgun and a .38 caliber handgun at seven different locations in the test zone. The system took fewer than 60 seconds to pinpoint gunshots within 10 yards of where they were fired.
"It's very accurate because it operates on the principal of triangulation," said Wilkins. "It nailed us -- it put us right where we were standing and shooting the guns. So if it can have that kind of accuracy, and we know that it