Traffic Jams Not Radio Jams

Police in Washington state are using digital radio and PCs to make communications lines run smooth once again.

by / July 31, 1995 0
Aug 95

Level of Govt: State

Function: Criminal Justice

Problem/situation: Jammed police communication lines.

Solution: A digital radio network and PCs in patrol cars.

Jurisdiction: State of Washington.

Vendors: IBM, WordPerfect.

Contact: Trooper Mark Soper 206/972-3549 (patrol car) 206/464-6317.



By David Aden

Contributing Writer

A two-car accident on the expressway, a tire changer blocking an exit ramp, a delivery truck stretching across a downtown thoroughfare, a driver pulled over for expired registration, a possible stolen car pulled over for running a red light, three illegally parked cars that need to be towed, a group of teenagers harassing shoppers near the mall and two reports of drunk and disorderly.

Is this the story schedule for a week's worth of "Stories of the Highway Patrol"? No - more like a few minutes of rush hour in a typical major U.S. city.

If this scenario were real, each of these individual incidents would have to be assigned to an officer. Each officer might require access to information stored on local, state or national computer systems such as driver's licenses, outstanding arrest warrants, missing person reports, stolen vehicle reports, prior records, etc. Each requires some kind of incident or arrest report. Some may require that information be sent to the courts, to probation, to federal authorities, or to missing persons bureaus.

In short, each law enforcement task in the real world is reflected in administrative tasks in the world of information and reports.

Traditionally, much of the information flow from front-line officers to computer-based information has been through a dispatch center via two-way radio or car-based dumb terminals through which officers log onto centralized mainframes or mini-computers. When rush hour or other busy periods hit, dispatch radio traffic can begin to jam, raising stress levels for the front-line officers and the communications officers responsible for keeping the flow of information smooth.



WASHINGTON EASING THE LOAD

The Washington State Patrol (WSP) first became interested in easing the load on the dispatch radio network by implementing a digital radio network prior to 1984, but things began moving more quickly in 1987. "Seattle being the metro area, our radio traffic was saturated," said Trooper Mark Soper, who has worked on the digital network since 1987. "Calls for service were clogging the network and they wanted to be able to free up some of the air time so they could do more driver checks, license checks, etc."

Grants were secured to do a test project which ran for about 18 months, and the results were taken to the Legislature. Based on the pilot, funds were allocated for the development and installation of 270 patrol-car-based units in three counties plus the central processing structure to support them. This represented the first of a three-phase plan aimed at developing and installing a digital radio network that would put PCs in patrol cars statewide, give troopers access to important state and federal databases and reduce paperwork by putting many reports and forms online. The network - dubbed the Mobile Computer Network (MCN) - is nearing the end of the first phase.

Currently, troopers can use the system to make data inquires on licenses, "check wants" (check if the person is wanted), and car plates. The system interfaces with several major statewide and national crime databases, all without intervention by communications officers, and without tying up bandwidth needed for vital radio traffic. The system also allows for car-to-car messaging so troopers can communicate directly to each other without having to go through the communications officer.



THE SET UP

The basic patrol car set up consists of a laptop PC which slides into a docking station mounted near the dash. The PC communicates via a radio modem in the car's trunk to a mountaintop antenna. Requests are then microwaved to a central site in Bellevue where a bank of single-board 286-based computers process incoming data, decide what type of request it is and where to route it. Returned information follows the same path back to the patrol car.

"If a trooper is out of contact with the mountaintop for some reason, the computer throws the data into the mailbox and the next time the trooper is in contact, it sends the mail," said Soper. This helps to lighten the network load because cars don't have to be online constantly. Some cars have also been equipped with a satellite connection which would be particularly useful during natural or other disasters when electricity on the mountaintops may be knocked out.

Getting the system up and running has encountered some bumps along the way. According to Soper, vendor promises were not always accurate and his standard for hardware durability - that it be "trooper proof" - was not a feature widely offered on the market.

"We tested about 20 computers on the pilot project, but didn't find any that fit the need," said Soper. "We learned you have to go with the product that can hold up to the job you're going to ask of it. Can it stand up to being moved in and out of the car three or four times per day? Can it put up with a high-speed chase? Can it put up with coffee being dumped on it? Can it put up with the high temperatures inside a car during a 30-40 minute break and then have the air conditioner turned on? You need to try it in the environment that it is going to be used in."

The original computers didn't make the grade. In some cases keyboards failed in as little as two weeks. Over the next two years, existing laptops will be swapped out for IBM Thinkpads.



TRAINING PROBLEMS

Training has also been a major issue in integrating the system. "Initially, there was some resistance, especially with some of the personnel who had been on the force for a great deal of time," said assistant chief Bruce Bjork, himself a 25-year veteran whose duties now include supervision of the MCN project. "But we issued the computers prior to the system going online, so they had a chance to play with them a bit and they are much more comfortable with it now. As we only have a portion of the agency on the system right now, we have a large portion of the troopers who are very anxious to get on it."

As the training officer for his unit, Trooper Soper has seen a wide range of reactions to using computers. "You have a rookie who jumps in and does some programming with the computer and the veteran is sitting there trying to turn it on," said Soper. "There is a little pride thing - you have a veteran who can get in high speed chases, handle fights and handle drunks, but the tides have changed when you put a computer in front of them."

