The city of Seattle is leading a multijurisdictional effort to build a new wireless public safety network in Washington state made possible by a public-private partnership. The network, once carried out, would be one of the largest public safety networks in the nation, according to Seattle CTO Bill Schrier.

Schrier said the city released a request for information (RFI) in December, with the hope of building the network before 2015. Users would include police, fire, emergency, medical, utilities, transportation and public works departments and would function across King County — where Seattle is located — as well as neighboring Pierce and Snohomish counties. Together the three counties account for a population of about 3.5 million people.

The network would deliver mobile broadband and mission-critical voice and data capability, and would align with President Barack Obama’s National Wireless Initiative — a push to build a “nationwide interoperable wireless broadband network for America’s first responders,” said federal CTO Aneesh Chopra in a Dec. 19 White House blog post.

Schrier said he’d like a commercial cellular carrier to join the network. The carrier would have access to the city’s fiber-optic networks in order to facilitate the partnership.

“Those fiber networks might be extended to commercial cell sites so a commercial cellular carrier could use city of Seattle fiber to reach their cell site. But then [the carrier] would put up a wireless network that would serve our police and firefighters,” Schrier said.

The plan is to have public safety officials operate on a separate spectrum put aside by the FCC for only government use, he said. By operating on a separate and dedicated band of spectrum, the public safety officials would have priority to the network.

Once the voice and data network is rolled out, multiple applications will be available to public safety officials, such as the ability to take photos of suspects on smartphones or tablets and then send them to an FBI mug shot database.

“Even though the person in front of the police officer might be lying about their identity, if they’re wanted for a crime and their photo is in the FBI’s crime database — there are a lot of mug shots in that database — it potentially could find a match for that,” Schrier said.

Another application that could be accessed through the planned network is a virtual map and photograph capability. For example, if there is a school shooting and the school is put on lockdown, police officers and firefighters could access a map of the school on their tablet and instantly have images of what the inside of the school looks like.

For schools with video surveillance cameras, police and firefighters could access those feeds in real time from their mobile devices. Schrier said the video surveillance access could extend beyond schools. “It could go for a 7-Eleven [convenience store], it could go for a bank, it could go for any place with video surveillance that is connected to the network,” he said. “It could be beamed to public safety officials in their vehicles or on tablet computers.”

The public-private partnership is a key ingredient for the project. Schrier said had the city moved straight to an RFP, the public safety network would’ve cost about $24 million to complete. But Seattle officials are hoping to spend much less by bringing in a cell carrier through the RFI.

A cellular phone carrier could use the city’s fiber-optic network and maybe also city buildings as cell sites. The carriers could then put their own network up for customers and at the same time put up antennas for the government-only public safety network.

“In that fashion, the commercial carrier is spared the cost of putting up additional cell sites because they’re using public buildings that are using fiber-optic cable,” Schrier said. “And we’re getting a network out of it too, so hopefully the cost will be quite a bit less.”

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.