Soper plans his classes based on the assumption that no one knows anything about computers, so he starts by showing them how to turn it on. He goes on from there to teach the basics of computers, how to use WordPerfect and then the MCN program itself. The trick is to teach the basics without losing the interest of those troopers who already know something about computers.

"There is a six-hour class for basics and doing WordPerfect, another three-hour class on the MCN program, how to run driver's checks, etc.," said Soper. "We're really constrained by time so we condense it down." erson is wanted), and car plates. The system interfaces with several major statewide and national crime databases, all without intervention by communications officers, and without tying up bandwidth needed for vital radio traffic. The system also allows for car-to-car messaging so troopers can communicate directly to each other without having to go through the communications officer.



THE SET UP

The basic patrol car set up consists of a laptop PC which slides into a docking station mounted near the dash. The PC communicates via a radio modem in the car's trunk to a mountaintop antenna. Requests are then microwaved to a central site in Bellevue where a bank of single-board 286-based computers process incoming data, decide what type of request it is and where to route it. Returned information follows the same path back to the patrol car.

"If a trooper is out of contact with the mountaintop for some reason, the computer throws the data into the mailbox and the next time the trooper is in contact, it sends the mail," said Soper. This helps to lighten the network load because cars don't have to be online constantly. Some cars have also been equipped with a satellite connection which would be particularly useful during natural or other disasters when electricity on the mountaintops may be knocked out.

Getting the system up and running has encountered some bumps along the way. According to Soper, vendor promises were not always accurate and his standard for hardware durability - that it be "trooper proof" - was not a feature widely offered on the market.

"We tested about 20 computers on the pilot project, but didn't find any that fit the need," said Soper. "We learned you have to go with the product that can hold up to the job you're going to ask of it. Can it stand up to being moved in and out of the car three or four times per day? Can it put up with a high-speed chase? Can it put up with coffee being dumped on it? Can it put up with the high temperatures inside a car during a 30-40 minute break and then have the air conditioner turned on? You need to try it in the environment that it is going to be used in."

The original computers didn't make the grade. In some cases keyboards failed in as little as two weeks. Over the next two years, existing laptops will be swapped out for IBM Thinkpads.



TRAINING PROBLEMS

Training has also been a major issue in integrating the system. "Initially, there was some resistance, especially with some of the personnel who had been on the force for a great deal of time," said assistant chief Bruce Bjork, himself a 25-year veteran whose duties now include supervision of the MCN project. "But we issued the computers prior to the system going online, so they had a chance to play with them a bit and they are much more comfortable with it now. As we only have a portion of the agency on the system right now, we have a large portion of the troopers who are very anxious to get on it."

As the training officer for his unit, Trooper Soper has seen a wide range of reactions to using computers. "You have a rookie who jumps in and does some programming with the computer and the veteran is sitting there trying to turn it on," said Soper. "There is a little pride thing - you have a veteran who can get in high speed chases, handle fights and handle drunks, but the tides have changed when you put a computer in front of them."

Soper plans his classes based on the assumption that no one knows anything about computers, so he starts by showing them how to turn it on. He goes on from there to teach the basics of computers, how to use WordPerfect and then the MCN program itself. The trick is to teach the basics without losing the interest of those troopers who already know something about computers.

"There is a six-hour class for basics and doing WordPerfect, another three-hour class on the MCN program, how to run driver's checks, etc.," said Soper. "We're really constrained by time so we condense it down."

To augment the short class time, Soper often directs students to tutorials they can run in their own time. He finds the veteran troopers frequently take up the challenge and often end up out-pacing the younger officers.



FUTURE POSSIBILITIES

Although the system is currently only used to make data inquiries, both Soper and Bjork want to see it used in other areas of a trooper's day-to-day activities.

"We'd like to see online reporting," said Soper. "I'd sign in-service when I got my car. I could then pull up what the other cars are doing. I could pull up computer aided dispatch - if there is a big accident, I could see it on screen.

"Every time I do something I have to report on it. I'd like to be able to report on it online."

They would also like to link the WSP's system with other agencies, such as the county police, or the courts. On-board printers are also on the wish list so tickets and citations could be printed at the scene. Additionally, they've discussed installing magnetic strip or bar code readers to take information off of drivers' licenses, but this requires an important first step: the licensing agency has to put magnetic strips or bar code imprints onto the licenses first.

"I've been testing this already," said Soper, "We're ready to start the race but we don't have all the runners."

Although the system has only been in use two years, and isn't installed statewide yet, the WSP has seen results. Stolen recoveries and warrant "hits" have gone way up using the system and the troopers have also grown to like it - when it goes down they get really "grumpy", according to Soper.

The system has garnered outside praise. In 1993, it won the first of its kind "Award for Technology" at the International Association of Chief of Police Conference, and Soper said he knows of some companies that have begun to build businesses around what the WSP has done.

When everything is said and done, however, the focus isn't on the technology, but on the way technology can be used to lighten the load on critical lines that need to stay open. For the WSP, giving troopers direct access to routine matters means dispatchers have more time to handle the calls that could prevent a crime or save a life.





David Aden
David Aden DAden@webworldtech.com is a writer from Washington, D.C.